Café Garrett

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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.

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Dear chef Avelino

Composit Zélia-Edit

We are writing to thank you for the delicious food you have been cooking at Zélia in Bombarral since 1981. It’s hard to serve high-quality traditional food at affordable prices year after year. That is why so many chefs burn out and so many restaurants close. But you keep going, like a marathon runner, cheered by all the families that come to your restaurant to enjoy a great meal.

We first tried your cooking many years ago at the Bombarral wine fair. We had an amazing grilled rabbit on a magical Summer night under an ancient oak tree. Since then, we had lunch and dinner at Zélia many times. Your codfish, bathed in shimmering olive oil, surrounded by thinly-sliced fried potatoes and adorned by onions, pepper and tomato is irresistible. And the duck rice seasoned with a pinch of raisins and toasted pine nuts is the best we ever had.

Your ingredients are always excellent and everything you cook has a special touch. We like the fact that you remodeled the dining room but didn’t change the food, which is as great as always.

We wish you a long life, as wonderful as your cooking!

Restaurante Zélia is located at Rua dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra 9, Sanguinhal, Bombarral 2540-454, tel. 262 605 157.

 

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.

Lunch at Noah

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We had a perfect lunch at Noah, a scenic restaurant in the Santa Cruz beach, with very dear old friends. Our table was so close to the sea that it looked like the waves were taking part in our conversation.

The food was simple, grilled sardines and peixe galo (dory) fillets with tomato and pepper rice. A rosé called Pinta Negra produced nearby by Adega Mãe paired perfectly with the fish.

Time flew while we enjoyed the delicious meal, the eternal beauty of the sea and the precious gift of friendship.

Noah Surf House is on Avenida do Atlantico, A dos Cunhados,  tel 261 932 355. Click here for their web site.

 

Making Alenquer a food destination

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In the 19th century, Alenquer was one of Portugal’s premier wine regions. Its fortunes waned for much of the 20th century. But the tide turned and Alenquer rightly regained its status as a prized wine destination. A young chef called João Simões wants to help Alenquer become a food destination as well.

João apprenticed at the Ritz and worked in many posh hotels and restaurants. Three years ago, he decided to return to his roots to recover and renew the culinary traditions of the region where he was born. He uses local products like quails and Rocha pears and works with farmers on projects like producing goat cheese in the Montejunto mountain. His restaurant is called Casta 85. Casta means varietal, a reference to the region’s wine tradition. The number 85 refers to the chef’s birth year.

The dining room is decorated with furniture procured in the chef’s village. It is a pleasant space that overlooks the Alenquer river. This tributary of the Tagus flows proudly through town, reveling from the praise it received in Luis Vaz de Camões’ epic poem, the Lusíadas.

Casta 85’s service is relaxed and attentive. Ana Santana, our genial server, met the chef when they both played in a brass band. The chef’s old instrument is now part of the decoration and some of the band’s brashness inspires the intense, harmonious food.

We tried appetizing alheira croquettes with apple sauce and crisp green bean tempura with garlic mayonnaise. Next, came a delicious quail Brás style served with a quail egg, fried onion and cassava chips. Our meal ended with a luscious duck leg served over a risotto of mushrooms and asparagus.

We returned from Alenquer through a scenic road that took us though countless vineyards. We can’t wait to go back to visit the wine quintas and have another great lunch at Casta 85!

Casta 85 is located at Largo do Espírito Santo, 31 in Alenquer, tel. 915 761 911.

Mugasa

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Bairrada is a region in the center of Portugal known for its refreshing sparkling wine and its “leitão” (roasted piglet). The best leitão in Bairrada comes from a restaurant called Mugasa located in the middle of nowhere in a small village called Fogueira.

The restaurant’s owner, Álvaro Nogueira, retired from a desk job and opened a small café in 1981. He wanted to learn the art of roasting piglets to turn his café into a restaurant. But the learning curve was steep until one of his cousins, a master roaster, offered to teach him.

After this jump start, Álvaro kept perfecting his art. In 1991, he entered a competition organized by a gastronomic society and won first prize.

