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.

Eating eels in the middle of Ribatejo

“I am taking you to a restaurant that used to be a shack. The place was recently renovated, but I hope Virgulina’s cooking hasn’t changed,” said Manuel Malfeito, a professor of enology who can always find extraordinary places in the middle of nowhere. This time we were lost in Ribatejo, an agricultural region that has resisted the winds of change, preserving its character and traditions.

After many twists and turns, we saw a sign that reads “Constantino das Enguias.” Enguias means eels and Constantino is the name of Virgulina’s husband. In 1975, the couple set up a hut with a dust floor, a roof made out of eucalyptus branches and some wooden tables and benches. Virgulina served food prepared with vegetables from her garden and eels from a local river, the Ribeira de Muge. The delicious results attracted a loyal clientele that kept the restaurant full throughout the years. Last year, José Valério, Virgulina’s son, convinced her to renovate and expand the restaurant. 

We ordered eels cooked in two ways, fried and stewed (ensopado de enguias). The fried eels are crunchy, with an umami taste that delights the palate. The stewed eels are succulent, cooked in as appetizing broth made with country bread, mint, onions, green pepper, garlic, bay leaves, white wine, and peeled tomatoes. Virgulina’s food is as great as always!

Manuel chose a bottle of white Casa do Cadaval Reserva 2018 made with Arinto and Viognier. It is an elegant, balanced wine that managed to keep pace with the exuberant taste of the eels. The wine is produced nearby by Teresa Schönborn, a German countess. Why does a German countess produce wine in the middle of Ribatejo?  That, as Scheherazade would say, is a story for another day.

Constantino das Enguias is located at Rua Direita, 265, Foros de Benfica do Ribatejo, tel. 243 589 156.

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.

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.

Dining with Miguel Castro e Silva at Quinta de Ventozelo

We have for years admired chef Miguel Castro e Silva from the distance. We dined at his restaurants, read his cookbooks, tried his recipes (his marinated sardine preparation is a staple at our table). So it was a great privilege to have dinner with him at Quinta de Ventozelo

We met at Cantina, the restaurant that occupies the place where the old farm canteen used to be. Miguel arrived with a bottle of wine. “Do you want to try the wines I make at Ventozelo?” he asked as a way of introduction. Soon our glasses were filled with a white Viosinho from 2017 that is fresh and vibrant. It went perfectly with our first course, river fish “escabeche.” 

We told Miguel how much we had enjoyed the food we had for lunch in the picturesque esplanade of Cantina:  wild boar covilhetes (a version of the small pies popular in nearby Vila Real), a warm soup made with beets and apple, grilled octopus, and a peach tart that celebrated the natural sweetness of the peaches. We asked how does he manage to achieve such high standards in all his restaurants. Miguel told us that he inherited both his organization skills and creativity from his German mother. He writes meticulous recipes and coaches his cooks in their preparation until they meet his exacting standards.

Miguel started cooking professionally only at age 31. Born into a family of doctors in Porto, he was expected to study medicine. He studied biology in Germany but lost interest and became a musician. To earn a bit of money on the side, he started cooking. When he returned to Portugal, his friend Dirk Niepoort asked him to prepare food for his wine tastings. Dirk would describe the wines he planned to serve and Miguel had to come up with food that paired well with the wines. It was an experience that allowed him to perfect his cooking skills and learn a lot about wine. 

This enological knowledge is evident in the next wine we tried, a remarkable white that combines Viosinho with a blend of red varietals. It was a perfect complement to our second starter: a sausage called “alheira” topped with a fried quail egg. 

Miguel tells us that he is reviving and refining the cooking traditions of the Douro valley. Every Sunday, the cooks at Cantina prepare a roast in an oven fired with vine wood. The soup is made in old iron-cast pots on a large outdoor fire. All the ingredients come from the farm. The animals are naturally raised and everything from nose to tail is used in the kitchen.

