My top mission here at Dine Out headquarters is to unearth hidden gems for you to try.

While it’s always fun to reaffirm a neighborhood classic or review the latest splashy opening, the most exciting experiences are walking into a place you don’t know much about and being pleasantly surprised.

Such was the case for me on a recent Saturday afternoon as I finally made my way over to Toussaint’s Restaurant, which judging by the empty dining room at lunchtime on a sunny weekend, is still toiling in obscurity.

Toussaint’s opened in late December in a snakebitten location on Rivet Street, across from Ashley Park and Goulart Square Bakery and a couple doors down from one of New Bedford’s unique businesses, U7, a collectible shoe store I feature a couple of years ago.

Before it was Toussaint’s, this location was Trio Cafe and Lounge. Before that it was Fernando’s Bar and Grille. It’s also housed Adega and Fresca Grill.

There’s likely a couple of reasons why this ornate, curved corner in the South End can’t seem to sustain a restaurant. There’s not much parking, although it was so slow on this Saturday we parked on the street steps from the front door. The signage is also lacking. There aren’t many other restaurants nearby, meaning you have to head their purposely (none of that, ‘Let’s head downtown and then figure out where to eat’).

But no matter the parking issues, or the out-of-the-way neighborhood or the postage-stamp sign, what really matters is the food, and that’s where Toussaint’s is excelling. Opened by chef Mamadou Diakite, this breakfast-lunch-and-dinner upscale spot serves up a small menu of freshly prepared Portuguese classics, including its specialty: Steak on the stone (a massive 14-ounce steak served sizzling hot with two sauces and two sides for $27.95). Unfortunately, it’s not available at lunch.

 

Walking inside, Toussaint’s impresses right away. It’s closer to fine dining than I expected, with tables covered in white linens and scalloped napkins greeting each guest. A beautifully appointed open room serves as both the bar and restaurant, with gorgeous wooden floors, an ornate painted tin ceiling, a striking red backlit bar and an entire wall of seats along the window-lined curved front. I don’t believe I’ve written about the chairs in a restaurant before, but the padded leather chairs made you never want to get up.

Arriving at around 12:30 with a friend, former Dine Out colleague Wesley Sykes, I was taken aback by how beautiful the room was. I’d never been in Trio, so I’m not sure if it’s an entirely new decor or not, but to whomever put their touches on it, bravo. There were two men at the bar, but other than that the restaurant was empty, which makes me believe this may be one of New Bedford’ best undiscovered treasures.

Ordering off the lunch menu -- they have separate menus for dinner and breakfast, as well as several specials each day -- we were intrigued by the crab cakes (with mixed green salad and zesty honey mustard for $10.95), clam casino (eight half-shell clams topped with garlic breadcrumbs, butter and bacon for $9.95, although the online menu now says $10.95) and the bacon-wrapped scallops (in a light garlic and chardonnay sauce for $9.95), but ended up ordering the shrimp Mozambique ($9.95).

Oh boy was it a revelation. Among the best I’ve ever had. The half-dozen large shrimp were plump and cooked nicely, but really they were just a vessel for the smooth, velvety Mozambique sauce that probably would taste good on a wet sock. Not too garlicky, with strong notes of saffron and a brightness from some lemon left us dipping the crusty toast points in it, then using our pre-meal bread to continue dipping.

Specials that week included grilled octopus, stuffed mackerel and steak Sicilian style, but we both stuck to the regular menu when ordering. Since it was lunch, I first eyed the Bifana sandwich (with fries for $7.95) and the steak sandwich (with fries for $8.95) before deciding to get a little more adventurous.

After strongly considering the pork Alentejana (marinated tenderloin in a savory sauce, served with fried diced potatoes and steamed littlenecks for $14.95) I opted for the junior steak casserole (an eight-ounce sirloin for $14.95).

It was delectable. The steak was cooked perfectly medium-rare, with a nice char on the outside masking tender, juicy bites on the inside. It was topped with roasted garlic and peppers, doused in a red wine reduction and topped with fried potatoes, very similar to the batatas fritas rodelas at Tia Maria’s. The dish came together perfectly, from the crispy edges of the potatoes to the fluffy insides to the slightly sweet but mostly savory sauce to the fried egg, which came over-well, just the way I like it. (I’m not a runny-egg guy, but I respect those who are).

Wesley, meanwhile, ordered the lovely chicken, a large chicken breast sauteed with spinach and mushrooms and topped with a brown Madeira wine sauce and served with jasmine rice and vegetables -- carrots and broccoli -- for $13.95. The rice, which did look more Spanish than jasmine, was fluffy and soft, the vegetables bright and crunchy and the chicken was doused in a sauce that tasted like a thick, meaty stroganoff when I snuck a bite. Wesley raved, as we’d both been doing since we first walked in the door, about how unexpected it was to get such high-end food and ambiance in such an out-of-the way place.

As we sat at our window-side table overlooking a Little League game going on across the street at Ashley Park, we went back over the meal, finding only two complaints. The service didn’t stand out. While attentive, it was at times curt, and the waitress forgot to ask how I wanted my steak. The other is a pet peeve of mine: They charge you for soda refills. Even worse, they didn’t tell us they would, and suddenly we’d spent $12 on Diet Coke and iced tea.

They do offer an extensive drink menu, as well as wine by the glass or bottle (mostly $6 a glass and $19-36 per bottle), as well as a dessert menu featuring molten chocolate cake, pomegranate parfait cheesecake, blueberry cobbler white chocolate cheesecake and a summerberry stack.

Dine Out's reviewer visits restaurants unannounced and at his or her discretion. The Standard-Times pays for the meals reviewed. The reviews merely reflect one diner's experience. Ratings range from 1 to 5 stars.