The thrill of Loco

Dining at Loco is like attending a jazz concert–there’s a feeling of excitement in the air. The restaurant lighting is soft, but the tables are lit like a stage, ready for chef Alexandre Silva’s performance. 

We sat down and studied the interesting wine list curated by Mário Marques, an old acquaintance from Ceia and Cura.

The performance started with a series of delicious food riffs presented on a wide variety of backgrounds: stones, coal, shells, and much more. The tempo was fast, like John Coltrane playing Giant Steps. We recognized culinary motifs inspired by the classics of Portuguese cuisine. For example, there were disks of crispy chicken skin that tasted like the traditional roasted chicken with piri-piri sauce. 

Then, the rhythm slowed down to a ballad tempo, like Thelonious Monk playing ‘Round about Midnight. A basket of artisan bread came with rich butters and a bowl with sauce from the traditional clams Bulhão Pato. There was also delicately cooked, perfectly seasoned black pork, pumpkin dumplings, and pristine fish dressed with colorful sauces. 

The desserts were playful, pomegranate granita and supple ice cream topped with hibiscus crystals. Finally, there were some encores–miniature sweets that please the eye and charm the palate. It is a thrill to dine at Loco!

Loco is located at Rua dos Navegantes nº53-B, Lisbon, tel. 21 395 1861. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Mister grape

When João Rodrigues invited us for dinner in Lisbon, we wondered where he would take us. João knows how to orchestrate memorable dining experiences like the jubilant dinners at Ceia or the soul-nourishing rustic lunches at Casa no Tempo in Alentejo.

He drove us to the Estrela neighborhood and parked the car on a vertigo-inducing hill. Then, we crossed the street to Senhor Uva (mister grape). Stephanie Audet and Marc Davidson, a Canadian couple, opened this vegetarian restaurant three years ago. Stephanie is the head chef and Marc curates the wine list, focused on European natural wines.

The restaurant is small and cozy, with large windows that offer low-angle views of the cobblestone street. We sat at the counter that overlooks the tiny kitchen. João asked our congenial server whether she could choose the food for us and pair it with wine. Soon, we were holding stylish wine glasses made in Austria by renowned wine critic René Gabriel, filled with a delightful white wine called António. Casal Figueira makes this wine near Lisbon in the windy hills of the Montejunto mountain. 

We were clinking our glasses when a plate arrived with black rice balls cooked with shitake mushrooms, leeks, eggplant, and a fermented Japanese fruit called umeboshi. The umami flavors of the rice made the wine feel richer and more intense.

The three cooks on duty that night joined efforts to make a stunning ceviche from green jackfruit. It arrived with another enviable white wine, Thyro, made in the Douro valley. Who could guess that a vegetable ceviche could rival a fish ceviche?

Next, we tried a delicious cauliflower cooked in a black beer sauce with black garlic and radishes. João noticed that all dishes have a perfect balance of fat, acidity, and crunchiness. Our next entrée vindicated this observation. It contained grapes marinated in rice vinegar, Jerusalem artichokes, beets, and new potatoes served with a delicious mole sauce. Vacariça, a lovely wine made in Bairrada from the local baga varietal, accentuated the chocolate flavors of the mole sauce.

The savory part of our meal ended with delicate shitake mushrooms cooked in the oven with corn “xerem,” miso, hazelnuts, and pecorino Romano cheese. 

Then came the sweet part. First, a perfumed pineapple from the Azores cooked in three ways, accompanied by labneh, ginger, coconut, and yogurt sand. Second, a luscious roasted quince served with buckwheat, pear and hazelnut puree, and a Madeira wine reduction. 

Just as we were leaving, a reggae version of the famous Blood, Sweat, and Tears tune “You make me so very happy” poured out of the sound system. It is an apt hymn for a restaurant taking vegetarian cooking to joyful heights.

