Everybody loves Rui. And why, indeed shouldn’t they?
Neat and trim, with kind, almost plaintive eyes, Rui Correia is the co-owner of Douro, the popular Greenwich Mediterranean restaurant that has recently relocated to a historic site a few hundred yards away along Greenwich Avenue.
One Friday lunchtime, we settle into a corner table tucked away at the back of the restaurant, behind the fancy new bar, Rui and I, to shoot the breeze over small plates and glasses of Rui’s own blend “Chef Rui Correia,” a humdinger of a red wine made in collaboration with Paulo Coutinho, a winemaker from the eponymous Douro region in Portugal.
First up for me, though, a Diet Coke in a heavy glass the size of a bucket — with ice cubes the size of shoe boxes — which is just the thing for a broiling Greenwich summer’s day. Mind you, Rui looks cool enough in a forest green V-neck T-shirt and sharp, tailored shorts. Totally Euro, ever so Greenwich. I’m wearing more than he is but oddly I feel underdressed beside him.
Rui grew up in northern Portugal and came to the United States at age 9. His grandparents had a restaurant in Porto, where his grandmother was the cook and his grandfather looked after the customers. The food was simple but flavorful, dishes centered on staples such as sardines, octopus and liver, all of which young Rui was eager to try.
As if on cue, our server brings over a plate of sardines. Here in Greenwich they are quickly poached in olive oil, with lemon, pepper and thyme, and come prepped and primped on crisp and fresh crostini. Gone in two bites, they’re all about flavor and freshness. “Simple food speaks to the soul,” says Rui, though I hardly need convincing.
Next up, grilled octopus, arranged on a chickpea purée, with roasted peppers cooked long and slow, so that their flavor is fully extruded. A touch of sesame piri piri for some heat and here you have another corker of a dish. “We buy Spanish or Portuguese octopus from cold Atlantic waters,” says Rui, almost conspiratorially, and therein lies the secret and the reason this octopus tastes as good as it does. At any rate it gives the lie to octopus being a tough and recalcitrant mollusk.
If young Rui felt any culture shock coming from sunny Portugal to settle with his family in gritty Yonkers in the late 1980s, he did not let it interfere with his ambition. Starting work at 16 as a dishwasher, he was soon promoted to the role of server, because he spoke English. A move to a restaurant in Bronxville kindled his interest in the kitchen, where more and more he found himself hanging around the stoves. His boss recognized his developing passion and encouraged him, helping him secure a place at the New York Restaurant School on a soccer scholarship.
There’s passion all right. It’s evident in a wagyu beef carpaccio, seared on the outside, with gooseberries and almost sweet aged vinegar, with some watercress for a bit of bitterness. “Not entirely Portuguese,” says Rui, smiling. It’s evident, too, in a wonderful lamb empanada, which comes to the table piping hot, the flakiest pastry encasing minced leg of lamb, fragrant with thyme and dotted with the sweetest, fire-roasted tomatoes.
A talk on tomatoes and produce in general follows. Like me, Rui is frustrated that he cannot buy a decent tomato in the winter months. He solves his problem by keeping his tomatoes in the dark until they ripen.
Time spent as a line cook in Danny Meyer’s restaurants Union Square Café and Gramercy Tavern followed. Then came a restaurant of his own, Café Porto in Yonkers until 9/11 put the kibosh on it. He opened another Portuguese restaurant, Oporto, in Hartsdale, coincidentally with another Rui, where he developed his take on a modern Portuguese cuisine that could respect the traditional and keep its integrity while absorbing other Mediterranean influences.
“Variety and quality are the two keys to a good diet,” says Rui, and you’d better believe him. The small plates menu echoes his philosophy, although there are larger entrées on the menu too, fresh fish like whole dourado — note the Portuguese spelling — and branzino. There’s even a burger, although this is no ordinary burger, with its char-grilled Kobe beef, pickled onion and manchego cheese, served on a Portuguese-style roll.
Paella, too makes an appearance, a version that Rui says is creamier than its Spanish counterpart.
It was working at his next restaurant, Porto, in Scarsdale, Rui met businessman Ron Shemesh, who had married his cousin and business partner, Maria. Together, the three opened Douro in Greenwich in 2009, slap in the middle of the recession. “We struggled at first. Greenwich had only French or Italian restaurants and it took two years until we started to win people over.” The new Douro was even less “hardcore” Portuguese — Ron’s Israeli background saw hummus coming onto the menu and some crowd-pleasing pastas arrived and stayed there, too.
“We’re more a Mediterranean restaurant now with a hint of Portuguese,” muses Rui. “Plus, of course, all the Moorish influence — cilantro, cinnamon, pimentón, saffron…” He reels off the names of the herbs and spices trance-like, as if they were soporifics.
The move along the avenue has meant that Douro has changed up a gear. Its new home, at 253 Greenwich Ave., was built for the Putnam Trust Co. of Greenwich in 1917, designed by the engineer and builder Rafael Guastavino, Jr.
Some design changes have inevitably occurred over the years. Most recently, the bar has moved center stage and the mezzanine has disappeared, as if by sleight of hand, to reappear at the rear of the restaurant, seemingly floating on air. Thousands of terracotta tiles have been restored on the soaring pillars and, while reducing noise isn’t exactly rocket science, at Douro it kind of is, since walls have been painted with ceramic paint, developed by NASA, to reduce the decibel count.
Although Greenwich residents will have seen many names over the door in recent years — Greenstreet, Dome, Gaia and Morello Bistro to name but four — the care and devotion of the new owners, the Douro dream team, not least in their painstaking and sympathetic restoration of the site, suggest they are here to stay. Rui, too, seems happily settled. “My wife is expecting a baby in September,” he confides, as a rather wonderful lunch draws to a late close.
For more, visit dourogroup.com.