There’s an elegant 17th century palace in Bairro Alto that once belonged to the grandfather of the Marquis of Pombal. The palace, which remains beautiful despite its decadence, was converted into an art center called Carpe Diem in 2009. Hidden inside the center was a cafeteria that served delicious food designed in collaboration with artists. The couple who managed the cafeteria, Rita Andringa and Filipe Rocha, also organized magical banquets in the rooms of the Pombal palace.
In July 2017, the Lisbon municipality decided to give the palace a different use and the cafeteria had to close. To continue their food adventures, Rita and Filipe hired two talented young chefs (Pedro Correia and André Andrade) and opened a restaurant. Decorated with a white unicorn and pieces of art from their favorite artists, it continues the tradition of combining art with delicious food that is original and thought provoking. Aware of the fact that food service is a risky venture, Rita and Filipe named their restaurant “The Optimist.” The couple felt encouraged when a friend remarked that “optimism is the best recipe.”
Our meal got off to a good start with bread that came with a delicious Bulhão Pato sauce, the traditional sauce that accompanies clams. A mushroom butter competed with the brilliant sauce for the bread’s attention.
Next, came the fava ceviche that had been recommended by Rita. It was a revelation: full of flavor and with a firm texture that is lost with traditional preparations. The meal continued with moist and rich oxtail croquettes that were accompanied by an appetizing rice made with fresh and dried tomato. Then a splendid codfish arrived topped by a poached egg and soaked in a flavorful broth made with garlic, herbs and seaweed. Finally, a collection of pork cuts that had been marinated for 24 hours and slow cooked for 7 hours arrived at our table. Every minute of preparation was well spent to produce the resulting complex, satisfying flavors.
The restaurant was full but Rita made everyone feel at home while waves of beautiful plates with delicious food keep coming from the kitchen. We’re optimistic about this place!
The Optimista is located on Rua da Boavista 86 in Lisbon, tel. 21 346 0629. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.
Alcoa, a pastry store in the historical town of Alcobaça, has been producing magical concoctions of flour, sugar and eggs since 1957. They use ancient recipes developed by monks of the order of Cister from two local monasteries, Alcobaça and Santa Maria do Coa.
Alcoa’s pastries have always been revered in the Alcobaça region. But outside the region, only a few knowledgeable gourmets made regular pilgrimages to taste Alcoa’s delights. That all changed when Alcoa started winning top prizes in the annual competition for the best “pastel de nata.” Suddenly, Alcobaça became a destination for dessert lovers.
Neophytes journeyed to Alcoa for the “pastel de nata” only to find a new world of delights with whimsical names and exotic shapes: cornucopias, Saint Peter’s secret, fradinho (little monk), eggs of paradise, and much more. The happiness of Lisbon residents plummeted with the knowledge that these heavenly sweets were 120 km away. Luckily, the owners of Alcoa felt pity for Lisbon’s dwellers and decided to bring their sweet alchemy to Chiado. And now, happiness has returned to the capital city.
The original Alcoa pastry store is on Praça 25 de Abril, 44 in Alcobaça, tel. 262 597 474. The new store in Lisbon is on Rua Garret, 37-39, Chiado, tel 21 1367183.
We can’t blame the moon for feeling unappreciated. Its life revolves around the earth and yet people prefer sunsets to moonrises. In the first day of the year, the full moon commanded the waves to bathe the beach sand and the clouds to sprinkle the earth with their blessed water.
The sun, feeling guilty about the droughts of the old year, let the moon have its way. But in the last few minutes of the day the star sent its rays to pierce the clouds and make everything shine.
We hope the New Year will have enough rain so you can come to Portugal to see lush green fields illuminated by brilliant sunshine.
Codfish is the star of the Portuguese Christmas-eve supper, but a cabbage called “penca” plays an essential supporting role. It is a hardy variety, capable of surviving the frost that usually covers the fields in December.
Penca is often planted next to “couve galega” a cabbage similar to kale used to make the traditional “caldo verde” (green soup) served at midnight on New Year’s Eve.
We love to see the fields of Portugal planted with these cabbages, dressed for the holidays in stunning green hues.
A completely reliable source told us that the best roasted suckling pig sandwich came not from Bairrada, the region famous for this culinary delicacy, but from a small café in Fátima called Mister Leitão. We couldn’t ignore this tantalizing tip, so we got on the road to Fátima to investigate.
We were advised to call in advance to reserve our sandwiches and we duly contacted José Miguel Vitório, the restaurant owner. He confirmed that they always run out of roasted suckling pig at some point in the early afternoon and that a reservation is indeed wise.
Mister Leitão has no place to sit, just a few counters where the sandwiches can be enjoyed. There’s always a line because the sandwiches are made to order. The air is filed with the smell of the roasted suckling pig and the bread baked in the premises. These appetizing aromas make the few minutes we waited seem like hours.
But the wait was well worth it. The sandwiches are amazing: the warm, crispy bread enfolds the succulent meat that is lean and has a deep taste reminiscent of prosciutto.
José Miguel is the heir to a tradition that started with his father in 1956. It takes a lifetime to learn how to roast a suckling pig. There are many details, seasoning the meat, sowing the animal, choosing the right fire wood, learning how to read and adjust the temperature of the oven. “But all the technique in the world will not matter if the ingredients are not great,” says José. He uses only fresh ingredients bought directly from selected farmers. “We peel by hand large quantities of fresh garlic. But that is what it takes to get the flavor we strive for,” he says. José carefully selects all the suckling pigs he uses, making sure that they were not fed with grain but were breastfed by their mothers.
After talking to José we felt hungry again. So we went back in line for another dose of suckling pig perfection.
Mister Leitão is located at Estrada da Batalha, 6, 2495 Fátima, tel. 249-538-120.