Elegant food at L’and

land-vineyards

We arrived at L’and blinded by the midday Alentejo sun. It felt great stepping into the cool shade offered by this elegant hotel surrounded by vineyards.

Chef Miguel Laffan came to meet us. We asked him how he felt relocating from Cascais, a cosmopolitan beach near Lisbon, to this secluded place in the interior of Alentejo. “I came to focus on food,” he told us. “Here there are no distractions. But it took two or three years for the people of Alentejo to trust and accept me. Now, they say that I am a chef from Alentejo!”

The meal began with a small round cheese made from sheep milk in nearby Arraiolos. It was Laffan’s way of saying that this simple cheese is as good as the high cuisine on the menu. No wonder the locals adopted him as one of their own.

A beautiful bread box offered us the choice between old and new traditions: Alentejo bread was paired with new breads made from local products—carob, seeds, and olives.

Next, came a set of delightful appetizers: a glass of tomato, pepper and strawberry gazpacho, a codfish “rissol” covered with bread crumbs soaked in cuttle fish ink, ceviche with oyster and turbot accompanied by a banana cream, and a croquette made with alheira and bergamot orange.

Laffan came back to our table and we talked about his approach to cooking. “I like to use local ingredients, but I am not a fundamentalist. What is important to me is to cook food that I enjoy eating. I admire the lightness of Asian cooking but I do not do fusion. Instead, I let that lightness inspire me to create something different here in Alentejo.”

We had scallops “Brás” style, an adaptation of the traditional codfish Brás-style recipe and Alentejo pork loin cooked slowly and served over a bed of cauliflower, peas and asparagus. Both were masterpieces of taste, aroma, texture, and presentation.

The desserts were a manga panna cotta beautifully decorated with beet flowers and fresh raspberries combined with raspberry mousse, merengue, and foam. Coffee came with wine gelatins and irresistible chocolates.

The following day, we saw in the Vila Viçosa ducal palace the menus of the banquets offered by king Dom Carlos and queen Dona Amélia. They are handwritten in French by the queen and illustrated with watercolors by the king. Portuguese recipes share the table with many preparations from France and elsewhere. These foreign recipes were probably viewed as more elegant than the rustic food of Portugal.

Today the royal couple would not need to look across borders for culinary elegance and refinement. They could find it at L’and in the cuisine of Miguel Laffan.

L’and and Vineyards is located in Montemor-o-Novo in Alentejo, tel. 266-242-400. Click here for their website.

Sweet moments in Lisbon

Composit Manteigaria

What is the best pastel de nata in Lisbon?  The answer depends on our mood. Some days, we like them perfumed with lemon. Other days, we prefer them scented with vanilla.

Our current favorites are the lemony kind. They are made by Manteigaria in Praça Camões near Chiado at a location that was once occupied by a butter shop (manteiga is the Portuguese word for butter). Perhaps as an homage to the past, Manteigaria’s pasteis have a buttery taste. The crispy crust and the rich filling are so satisfying that they make us feel, for a moment, that we discovered the meaning of life.

Whenever a new batch of pasteis comes hot out of the oven, Mantegaria’s cashier rings a bell. You’ll see people dropping what they’re doing and rushing to Manteigaria in search of a moment of sweetness.

Manteigaria is located on Rua do Loreto, 2 near Chiado in Lisbon, tel. 21-347-1492.

Avillez’s neighborhood

Bairro do Avillez

It is common for writers to imagine new worlds and share them with us. But it is uncommon for chefs to pursue this creative strategy. José Avillez, the Michelin-starred chef of Belcanto, dreamed of an old Lisbon neighborhood where friends gathered to share great food. He imagined timeworn buildings guarded by carved wooden doors with windows adorned by crocheted curtains.

When the space once occupied by the 13th-century Convent of Trindade became available, Avillez seized the opportunity to make his dreams come true. He invited architect Joana Astolfi to design an installation inspired by old building facades, artist Cátia Pessoa to create ceramic sculptures representing fish and vegetables, and painter Henriette Arcelin to produce a large tile panel at the famous Viúva Lamego factory.