Senhor Uva is located at Rua de Santo Amaro 66A in Lisbon, tel. 21-396-0917. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

An Altar wine

Vinha do Altar is a poem without words. Its authors, Jorge Serôdio Borges and Sandra Tavares da Silva, are two enologists known for masterpieces like the unforgettable white Guru and the iconic red Pintas. 

Their new wine is elegant and fresh, delightful to drink now, and sure to improve with age. Its grapes come from vines planted in a north-facing plateau that overlooks the Douro valley. Jorge’s great grand uncle purchased the land in 1939, and it became part of Casa Quintães, an estate where Jorge spent stretches of his youth. The land produced wine until the 1990s, but then the vineyard was abandoned. 

Jorge’s uncle dreamed of replanting the vineyard, but he died, and the land remained fallow. A few years ago, his widow, Márcia, asked Jorge and Sandra whether they could make the dream come true. The couple meticulously prepared the land and planted a new vineyard, called Altar, with a virtuoso trio of white grapes: Arinto, Gouveio, and Viosinho. 

The first harvest was in 2019, and now we can drink this wine that speaks without words about ties of family, memories of youth, and the magic of winemaking. 

Click here to visit Wine & Soul’s website.

A convent in Alentejo

It is hard to believe that there’s a monastery larger than Lisbon’s Rossio plaza in the middle of Alentejo. Driving on the winding roads of the d’Ossa mountain, we almost lost faith. But we were climbing, and that is always a good omen. Convents often occupy mountain tops so that monks can be closer to heaven.

The first glimpse of the building is easy to miss. The sprawling monastery hides behind 600 hectares of olive trees, pines, oaks, ashes, and oleanders. After a few more twists and turns, we arrived at the Convent of São Paulo.

Marília Nanitas came out to greet us. She works for the foundation that manages the hotel. “Can you tell us the story of this place?” we asked with curiosity.  “I can tell you a good lie, which is better than a half-truth,” she replied teasingly. Then, she lent us a book about the history of the convent. 

What we learned from this tome is that it took centuries to build this monastery. The first edifice was a hermitage erected in the year 315. In 446, an earthquake partially destroyed the structure. When in 715 the Arabs invaded the region, the hermits abandoned the sanctuary.

The second king of Portugal, Sancho I, decided in 1182 to rebuild the hermitage as a monastery. In 1372, Dona Brites, the daughter of King Dom Pedro I and Inês de Castro, donated her lands near the convent to the monks. The royal family provided steady support, financing the glorious collection of cobalt blue tiles installed between 1710 and 1725. 

After the state abolished religious orders in 1834, the convent was disputed for 37 years by two municipalities, Estremoz and Redondo. Before leaving the monastery, the monks protected the tiles with plaster walls. It is thanks to their ingenuity that more than 50,000 tiles have survived to this day.

When the government auctioned the convent and the surrounding lands, Henriqueta Leotte Tavares purchased it with her dowery. It was a dream to own a place like this. But also a burden, a responsibility to history. Over the next two centuries, Henriquetta’s family used their income from agriculture to restore the convent. The first generation built a factory that made tiles to repair the roof. The second generation hired carpenters to rebuild the doors and windows. 

Henrique Lotte Tavares, a chemical engineer, belongs to the third generation. He has no descendants, so he decided to turn the convent into a hotel to preserve it for posterity. Between 1989 and 2009, Henrique oversaw countless renovations.  In 1993, he created a foundation to manage the hotel and continue the restoration work.

How was life in the monastery? The Latin word “silentio” inscribed in the tiles reminded the monks of their vow of silence. There are many fountains, perhaps because the sound of flowing water makes silences feel less awkward. The monks could talk only on their way to lunch or dinner. To make the most out of these convivial moments, the friars walked slowly through the corridor that leads to the dining room, which became known as “passos perdidos” (lost steps).

We too walked slowly on the long corridors of the convent to savor the moments spent in this beautiful place so far from the hurries of modern life, so close to the tranquility of heaven.

The Convento de São Paulo is located at Aldeia da Serra d’Ossa in Redondo, Évora. Click here for the hotel’s website.

