Optimism is the best recipe

Composit Optimista

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. 

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A taste of Alcobaça in Lisbon

Alcoa

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.

A rhyming guide to Lisbon

RBD_Lisboa_Sé
Lisbon, ink on paper, Rui Barreiros Duarte December 2017.

It you come to Lisbon by boat or by plane
As soon as you land, you must go to Belém
For there you can try sweet pastries so fine 
They serve them in heaven since 1837

There’s an old monastery, majestic and faery
And a tower that’s built with such precious marbles
Fish jump from the Tagus to see how it sparkles

If it is time for lunch
You do as you wish
But do not go home
Without trying codfish

Clams Bullhão Pato you also must try
It’s a dish so sublime
Foodies rave about it in prose and in rhyme

Which restaurant to choose?
If you really insist
We’ll tell you our favorites
Click here for a list

There are three main plazas that are worthy to see
Terreiro do Paço where the king used to live
Rossio that’s spacious and pretty like few
And then there’s Chiado with shops old and new

You must go to Alfama
The sole place to survive
The Lisbon earthquake of 1755

Then you can relax in an old coffee shop
And pencil a poem about love or loss
If you need inspiration, we know where to go
For a glass of “ginginha” that’ll make your words flow.

You can shop for a gift
For whomever you pick
Here’s a list of suggestions
Diverse and unique

If you’d like to hear fado, stop by Sr. Vinho
To see singers in black make their voices go far
Embraced by the sound of an ancient guitar

Lisbon forgives if you leave for a day
To see Sintra‘s palaces
Cascais and its bay

But you must come back soon
For the city has charms that it only reveals
To those who spend time in its seven hills

Café Garrett

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Every day, thousands of tourists go by the iconic Rossio train station and the Dona Maria II theater. In the lobby of the theater, hiding in plain sight, is Café Garret, one of the most interesting restaurants in Lisbon.

The owner, Leopoldo Calhau, is an architect who became a chef. The restaurant reflects his personality: it offers delicious food and gracious service in an elegant setting. The menu is seasonal and the wine list features small, original producers.

Leopold knows where to find great products and how to showcase them in his cooking. His fillets of sardine with grilled peppers on toast are succulent. The “cabidela,” a chicken rice prepared according to an old family recipe is unforgettable. The soup of bouillabaisse with a river fish called “achegã” is a revelation. The ice cream made with Serra cheese is a sweet surprise.

We like asking Leopoldo to choose what he’s going to serve us. We then seat back and relax, ready to enjoy a culinary feast.

Café Garrett is located inside the Dona Maria II theater at Praça D. João da Câmara, Lisbon, tel. 21 193 3532.

Worshiping the sun in Belém

MAAT Composit

If you’re visiting Lisbon, we recommend spending an afternoon in the Belém neighborhood. We like to start by sitting at one of the tables of the old Confeitaria de Belém to enjoy an espresso with a warm pastel de Belém. We eat the pastry slowly, taking small bites while the aroma of cinnamon and vanilla surround us and the taste of cream, eggs and sugar melts in our mouth.

We are then ready to stroll by the river to the Belém tower. Before the 1755 earthquake, the tower was close to the middle of the river. It was equipped with cannons meant to protect the city from pirates. But instead of scaring marauders, the beautiful tower made Lisbon more alluring and desirable.

Our next stop is the Monument to the Discoveries. It marks the point of departure of the caravels that sailed into the unknown seas to discover new lands.  From there, we cross the garden surrounded by olive trees to visit the Jerónimos Monastery. It is a majestic monument that celebrates the age of discovery in a gothic style that makes exuberant use of maritime motifs.

After spending much of the afternoon visiting the past, it’s time to look at the future. We like to arrive 45 minutes before sunset to the next destination: the new Museum of Art, Architecture and Technology, known as MAAT. Designed by British architect Amanda Levet, the sensuous building looks like a ship that could sail into space. Its roof has become a favorite destination for sun worshipers. Standing there, we see the Tagus river change into orange vests to praise the star that divides night and day while the white museum glows in the golden light. Five centuries after the construction of the Belém tower the MAAT makes Lisbon feel young and desirable again.