The result is a fun atmosphere perfect to enjoy the classics of Portuguese cuisine, refined and, in some cases, reinvented. Bairro do Avillez (Avillez’s neighborhood) has a grocery store (Mercearia) with some of the chef’s favorite products, a tapas bar (Taberna), and a restaurant (Páteo).

In the Taberna, you can eat a wide variety of “petiscos” (the Portuguese word for tapas), from Portuguese prosciutto and sausages, to codfish with cornbread, and roasted piglet.

The Páteo offers pristine fish from the Portuguese coast, grilled, cooked with rice, or combined with bread, olive oil and garlic in a fragrant “açorda.” The menu also includes great seafood (lobster, shrimp, clams, crab, and razor clams), delicious steaks, and grilled black pork from Alentejo.

There’s a wonderful house wine made in collaboration with Quinta do Monte d’Oiro. And there is also a great new line of artisanal beers called Selection 1927.

We told José Avillez that we were impressed to see him take time to welcome the people who walked in to see the new space. He told us that these gestures are important to him: “What makes Portugal unique is the combination of great ingredients and a rich culinary tradition with our warm hospitality.”

Chef José Avillez is a dreamer who makes Lisbon more fun with his gracious demeanor and delicious food. It is a privilege to be in his neighborhood.

Bairro do Avillez is located at Rua Nova da Trindade, 18, Lisbon, tel. 215 830 290.

The tavern of the tides

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Portimão, a city in the Algarve, is famous for the quality of its sardines. Our favorite place to enjoy the silver of the sea is Taberna da Maré (tavern of the tides), which opened in 1946. The current owner, Zeca Pinhota, restored the restaurant with great sensitivity and care, using the original floor mosaic, vintage furniture, and photos by Julio Bernardo, a photographer born a century ago in nearby Ferragudo.

The food is wonderful. When they are in season, between June and September, the sardines are the main event. But there are many other delicacies. We had a feast composed of razor-clam rice, fried fish with “açorda,” clams Bulhão Pato, and grilled fish eggs.

We told Zeca that his clams are amazing. “That’s because they come from the sea to the restaurant. They do not spend time in tanks, shedding weight and flavor.” Zeca explained. “I call the local fisherman first thing in the morning to ask about the catch of the day. I want to cook the best of what the tide brings.” And that is indeed what you get at the tavern of the tides.

Taberna da Maré is located at Travessa da Barca 9, Portimão, tel. 282 414 614.

Finding truffles in Bombarral

composit D. José

Bombarral’s rolling hills offer their vines daily to the sun. In return, the star ripens the grapes so they can make intense, aromatic wines. The region is full of small wineries and traditional restaurants waiting to be discovered.

Our latest find is a restaurant called Dom José. It is named after José Louro who in 1992 left his job in London to open a restaurant in his hometown. His son Nelson told us that “My father used the honorary prefix Dom to name the restaurant, but we don’t have royal blood.”

Nelson was working in London in the real estate industry when, in 2012, his father announced he was selling the restaurant. Nelson quit his job and came to Bombarral to run Dom José. “I have no regrets,” he said. “I like the idea of building on what my father did and making the restaurant better every day.”

The menu offers traditional food prepared with great care using the wonderful ingredients that the region offers. Our meal began with clams bulhão Pato. The clams were succulent and their sauce was a poem to the brilliant simplicity of Portuguese gastronomy. Next, Nelson brought out his version of “fish and chips.” The fish was moist and the batter crisp. The chips were replaced by a hearty bean and spinach rice. The last dish was a wonderful “feijoada” (stewed beans and cabbage) made with black pork. It is so popular that it always on the menu.