Zun Zum

It is so much fun to eat at Zun Zum! The restaurant, headed by chef Marlene Vieira, has a great location, with the Tagus river on one side and the Pantheon on the other. The food is as wonderful as the location.

We sat for lunch in the esplanade under a large red umbrella on one of those perfect sunny days that Lisbon residents take for granted. The simpatico waiter suggested a rosé made from bastardo at Quinta de Arcossó in Tràs os Montes. It has nice acidity and flavors of cherry and tropical fruit. “Do you want to choose from the menu or be surprised by the chef?” the waiter asked. Surprised, we chose without hesitation.

The “couvert,” a set of delightful little bites that start the meal included codfish tempura (“pataniscas de bacalhau”) and a sourdough brioche. 

The first appetizer was a luscious ceviche made with unusual ingredients: popcorn, red onion, and passion fruit. It was followed by tasty mini pizzas topped with trout eggs, a spider crab called sapateira, and avocado. The pizzas were coated with a traditional spider-crab filling.

Then came “filhoses de berbigão.” They are a feast, the cockles large and juicy floating on a star-shaped bed made from fried dough filled with a cream of cockle broth, coriander, and lemon. 

The fish entrée was a bowl of creamy, savory rice made with clams, cockles, razor clams, and mussels. The rice, a carolino variety from Bom Sucesso, has large grains that soak the appetizing sauce made by the seafood. 

The meat entrée was a slice of delicious black pork accompanied by fried corn and pickles made from cauliflower and celery.

Our first dessert was a yogurt parfait on a bed of strawberry jam. The fatness of the yogurt and the sweetness of the jam are a perfect yin and yang. The second dessert was “toucinho do céu” (bacon from heaven) a pudding made with egg yolks and bacon. It is so tasty that it could, indeed, be served in heaven.

We left Zun Zum deeply satisfied and certain that if Robinson Crusoe could eat Marlene Vieira’s food on his desert island, he would never want to leave.

Zun Zum is located ar Av. Infante D. Henrique, Doca Jardim do Tabaco in Lisbon, email hello@zunzum.pt, tel. 915 507 870. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

DeCastro Gaia

“You have to try my restaurant in Gaia at Espaço Porto Cruz. Stop by the terrace first and then come down to DeCastro Gaia to eat,” advised chef Miguel Castro e Silva.

A few days later, we stepped out of the elevator on the top floor at Espaço Porto Cruz and wow, what a view!  The waters of the Douro river flowed quietly below, saying farewell to the city on their way to the sea. Porto, dressed in bright light, was trying to sway the river to linger a little longer. The river margins were decorated with “rabelo” boats, the traditional vessels that, in times gone by, brought barrels of precious ports to be stored in the Gaia cellars.

It was hard to leave the gorgeous view, but we were curious about the gastronomical experience created by Miguel at DeCastro Gaia. So we went down one floor and sat at a table overlooking Porto.

Before the meal started, our waiter brought us a seductive white Dalva port that put us in a festive mood. Then, a velvety vegetable soup prompted us to say the first of many “oh, so good!” 

The waiter filled our glasses with Contacto Alvarinho, a lively green wine made by Anselmo Mendes. It paired perfectly with our next dish, a lush artichoke and goat cheese salad. More delights followed. The turnovers made from phyllo dough, spinach, and alheira were wonderful. At first bite, they resemble a Greek spanakopita, but then the allure of the alheira surprises the palate.  The codfish fried in batter (“patanisca”) melted in the mouth. Finally, the rooster fish with clams was fresh and oh, so good! 

The menu offers old classics of Portuguese cuisine and new classics created by chef Castro Silva. What the menu does not reveal is the freshness of the ingredients and the precision of the confection. The Portuguese have an expression “tudo no ponto” that describes food that is perfectly cooked, seasoned, and sauced.  That is what DeCastro Gaia offers. What more do we need?