Our main course, a suculent stewed rooster, was a perfect example of the refined, satisfying rustic food that Miguel is devising. It combined well with a delicate red wine aged in oak barrels previously used to make white wines.  

Several fruit-based desserts arrived. Once again, we admired the sparse use of sugar that gives the fruits their chance to shine. As the dinner came to an end, we made a few toasts with some old Dalva tawnies.

But there was one more thing. Miguel ordered a pot of tea. Ventozelo produces a wonderful gin with the aromatics that grow on the farm. Miguel had the idea of making an herbal tea with the same aromatics: lavender, lemon thyme, Portuguese thyme, and globe amaranth. It makes a fragrant infusion that was the perfect ending to a perfect meal. Thanks to chef Miguel Castro e Silva the food at Cantina is as spectacular as the view.

Click here for the web site of Cantina, the restaurant at Quinta de Ventozelo and here for Miguel Castro e Silva’s website.

Culinary magic at Cura

We first met Pedro Pena Bastos as the chef at Herdade do Esporão when he was only 25 years old. Sitting at a table overlooking the vineyards of this iconic Alentejo estate, we were taken on an unforgettable culinary journey.

We met Pedro again at Ceia, the elegant restaurant in João Rodrigues’ Santa Clara 1728 hotel. We remember sommelier Mário Marques welcoming us in the courtyard outside the restaurant with glasses of natural sparkling wine from Quinta da Serradinha. Sitting at a long wooden table with a small group of fellow culinary travelers, we experienced once again the wonders of Pedro’s cooking.

As soon as we landed in Lisbon, we made reservations for Pedro’s new restaurant, Cura, at the Four Seasons Ritz hotel. We arrived a few minutes early and knocked on the imposing glass and metal door that separates the restaurant from the hotel. The genial Mário Marques came to greet us and showed us around.

It is difficult to create a new space in the Four Seasons Ritz. Inaugurated in 1959, the building’s modernist geometry serves as the canvas for a stunning art collection that includes works by the great painter Almada Negreiros and many of his contemporaries. Cura’s dining room, decorated by architect Miguel Câncio Martins, integrates well the old and the new. A large metal sculpture hanging from the ceiling harmonizes with the wood panels designed by Fred Kradolfer, a brilliant Swiss graphic design artist who lived in Lisbon. The colorful chairs reference the playful use of color popular in the 1950s. 

While we were chatting with Mário about wine, a plate arrived with long strips made from chickpeas and pumpkin sauce seasoned with marjoram oil. This simple start bears the hallmark of Pedro’s cooking: the constant search for new harmonies and textures that enchant the palate. 

After much pondering, Mário opened a bottle of white Tourónio from Quinta de Tourais in the Douro valley. It is a bright white wine that kept pace with the festival of culinary sensations that followed.

Black pastries filed with veal from the Minho region made a striking appearance on our stone table top. They were pitch black on the outside and succulent on the inside. 

A translucent tagliatelle dressed with a hazelnuts and bergamot sauce came topped with a dollop of caviar.  We recognized this classic trompe l’oeil preparation from Pedro’s repertoire– the “tagliatelle” is made from thin strips of fresh squid.

Slices of breads made from ancient grains were served with butter from the Azores’ Flores island and the magnificent spicy olive oil produced by Pedro’s family. There was also a delicious brioche and some breadsticks made with cheese from the Azores.

Then, a fillet of red snapper came floating on a sauce made from the liver of the fish and perfumed with parsley and saffron. Next, a succulent piece of black pork from Alentejo was accompanied with a beet purée, orange, and foie gras. The dessert featured an original, delightful combination of Jerusalem artichokes, cocoa and arabica coffee. 

We were enjoying one more glass of wine when three little “mignardises” arrived. Mário recommended that we try them in the order, from left to right. The first was made from Belgium biscuit, artichoke and black garlic. The second, made with egg and honey, was an homage to the recipes that came from Portuguese convents. The third, a sphere made from raspberry and lavender, was crispy on the outside and liquid on the inside. It was a final sleight of hand in a dinner full of culinary magic.