We told Nelson that we were too full to venture into dessert territory. “But I saved the best for last,” he said as he placed on the table a plate of chocolate truffles. They melted in our mouths filling our palates with caramel, lime, and chocolate sensations. “Where do you get these magnificent truffles?” we asked. “After I started running the restaurant, my sister Carla left her banking job in London to study with William Curley, a famous British chocolatier. Then, she joined me at the restaurant. Her truffles are a great success. They’re already sold in many gourmet shops and we are starting to export them to England.”

We left the restaurant inspired by the nobility of what Carla and Nelson are doing. And certain that, somewhere in their ancestry, there is royal blood.

Dom José is located at Rua Dr Alberto Martins dos Santos 4, in Bombarral, tel. 262 604 384.

Food with character

Composit Moma

Rua dos Correeiros is a street in downtown Lisbon where leathersmiths once sold harnesses to horseback riders. Local residents are used to seeing commerce evolve. But they are surprised by the how much space has recently been taken by souvenir shops and pizzerias. Will Lisbon end up losing its unique character? they ask.

At the end of Rua dos Correeiros we saw a new restaurant called Moma Grill that was full of locals. Curious, we decided to try it.

We loved the space with its mosaic floor, warm lighting, large blackboards with culinary drawings, and Thonet chairs. The owner, João Vaz Guedes, was so gracious that we were predisposed to like the food.

But when we asked for his recommendations and he said “pasteis de massa tenra,” our hearts sank. These delicate combinations of fried dough and meat filling were often on the table during our childhood. How could a restaurant compete with memories of food prepared by our grandmothers? “It’s not fair,” we told João, “the bar will be too high, we prefer to try something else.” João smiled and said, “I am very interested in your opinion, let me bring you a plate.” The pasteis were smaller and crispier than the ones we are used to. But we loved them, they were some of the best we ever had.

Our group tried an assortment of other items from the menu. Everything was delicious. The arugula salad was perfectly dressed. The codfish cakes were light, with the perfect mix of  potato and fish. The grilled sardines were moist and succulent. The partridge was magically infused with the taste of olive oil and vinegar. The black pork was bursting with flavor.

The meal was well paced and the service had a quiet elegance that is rare. For the grand finale, João brought an irresistible raspberry tart accompanied by a glass of ginjinha (a cherry liqueur).

The wine list is short, but the choices are careful and the prices modest. We had a great white Encruzado and an excellent red from the Douro region (Quinta dos Aciprestes).

João and his wife Maria loved to cook for friends so, after retiring, they decided to open a restaurant to serve food inspired by Portugal’s culinary heritage. It’s people like them that keep Lisbon’s character going strong.

Moma grill is located on Rua dos Correeiros, 22-26, tel. 911 762 349. 

 

 

A school lunch

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In 1940, the Portuguese government announced its “centennial plan,” a program to build a large number of primary schools. The schools in the north of the country, designed by Rogério de Azevedo, look austere with their granite and schist exteriors. The schools in the south, designed by Raul Lino, have graceful arches and whitewashed walls. Both designs used elements of the vernacular architecture and became integral parts of the Portuguese landscape.

With the number of children in decline, some of these schools have been closing. The school in the village of Cachopos near Comporta in Alentejo closed in the late 1990s but found new life as a restaurant appropriately called A Escola (the school).

The building is located in a beautiful woodland. Our arrival was greeted by the chirping of birds and perfumed by the scent of eucalyptus.

As we sat at the table remembering learning the three Rs, a plate of marinated rabbit and a carrot salad arrived. The menu has lots of great offerings, including cuttlefish rice with shrimp, fried eels, pasta with sea bass, stewed partridge, and rabbit pie with pine nut rice. The portions are generous and the food is delicious. A Escola is a great place to enjoy the simple, hearty cuisine of Alentejo.

On the school wall there’s an old map of the Portuguese empire. Those vast possessions of land and sea are long gone. But the empire of the senses–Portugal’s wonderful culinary tradition–continues to thrive.

A Escola is located at Estrada Nacional 253, Cachopos, Alcácer do Sal, tel. 265 612 816.