DeCastro Gaia is located in Espaço Porto Cruz at Largo Miguel Bombarda 23, Vila Nova de Gaia. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Ease and tranquility in Alentejo

João Rodrigues spends most of his time flying as a pilot. Perhaps it’s in the sky that the muses inspire him. When he is on the ground, João runs Silent Living, a company that is reinventing the art of hospitality.

On a warm summer day, we got on the road to Casa no Tempo, a Silent Living guest house in Alentejo. It is a secluded place where only the wind brings news of the outside world.  

At first sight, the house looks ordinary. It has a rectangular geometry with thick stone walls and a roof covered with weathered orange tiles. Then, we notice that the proportions are perfect. The sinuous swimming pool confirms that this is no ordinary place. Filled with emerald water, it looks as if it is made of salt.  

The house is spacious, with large windows that frame the landscape. A light breeze flows through the rooms as if it owns the place. Walls, doors, and windows are painted with white hues that soften the sunlight. The floor is paved with cubes of orange tile that convey warmth and comfort. It all adds up to a wonderful sense of ease and tranquility.

A vaulted arch shades a courtyard with a large wooden table and some benches. While we went for a quick swim, two cooks set up the table for lunch with plates of local cheese, plump olives, and a basket of country bread. Glasses of refreshing white wine accompanied a gazpacho made from sweet tomatoes. The main course was lamb roasted with potatoes, a rustic dish that is deeply satisfying. The dessert was an appetizing fruit tart that came with cups of strong coffee. 

After this delightful lunch, we sat in the courtyard watching the sun paint the landscape with layers of golden light. The sound of bells heralded the arrival of a herd of goats that strolled by the house without a care in the world. Then, a peaceful silence returned to this place where everything is simple and everything is perfect. 

Click here for the Silent Living website.

The Boa Nova tea house

We drove from Porto to Leça da Palmeira on a warm, sunny day to have lunch at the Boa Nova tea house. Our expectations were high. The building, classified as a national monument, was designed by Álvaro Siza Vieira, an architect who won the Pritzker prize. It houses since 2014 a restaurant headed by chef Rui Paula that has earned two Michelin stars.

The house, ensconced inside a cliff, is a gentle mark on the landscape. As we walked up the stairs that lead to the front door, we were greeted by the wind carrying aromas of salt and seaweed to stimulate our appetite. We stopped for a few moments to look at the spectacular seascape. Then, the door opened and we stepped inside. The sea is even more alluring framed by afizélia, an African red wood that covers the interior walls and ceilings. Inaugurated in 1962, the tea house is one of Siza’s early works. The influence of Frank Lloyd Wright is clearly visible. But instead of echoing the flatness of the American prairie, the house reflects the rugged landscape of the Portuguese coast. 

We sat at the table admiring the expansive view. The sommelier came over and we talked leisurely about what to drink with the meal. We settled on a sparkling wine made with Arinto at Quinta da Romeira in Bucelas that kept us pleasant company during our gastronomic journey.

The meal started with a rustic touch: a warm toast buttered with lard that was a staple of the chef’s childhood breakfasts.  It was followed by a splash of sophistication: a translucent taco with avocado and fish eggs. A spoon with clams Bulhão Pato arrived next. We ate it in a single bite. It filled our palate with the taste of many clams. 

Then dessert arrived in the form of an elegant eclair. “Time goes by fast at the Boa Nova tea house,” commented our waitress smiling. “It feels like you just started the meal and you are already having dessert.” It was a false ending. The eclair is a savory treat stuffed with a delicate mussel filling.

A number of delights from the sea arrived in quick succession. A slice of robalo (sea bass) bathing in a green algae sauce, topped with perfectly crisp skin and percebes (gooseneck barnacles). Scallops embraced by tapioca, adorned with two sauces, one made with lemon and the other with chouriço (sausage). A large red shrimp called carabineiro with carrots of different textures and a delicious bisque. Salmonete (mullet) with cassava and cashew nuts, a preparation inspired by Brazilian cuisine. And, finally, cherne (grouper) wrapped in paper and accompanied by sweet potatoes. 

