Star Quality

Carolyn Jung | January 9, 2017 | Story Restaurants National

Chefs Jessica Carreira and David Costa had but a modest dream: to elevate for a new generation a most soulful yet unheralded cuisine, one based upon their Portuguese grandmothers’ cooking, marked by time-honored techniques and humble ingredients like tripe, pig ears and the indispensable salt cod known as bacalhau. At their San Jose establishment, Adega, they not only accomplished that in rare form, but made history in doing so. Last October, two months shy of Adega’s first anniversary, they garnered a Michelin star, the first one ever for a restaurant in Northern California’s most populous city and hub of Silicon Valley. It is only the second Portuguese restaurant in the United States to be awarded that distinction.

“It’s still very surreal,” says Jessica, pastry chef at the restaurant she oversees with her fiance, Portuguese-born Costa, and her parents, Carlos and Fernanda Carreira, who together owned a wine importing business for two decades. When Michelin announced the news, their servers, of Portuguese heritage, broke down in tears. Regulars called with hearty congratulations. San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, who has dined there with his wife, tweeted excitedly about it. Even Thomas Keller of The French Laundry sent a note to mark the achievement.

Overnight, an avalanche of 732 reservations materialized for the next three months at the 66-seat restaurant. The family started a waiting list but gave up after filling three pages. People came from San Francisco, Los Angeles, Seattle and beyond to dine, sometimes straight from the airport with their luggage in tow. The family added an extra table, hired a few more servers and marveled that a restaurant that was forced to open with an inexperienced kitchen crew was suddenly getting bombarded with résumés from cooks with 10 years’ experience. It all left Carlos wondering: What have we just done?

After all, a Michelin star was the farthest thing from their minds when the family opened the restaurant in Little Portugal, a working-class, immigrant neighborhood of mom-and-pop businesses, where the streets are perpetually torn up under construction. When Adega began offering valet parking (complimentary, no less)—unheard of on unassuming Alum Rock Avenue—it very well may have been a prescient sign of its game-changing status to come. Initially, Carlos had suggested Los Gatos for the restaurant. But his daughter would have none of it. She was adamant that her first restaurant be in San Jose, which boasts one of the country’s largest Portuguese communities. She wanted it to be in Little Portugal, where she grew up, a block from the church she attended as a child and where she still lives, just a quick stride from Adega.

For 33 years, this site was Sousa’s Restaurant, a beloved home-style Portuguese eatery. Over the years, owner Leonel Sousa had fielded offers from other restaurateurs to buy the property. But when Carlos approached Sousa about it in 2015, “he felt comfortable passing it to the next generation of Portuguese chefs,” Carlos recalls. Wanting to create the warmth of Lisbon, the Carreiras completely renovated the space, adding a sculptural wall of birds in flight, classic blue-and-white tile and a glass-walled wine cellar to hold one of the largest selections of Portuguese wines outside of Portugal, with the oldest vintage dating to 1900. (Adega translates to “wine cellar.”) The background music here is always Portuguese, and traditional loaves of Portuguese bread are baked fresh daily for the tables.

“We wanted to transform it in a way that Mr. Sousa would like,” says Jessica. “He came back and was so surprised and pleased. It was as special of a moment for me as winning the Michelin star.” After attending culinary school in Los Angeles, she moved to Portugal to work as a pastry chef for three years. That’s where she met Costa, who worked at Restaurant Eleven in Lisbon when it was awarded its first Michelin star. “The trend of modernizing family-style plates was starting in Lisbon,” he says. “I got interested in that. It’s all about maintaining the flavors and keeping to our roots, but doing it in a more refined way.” At Adega, that means artful yet authentic plates of green-hued parsley tempura-fried egg with duck salad ($10), fisherman’s stew with octopus ($28) and prune-stuffed pork loin with black-eyed peas ($26), as well as fried coconut rice pudding fritters drizzled with passion fruit ($10) and sponge cake adorned with eucalyptus-smoked chocolate sauce ($10) that Carlos jokes sent him driving all over San Jose to find the right leaves.

Before Michelin, the family was contemplating a second Portuguese food venture. But what that would entail exactly—and where—is on hold now, as they joyously, if still a little stunned, deal with the consequences of their restaurant now being on everyone’s radar. “The key is to remember that you got the star for what you were doing,” Jessica says. “You just have to remind yourself to keep doing that.”

1615 Alum Rock Ave., San Jose, 408.926.9075
Dinner: Wed.–Sun., 5–9:30pm
Starters: $9–$16; main: $25–$29; desserts: $10–$16;
five-course tasting menu: $69 (optional wine pairing, $49)

Originally published in the January issue of Silicon Valley

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