Adega Restaurant: The Heart and Soul of Portuguese Cuisine in San Jose
For Jessica Carreira, chef at ADEGA, the first Michelin-star restaurant in San Jose, the road to success has been somewhat of a Cinderella story—only at nanosecond speed. At the age of 24, she finds herself at the helm of a family-owned restaurant that opened in December 2015, and ten months later had earned the prestigious star.
“We still can’t believe it,” she says, referring to her husband and executive chef, David Costa, and her parents, Carlos and Fernanda Carreira, who are co-owners of the restaurant. “We went from serving 60 people in a weekend to serving 112 in one night.” Twenty-four hours after the award was announced in October 2016, the restaurant had over 750 reservation requests.
That’s saying a lot for a 70-seat restaurant in an unassuming residential neighborhood off Alum Rock Boulevard in San Jose. The restaurant, located in a nicely updated but modest storefront with neighbors that include a bakery, nail salon and barber shop, also happens to be around the corner from the home where Jessica grew up, which is where the story really begins.
The journey of ADEGA, which means “wine cellar” in Portuguese, launched with Jessica’s decision to go to culinary school, but started years before at her family’s dinner table. As a child she spent Sunday afternoons at her grandmother’s house, where big pots of food were cooked, shared and savored. “Portuguese cooking puts food in your belly and in your heart,” she says. “I knew I wanted to be a chef so I could be surrounded by food all day.”
After attending Le Cordon Bleu in Los Angeles, she traveled to Portugal for her internship, where she met chef David Costa, who worked in a Michelin-star restaurant in Lisbon. “We just connected on a lot of levels,” she said of what started as a working relationship but eventually turned into a romantic one. David’s cooking was also rooted in the family table. “He was always calling to ask his mother, ‘What did you make for me on my sixth birthday?’” says Jessica.
The family ties and food memories proved to be the basis for a great partnership that was soon put to the test. When Sousa’s Portuguese restaurant in San Jose went up for sale, Jessica’s father called her. “We have to get it,” she said. The restaurant was purchased, with new roles for all family members. Fernanda stepped up to handle finances, while Carlos took on sales, marketing and sommelier responsibilities.
Jessica and David moved to San Jose to tackle the menu and kitchen, a return home for Jessica. Before the doors opened, however, Jessica, David and Carlos rolled up their sleeves and went to work. A two-foot-thick, solid wood chopping block from Sousa’s was salvaged and repurposed as an informal wait station. Table bases were saved and re-topped with wood they hand distressed and refinished for a rustic look. From the modern chairs, which were recovered, to the barn doors, beams and wall hangings they made, the restaurant was clearly a labor of love from the start.
The love extends to the menu and service, which are both elegant and comfortable—and distinctly Portuguese. Portuguese ingredients are sourced from the East Coast, but David and Jessica have sourced and incorporated local products into the menu. Bread, butter and cheese are made in-house as are all desserts, all overseen by Jessica who received her degree in savory but switched to pastry during her apprenticeship. Sauces are typically stock-based and begin with fresh bones that are roasted and slow-simmered. The wine list, curated by Carlos, who previously owned a wine distributorship, features 400 wines—all from Portugal. The bottles are displayed in a glass floor-to-ceiling wine cellar, which is Carlos’ pride and joy, in the main dining room.
The menu itself is inspired by Jessica’s and David’s childhood memories of comfort food, presented in a modern way. Roasted octopus, codfish cakes and a charcuterie platter featuring Portuguese meats are beautifully presented as full portions—a departure from the tiny bites and small plates of many starred menus. Braised pork belly, a rib eye steak and arroz de marisco, a Portuguese version of paella, highlight the entrees and bring to mind the type of food that might be served at a family celebration.
Because, after all, dining should be a celebration, according to Jessica. “We want to deliver an elegant experience but when you leave, you should feel satisfied, like you just ate at Grandma’s.” She credits this guiding principle of elevated comfort, and her chefs, who are always willing try something different, for what keeps people coming back to ADEGA.
After winning the star, Jessica and David heard some much-needed reassurance from two local chefs who have had their own Michelin moments. Chef Peter Armellino of Saratoga’s The Plumed Horse and Chef David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos both reached out to the young couple and encouraged them to stay the course. “Chef Peter said, ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing,’” says Jessica. “‘There’s a reason they came and gave you the star. Don’t change a thing.’”
That advice has already proven to be sound. When asked about their diner’s favorite plates, Jessica mentions the roasted octopus, which was briefly removed from the menu. “We’ll never do that again,” says Jessica, referring to the outcry amongst already-loyal diners.
Loyalty is not a surprising outcome for a restaurant founded on family history, guided by respect for memories and anchored by a desire to serve and share. Neither is the Michelin star, which makes perfect sense once you experience what happens when two bright and talented people stay true to themselves—and their roots.