Manuel Niny dos Santos grew up in a seaside suburb of Lisbon, Portugal, called Sintra. When he was 5 years old, his mother opened a gourmet restaurant — and his life changed forever.
“It was called Faz Figura, which means, ‘Make a gesture,’” recalled dos Santos, now 42. “Her restaurant was very famous in Lisbon. Even the president of Portugal ate there.”
For a youngster, this was culinary heaven. “I especially remember how the chefs always hooked me up with desserts,” he said. “But I never thought that someday I’d have a restaurant of my own.”
Fast forward to the 1990s. Dos Santos graduated from Fresno State University as a science-and-mathematics major. Following his sister, Joana Niny Todd, to Bend, he married into the family that owned Marcello’s Italian restaurant in Sunriver.
Cafe Sintra opened in 2000 in the space adjoining Marcello’s as a casual, European-style eatery. A second restaurant was added in downtown Bend in 2004. Following a divorce, dos Santos kept the Bend cafe; the Sunriver restaurant was sold in 2007 to Tracie Peterson.
Though independently owned, the restaurants strive for uniformity in their menus and ambiance. “We don’t change anything unless we agree to do so together,” Peterson said.
Both restaurants serve breakfasts every day, from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., and lunches beginning at 11 a.m. daily. Neither presently offers dinner service.
The fare at Cafe Sintra offers Iberian flair without abandoning dishes that might be more familiar to American palates.
“Although we definitely cater to the general public, we like to incorporate Mediterranean flavors as much as possible,” dos Santos said. “We import Portuguese sausages and cheeses, and we have a stew on the menu that is very popular.”
That Portuguese chicken stew — the first item on the lunch menu — keeps me coming back time and again. I don’t believe a soup lover, especially one in search of comfort food on a cold winter’s day, can go wrong with this concoction.
The recipe is one that dos Santos learned from his chef mother. A rich broth of chicken and white beans is mixed with additional shredded chicken, beans and roasted green chilies, then topped with sliced green apples, mozzarella cheese and a dollop of sour cream.
“We pretty much throw garlic and cilantro in everything,” Dos Santos said.
That’s true as well of the restaurant’s seafood gazpacho, a chilled, tomato-based soup served with poached prawns. Cucumbers, sweet peppers, garlic, lemon juice and olive oil create a blend of flavors that is finished with cilantro and avocado.
While the breakfasts at Sintra are certainly satisfactory, especially in Bend, I haven’t found them to be the gourmet events that some other area restaurants offer each morning.
In Bend, I found my linguiça scramble no better than I might have prepared at home, were I to stock Portuguese linguiça in my meat compartment. Mixed with chunks of the tangy pork sausage as well as sauteed onions, mushrooms and fresh cilantro, the scrambled eggs were overly dry, cooked too long for my taste.
I enjoyed the accompanying Sintra potatoes — sautéed crunchy on the outside, soft in the middle — and warm toast, served with butter and jam, more than I did the eggs themselves.
My dining companion ordered a Monte Cristo sandwich. It was not battered with egg and grilled, as she has come to anticipate with this classic. In fact, it was more or less a version of a breakfast sandwich, stacked with scrambled eggs, grilled ham, Havarti cheese and a mustardy Dijonnaise sauce. It was well prepared, but not what was expected.
In Sunriver, we were thoroughly unimpressed by the breakfasts.
My friend was served a poached salmon Benedict. Even though she loves salmon, she found the seafood dry and too “fishy” for her taste. It was served atop a small baguette slice with a thick piece of tomato and a very forgettable Hollandaise sauce.
My order of a French toast trio — three pieces of sourdough bread dipped in a egg-and-vanilla custard and grilled, accompanied by two eggs (over easy) and grilled linguiça — was also one that I would not choose again. The batter was not allowed to soak sufficiently into the bread before grilling, leaving my “toast” dry and flavorless.
Gratefully, my lunches at Bend’s Cafe Sintra were mostly excellent, even beyond the soups and the house-made jasmine-fruit iced tea.
I loved my order of Asevedo tacos, named for a regular client who recommended the blend of ingredients. Two small tortillas are stuffed with sauteed steak, linguiça and onions, along with Roma tomatoes, avocado, fresh cilantro and a lime cream. They are among the best tacos I’ve had in Central Oregon.
A pizzeta Portuguesa — a personal pizza with a topping of ham, hard-boiled eggs, Provençal olives, red onions and mozzarella cheese — had a light, flaky crust that made it an instant hit with my companion.
Her teenaged son loved his Prego sandwich of marinated steak, sautéed onions and Swiss cheese on toasted sourdough bread with an herb mayonnaise. It was served with kettle chips and a crispy fresh side salad.
I was a little underwhelmed by my half-size steak salad, which had only three thin slices of chargrilled beef upon a bed of mixed greens (including spinach and arugula). Finished with cured onions, Roma tomatoes and capers, it was tossed in a balsamic vinaigrette.
At home in Sintra
Service at both Cafe Sintras is friendly and efficient, although I find the downtown Bend store to be a little more personable. In both instances, diners order at a counter — it’s at the front of the house in Sunriver, on a central island in Bend — and wait for meals to be delivered to their tables. Coffee and water are available from a self-service table.
The Sunriver restaurant is the more spacious of the two cafes. It boasts a row of tables beside large picture windows that face a lawn and garden that are now covered with winter snow, but provide outdoor seating in summer.
Bend has a no-nonsense atmosphere suitable for an urban cafe. Tables are widely spaced on a concrete floor, with changing exhibits of local artists’ work on its walls. They share space with large photos of street scenes in the Portuguese hillside village of Sintra.
Chefs Steven Draheim and Joel Cordes have announced plans to open Barrio Bend in the former Marz and Gatsby’s space in early March. Recently known for their side-by-side mobile kitchens, Soupçon and El Sancho, Draheim (Kokanee Café) and Cordes (The Blacksmith) are Bend natives with long experience in fine-dining kitchens. The new restaurant will highlight paellas, priced under $12, and a variety of Spanish-style tapas dishes. It will be open for lunch Monday to Friday and dinner Tuesday to Saturday. 163 N.W. Minnesota Ave., Bend; 541-610-7838, www.barriobend.com.
Togo’s has opened a new sandwich shop on Bend’s east side. The four-decades-old national sandwich chain has dozens of shops in California, but has only recently begun to expand into other states; the Bend store is its fourth Oregon eatery. The menu features hot and cold gourmet sandwiches as well as salads and soups. Open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday to Saturday, 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sunday. 2115 N.E. U.S. Highway 20, Bend; 541-678-5699, www.togos .com.