The MAAT is located at Av. Brasília, Central Tejo in Belém, Lisbon. Click here for the MAAT’s website. 

 

 

The luxurious Dom Feijão

Dom Feijão

There are plenty of “tascas” in Lisbon, small informal restaurants that offer seasonal menus at low prices. But when locals want to have a nice meal with friends or family, they don’t go to a tasca. They prefer to pay a little bit more and eat at a neighborhood restaurant with better ingredients and service.

One of our favorite neighborhood restaurants in Lisbon is Dom Feijão (Sir Bean), a place with generous portions, modest prices and top-notch ingredients. What’s the catch? You have to be persistent to get a reservation or be prepared to wait for a table. The waiters don’t answer the reservations phone line when they’re very busy and they’re almost always very busy.

The restaurant is popular with families, on our last visit the place was full of grandparents, parents and children sharing the pleasures of the table.

Before we had time to open the menu, our waiter brought us some delicious fried marinated sardines and a plate of the same black-pork prosciutto they serve in heaven on special occasions.

We’d seen a large “sável,” a prized river fish, in the restaurant’s refrigerator so we asked the waiter whether we could order it. “Not today,” he replied “The sável has to be thinly sliced and marinated for a few hours. Sorry, but we cannot rush the preparation.”

We ordered instead poached cherne (sea bream). It was deliciously succulent, a reminder that when the ingredients are perfect, simple preparations are the best.

Next, we had grilled “secretos,” divine slices of fatty black pork. Two decades ago, these cuts of black pork were exported to Spain. Since then, the Portuguese have wised up and started consuming them. Exports suffered but our happiness boomed.

We ended the meal with some grilled codfish. The waiter asked what was our favorite part of the codfish so he could ask the chef to prepare it. Large tranches of codfish swimming with roasted potatoes in a sea of olive oil made our delights.

We told chef João Araújo how much we enjoyed the meal. “We’re a simple restaurant that serves traditional Portuguese food,” he said. “Our only luxury is the ingredients we use.”   This is, of course, the kind of luxury we fancy.

Dom Feijão is located near the posh Avenida de Roma at Largo Machado de Assis 7 D, tel. 21 846 4038. There’s a convenient paid garage underneath the restaurant. You can ask the waiter to validate your parking.

A bread revolution

Composit GlebaDiogo Amorim was working as a chef at the famous Fat Duck when Heston Blumenthal, the restaurant’s head chef, decided to improve the bread they serve. Diogo liked the project so much that he decided to return to Portugal to research Portuguese bread. He traveled from north to south in search of old grains that have low yields and no gluten but are rich in flavor and nutrients. He studied how old windmills used to process these grains to make superior flours.

In a small village, he found a pair of extraordinary mill stones from La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, a region of France renowned for the quality of its mill stones. Diogo brought the stones to Lisbon, so that he could mill the grains only a few hours before baking to obtain more flavor and freshness. He convinced a few farmers to supply him with old grains and opened a bakery called Gleba.

Diogo bakes four times a day two sourdough breads (barbela wheat and rye) and a white corn bread called “broa”. Every day, he makes special editions, like wheat bread with dried figs and cinnamon or rye with galega olive paste from Alentejo.

There’s a steady stream of customers coming into the bakery. Diogo takes time to talk to all of them and smiles with pride when they praise his creations: “your bread is a revelation,” “your “broa” tastes like the one my grandmother used to make,” “I haven’t tasted bread this good since my childhood.”

Diogo Amorim is starting a bread revolution and the people of Lisbon are rising to support him.

Gleba is located on Rua Prior Crato, nº 16 in Lisbon, tel. 966 064 697. Click here for the bakery’s web site,