This whirlwind tour of sea treasures was followed by a plate called dejá vue. It is a surprise, so perhaps it is best if we don’t describe it.

The dessert was called “late harvest.” It is fresh and crunchy, a combination of honey, nuts and dried fruit that evokes the flavors of a late harvest wine.

At the touch of a button, our waiter made the windows vanish. Suddenly, the sound of the sea filled the room and a gentle breeze refreshed our senses. 

Our waitress brought us another dessert: olive cake served with olives and olive ice cream decorated with tuilles shaped like olive leaves. Then, a cart carrying small wooden boats offered us a choice of apetizing petit fours. 

Our high expectations were greatly exceeded. We left the tea house in a state of enchantment, delighted by the beauty of the place, the deliciousness of the food, the elegance of the plating, the graciousness of the service, and the magic of it all.

The Boa Nova tea house is located at Avenida da Liberdade nº 1681, Leça da Palmeira, tel. 229 940 066. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

The natural wines of Herdade do Cebolal

Seven years ago, we booked a table at Boi-Cavalo in Lisbon and chef Hugo Brito told us that dinner included a pairing with wines from a great family winery in Alentejo called Herdade do Cebolal. The wonderful food and wine turned the dinner into a party in which everybody talked to each other as if we were longtime friends.

We experienced the same festive feeling during a memorable lunch at the Lamelas restaurant in Porto Côvo. The spectacular food prepared by chef Ana Moura was accompanied by wines from Herdade do Cebolal. What is it about these wines that hang out with chefs who know how to turn meals into celebrations?  

Ana told us that Herdade de Cebolal is a stone’s throw from the restaurant, so we called the winery to see whether we could go by for a visit. We were received by enologist Luis Mota Capitão. The winery has been in his family since 1880. His great-grandfather made wines and vinegars to sell to doctors for medicinal use. 

Luís also wants his wines to be good for us. He avoids as much as possible using chemicals in wine production. And he is passionate about creating an ecosystem that is healthy and sustainable. The 20 hectares of vineyards are surrounded by 65 hectares of forest planted with cork and holm oaks, carob and lime trees, and many other species. He uses algae, including sargassum harvested in Porto Côvo, to fertilize the land because he believes it produces superior grapes. Luís encourages animals to roam the farm. There many bees, as well as chicken, hares, and sheep. Even foxes, lynxes, wild boars, and saca-rabos (Egyptian mongese), which are often considered a nuisance in other farms, are welcome at Herdade de Cebolal. “They all have a role to play and this land belongs to them too,” says Luís. Later, as we were leaving the herdade, we saw a large wild boar crossing the road. 

Luís’ grandfather used to age the wines he served at Christmas time inside a water well. Inspired by this experience, Luís started aging wine in bottles immersed in sea water. The wines age faster and something magical happens, perhaps because of higher pressure, cooler temperatures, and less oxygen. 

The herdade has many different types of soils and sun exposures. Luís says that the best way to illustrate this diversity is to go to the cellar and try some wines from the barrels. We first sampled a white from a vineyard planted in sal gema (rock salt) soil. It has great persistence and acidity. Then, we tried a complex white from “vinha do Rossio,” a vineyard planted by Luis’ great-grandfather 82 years ago. His grandfather added to the vineyard resulting in a mixture of 13 varietals, include some rare species like Tamarez and Tália. Next, we tasted an elegant blend of Arintos that is bright and fresh.

We moved from the cellar to a terrace overlooking the vineyards to try two fascinating reds: a clarete (claret) and a palhete. The clarete is made from Castelão, a grape popular in the Setúbal region. The palhete is made from a mixture of white (Antão Vaz) and red (Aragonês) grapes. These are highly enjoyable wines that can quench the thirst on a hot summer day. In old times, when drinking water was unsafe because of possible contamination with pathogenic bacteria, these were the wines preferred by farmers. Their alcohol content is relatively low (12.5 for clarete and 10.5 for palhete) but high enough to kill any pathogens.

