By the time Portuguese-born artist Luis Miguel Rodrigues – co-owner of Tarrytown’s well-established Portuguese / Mediterranean restaurant, Bistro 12 – first moved to Yonkers in 1984, the 24-year-old had already had seven shows in his native Madeira.
“At my very first show, I sold all 25 paintings,” the slender, blue-eyed, bespectacled Rodrigues told me over a recent weekday lunch in the restaurant, which incidentally comes in at number one of all 59 listed restaurants in Tarrytown on TripAdvisor. “But maybe that’s because they were so cheap.”
Rodrigues, who goes by his second name, Miguel, spent his first 12 years living in the country illegally, eking out a living with his art. At first only doing copies of famous paintings, he would exhibit in restaurants — he has shown at more than 20 different venues in all, he reckons — where his paintings would be snapped up by eager diners. Whereas Europeans would only hang original work, reflected Rodrigues, Americans, at least in those days, were only too happy to buy well-executed copies.
Gradually, though, over time, he moved to “original” works himself, frequently revising his style, while still evoking Old Masters, Impressionist and Surrealist paintings in his canvases. Looking at a fearsomely impressive selection of his work online — the struggling artist with barely a cent to his name now has an LLC, he proudly tells me — I fancied I was able to spot elements from artists as diverse as Dürer, Pissarro, Seurat and Dalí, with a bit of Pre-Raphaelite Romanticism in the mix.
Unusual, perhaps, for an artist, Rodrigues tends to paint at night — aided by appropriate studio lighting, of course — although he likes to draw out of doors. He is also a printer and produces limited editions of his work, using the latest print technology.
All this talk of art, though, makes you hungry, and as a loaf of superb, still warm sourdough (from the Ossining Bakery, run by Rodrigues’s friend Antonio “Tony” Martins) is dropped at the table, along with slabs of cold, white butter and a small flagon of top-quality olive oil, our thoughts turn to lunch.
Bistro 12’s menu, which is the same at lunch as at dinner, is long, mainly Italian, but with more than a nod to Portugal. Appetizers include linguine with clams, penne alle vodka, tagliatelle with a long-cooked Bolognese or rich confit duck, as well as a carb-free eggplant Parmigiano. To follow, if you are still in an Italian frame of mind, you might opt for a generous, thick-cut grilled veal chop or grilled calf’s liver with caramelized onion and crispy bacon.
But it’s the Portuguese-leaning dishes that really pique my interest, well-made, no-corners-cut classics like caldo verde, a wonderful hot broth with potatoes, collard greens and chouriço (chiorizo,) amêijoas à bulhāo pato (steamed clams in olive oil and wine) and shrimp Lisboeta, brandy infused shrimp with a mildly spiced tomato sauce.
Other starters to consider, and which we enjoy together, include intensely creamy burrata with shaved black truffle, sitting atop a sliced heirloom tomato and a velvety-smooth, deep-flavored lobster bisque. For a main course, I would recommend the Portuguese-style Nazaré, a fillet of salt-cod, coated in egg and flour and fried, named for Portugal’s most picturesque fishing village (which Rodrigues has also painted). From the choice of meat dishes, a rustic and authentically Portuguese-sounding braised rabbit with white wine and forest mushrooms might be the way to go.
Still a hold-out restaurant for tablecloths and linen napery, there is an air of old-fashioned civility about Bistro 12, where the service is utterly charming and the atmosphere enhanced by Rodrigues’s sometimes “chocolate-box,” often thought-provoking art on the walls.
Most of the art, by the way, is for sale, though there are some paintings that Rodrigues says he’s unwilling to part with. He leases them instead, he tells me — although from the arrangement he describes, I think he means “lends” to friends, surely a most uncommercial practice for a professional artist — “so that one day they will go back to my grandsons.” This generosity seems to be a mark of the man. As for actual buyers, although understandably reticent about his patrons, he does reveal that tourists visiting Tarrytown have taken his work off to such farflung places as The Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom, while locally he has sold paintings to the saxophonist David Sanborn and Judith “Judge Judy” Blum. He also takes commissions.
While his art is always on display at Bistro 12, recent exhibit venues outside of the restaurant include the “Armonk Outdoor Art Show,” the Portuguese Club of Yonkers (in the city where he still lives) and the women’s clubs of Bronxville and Scarsdale.
Our entrées now cleared, Rodrigues suggests a look at Bistro 12’s dessert menu. Tempting indeed, but beaten by what we’ve already eaten, I decline, promising instead to return at a later date for a slice of ricotta and pistachio cake or the seductive-sounding limoncello and mascarpone cake. I’d be excited, too, for a taste of the Portuguese molotoff pudding (or pudim, as the Portuguese call it) — a confection of meringue, almonds and caramel, which Rodrigues himself makes for the restaurant.
A self-taught chef, Luis Miguel Rodrigues’ entrée into the restaurant world came in the mid-1990s, when an acquaintance, Ron Rosen, opened Polpo, the Portuguese restaurant in Greenwich. Rodrigues joined as a waiter but Rosen quickly promoted him to captain and he learned to cook and bake by observing the kitchen brigade along the way. Then in 2012, his Portuguese friend, José Pereira — formerly with the highly regarded Caravela restaurant on Tarrytown’s North Broadway — approached him with a view to opening a restaurant of their own and, in 2012, Bistro 12 was born. It would be a permanent showcase, for Rodrigues’s art, too.
And it doesn’t stop with art and cooking, either. Stop by Bistro 12 in the evening to drink at the bar or eat, and chances are you’ll be serenaded by Rodrigues, who strums the ukulele (or, more correctly, the Madeiran cavaqhino) and sings with the purity of a choirboy. He particularly enjoys the blues and the intensity of Portuguese fado.
A true Renaissance man and a family man, one who dotes upon his grown son and two grandchildren, Rodrigues is also an accomplished car mechanic and a talented photographer. He becomes positively misty-eyed when telling me about his beloved Hasselblad and Minolta. I also gather he plays a great game of tennis, although he’s far too modest to mention this himself.
Best of all as an avocation for a prolific artist, Rodrigues frames all his pictures himself, though where he finds the time to do so is anybody’s guess.
For Bistro 12 reservations, visit bistro12.net. And for more on Luis Miguel Rodrigues, visit miguelart.net.
Miguel is an original and a great host talented artist and innovative entrepreneur.