“Why is roasting so difficult?” we asked Álvaro. ” Every pig is different, with a different size and fat content. We use six wood-fired ovens and every oven is different. We have to make constant adjustments to guarantee perfection. That is why we only roast four piglets per oven, to have time to make all the necessary adjustments.”

“In the first 20 minutes, the oven has to be very hot, between 280 and 300 degree Celsius to make the outside crunchy. Then we cover the wood with ashes to bring down the temperature. There are many details so we have to pay close attention. The traditional seasoning made with garlic, lard, white pepper, and salt is important but you cannot use it to cover up mistakes.”

We sat at the table to try Mugasa’s leitão. It is indeed remarkable, crunchy on the outside, succulent on the inside, with just enough seasoning to accentuate the taste of the meat.

Álvaro is very proud of the celebrities that drive to Fogueira just to eat at his restaurant. But he is even more proud of his son Ricardo. “My son is the best master roaster in Portugal,” Álvaro said smiling. “He learned my secrets and discovered new ones.”

Many Bairrada wine makers eat regularly at Mugasa, so you often overhear discussions about weather conditions and grape maturation. The restaurant offers some of the best wines from these producers at very attractive prices.

The formula for Mugasa’s success is easy to write down but hard to replicate: amazing leitão plus great Bairrada wine = unforgettable meals.

Mugasa is located at Largo da Feira, Fogueira, Aveiro, tel. 234 741 061

 

Belcanto

Composit Bel Canto

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Belcanto, the most celebrated restaurant in Lisbon, is close to the São Carlos opera house. Decorated with whimsical porcelain plates, the restaurant looks like a stage and its meals are as thrilling as a great opera performance.

Our lunch’s overture was composed of small bites often included in the couvert of traditional restaurants:  tremoços (lupini beans), olives, and a carrot and garlic salad. The presentation was unusual–they were served on top of Portuguese cobblestones. But the real surprise was that they all turned liquid once we bit into them, filling our mouth with explosions of flavor. This culinary prelude was accompanied by Vicentino, a wine from Zambujeira do Mar that left our paletes refreshed with hints of green pepper.

There were more surprises. First, a fake edible stone covered with salmon caviar. Then, crispy chicken skin with corn coriander and liver, a combination that tastes like roasted chicken. Next, a delicious algae cornet filled with tuna served inside a flower pot.

A genial waiter introduced a chorus of breads made from corn, buckwheat, quinoa, and puff pastry. Next came a duet for clams and “lingueirão” (razor clams) accompanied by a 1979 Porta dos Cavaleiros, a velvety red wine from the Dão region produced in the birth year of chef Avillez.

Then the arias started. The first was a Golden Egg–an egg cooked at a low temperature, covered with gold leaf and adorned with threads of fried leek. It arrived with a lively Arinto white wine made by António Maçanita in Pico, a volcanic island in the Azores archipelago.

The second aria was called Ocean Dive: a pristine sea bass (robalo) cooked in sea water with seaweed, “salicórnia” (samphire), razor clams, and mussels. We were still savoring the final chords of this crowd pleaser when a new theme was introduced: a flavorful remake of the bucolic “cozido” that the chef’s grandmother used to prepare with boiled meats and cabbage. It came with a vigorous 2012 Bruto from the Douro region.

The performance reached its climax with another traditional recipe reinvented: the roasted piglet from Bairrada. We don’t know what culinary sorcery was used to produce this perfect combination of crispy skin and juicy roasted meat. All we can tell you is that the result is magical.

A new theme was introduced by a duo of pre-desserts: a raspberry sorbet and an “abade de priscos” pudding. They were followed by a tangerine dream made from frozen juice and filed with tangerine sorbet. Vila Oeira, a rare dessert wine from Carcavelos harmonized with these sweet delights. Coffee and mignardises brought our meal to a blissful finale.

You have to be patient to dine at Belcanto. The restaurant is booked for weeks in advance. But it’s worth the wait to experience such an unforgettable culinary performance.

Belcanto is located at Largo do São Carlos in Lisbon, tel. 21-342-0607.