Luís brought us some food to pair with the next two wines: a plate with wonderful sausages made in Alentejo from black pork, small cups of stewed chicken gizzards, an assortment of cheeses, and a delicious honey made from esteva (rock rose) and tojo (gorse). 

A 2017 white made from Fernão Pires and Arinto paired perfectly with the cheeses. Then came the grand finale: a red called Caios, which was the name of Luis’ great-great-grandfather. It is produced only in exceptional years and it includes grapes from vines planted by different generations: Alicante Bouchet planted by Luís, Petit Verdot planted by his father and grandfather, and old vines brought from Saint-Émilion by his great-grandfather.

The sun had long retired and the Alentejo stars shined brightly on the vineyards. Luis kept talking with revolutionary zeal about the legacy he wants to leave to future generations: a way of producing wine that is good for us and good for the earth.

Herdade de Cebolal is located at Vale das Éguas. Click here for their website (in Portuguese).

Dining with Ana Moura in Porto Côvo

We’ve been following chef Ana Moura since her spectacular debut at Cave 23 in Lisbon. So, when we heard she had opened a restaurant in Porto Côvo, a fishermen village on the coast of Alentejo, we went on a pilgrimage to see how her cooking has evolved.

Ana called the restaurant Lamelas, after her mother’s family name. The Lamelas have lived in Porto Côvo for generations and Ana spent her childhood summers there. 

The restaurant has a beautiful terrace overlooking a small harbor.  It was there that our lunch began, with glasses filled with rosé from a local winery called Herdade da Cebolal. Marta, our genial server, brought small plates with appetizing starters: Alentejo bread with an orange butter made with pork fat and red pepper paste; almece, a local cheese, topped with cured fish; a salad made with hake eggs that were so fresh we felt as if the sea had moved closer to our table.

Marta filled our glasses with a delectable white from Herdade do Cebolal to prepare our palates for the next dish: a luscious abrótea (a local fish) with clams, green sauce, and toasted bread. Next, there was a rice made with robalo (seabass), pargo (snapper), and shrimp. We admired the perfection of the confection, all rice grains perfectly cooked, all flavors in harmony. 

Migas, a bread-based preparation, accompanied pork ribs and a purslane salad. It was an explosion of flavor that paired well with the grand reserve red from another local winery, Herdade da Carochinha. 

The meal ended with sweetness from a chocolate mousse lightly seasoned with fleur de sel, a cheese cake, and sopa dourada (golden soup). 

Throughout the meal, we could see Ana cooking in the kitchen. She was in a state of intense concentration, tasting everything and making last minute adjustments.  

We lingered at the table drinking coffee and trying some local brandies made from medronho, waiting for Ana to finish the service. When she came to greet us, we told her that the meal had been unforgettable. She blushed with humility and spoke with passion about her team and the local producers she is working with. 

We asked Ana whether there were any other local restaurants we should try. She praised the cooking of many local chefs and we left with a long list of suggestions. 

We said our goodbyes and started to research Ana’s list. But we had found an epicurean paradise and it made no sense to leave it. We called Lamelas and made lunch and dinner reservations for the following day. It was an inspired decision. We tried many more gastronomical jewels: a stunning açorda made with sole, magnificent mullets, perfect cuttlefish, delicate abrótea livers, and delicious “carabineiro” shrimps. Just when we thought we had sampled the whole menu, Ana sent something new for us to try: pasteis de massa tenra (turnovers) with a boulliabaisse filling. They were fantastic! 

There’s an old Arab tale about someone who travels the world searching for a treasure, only to find it in the courtyard of their childhood home. Ana traveled the world to apprentice in great restaurants. And now, in the beach of her childhood summers, she created a culinary treasure.  

Lamelas is located at Rua Candido da Silva 55a in Porto Covo, tel. 924060426.