Cura is located at Rua Rodrigo da Fonseca 88 in Lisboa. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

A rooftop restaurant in Lisbon

As soon as we exited the elevator, on the 5th floor of Hotel Bairro Alto, we walked to the terrace, attracted by the generous view of the Tagus river. Our waiter suggested that we stay outside and enjoy a few appetizers before going into the living room. And so we sat down and watched the Lisbon skies change into their evening colors. 

The restaurant, called BAHR, offers a menu designed by Nuno Mendes, a Portuguese chef who has earned many accolades in London. It is hard to choose–everything sounds great–so it took us some time to place our order.

After a few minutes wait, a savory aroma heralded the arrival of a plate with rissois de berbigão, fried turnovers with a cockle filling and a hint of curry. We noticed that they were breaded with Japanese panko instead of with traditional bread crumbs. But we were still surprised by the first bite. It was perfect: the crispness of the exterior contrasted with the moist flavorful interior creating an harmonious combination of texture, taste and temperature. 

A plate of percebes (goose barnacles) served on toast arrived next. The percebes looked normal but their smokey taste accentuated by a buttery sauce was exceptional. They were followed by roasted carrots dressed with a mouthwatering citrus sauce.

The temperature was dropping, so we retired to the living room. Our plates were served with a vegetarian version of a Lisbon classic: codfish Brás style. The codfish was replaced by a roasted cauliflower accompanied by a sauce made from broccoli cooked in a salt mass, spinach and parsley. Seldom has a cauliflower shined so brightly. On the table, there were sides of potato chips cut razor thin with a Japanese mandoline.

Next, we tried codfish confit with açorda (a bread-based preparation) from Alentejo. The codfish was superb. When we asked what made it so special sous-chef Nuno Dinis came to the table to explain that we were enjoying skrei, a codfish from Norway that is only available between January and April. It arrives fresh at the restaurant where it is cured with sugar and salt to accentuate the taste of the sea. The codfish was dressed with a savory yellow sauce made with a fricassé of sames (the stomach of the codfish) and a broth made from bones and gelatin.

The meat entrée was black pork with two sauces, one made from clams the other from spinach, parsley and coriander. It is a happy marriage of the flavors of two Portuguese classics: clams Bulhão pato and pork with clams.

The meal ended with queijadas that tasted of lemon and salt. We can’t wait to return to BAHR to enjoy this food that so perfectly combines simplicity, tradition, and refinement.

BAHR is at Hotel Bairro Alto, Praça Luís de Camões nº 2, in Lisbon. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Was Christopher Columbus born in Cuba, Alentejo?

Adega Monte Pedral

Last Summer, we visited Cuba, a small town in Alentejo. We were attracted by the legend that this hamlet of white-washed houses is the true birth place of Christopher Columbus. The navigator called Cuba the large Caribbean island he discovered in 1492. Why did he choose such an unusual name? Was it to honor his hometown?

We asked a local where to go for lunch. He smiled and pointed to a building on the other side of the road. A large sign read “Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral.”

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we heard voices singing in harmony. A group of locals was sharing a glass of amphora wine and singing traditional Alentejo songs called “cante.”

We sat at a corner table in the spacious dining room full of old wine amphoras. Our waiter asked whether we would like to try the wine that the singers were drinking. Of course we did! It came with a bowl of terrific olives and a plate of splendid prosciutto made from black pigs raised in Alentejo on a diet of acorns. The white wine was deliciously refreshing and devoid of affectation.

Our meal started with a soup made from beans, sausages, black pork, and “tengarrinhas,” a wild thistle abundant in the region. The flavors blended perfectly, to create a deeply satisfying taste and aroma. Our main course was culinary perfection: grilled black pork with a lettuce and mint salad and olive “migas,” a bread-based accompaniment.

José Soudo, the restaurant owner, said farewell to the singers and started making the rounds. He stopped at every table to talk to the diners, using a small glass to try the wine they were drinking. José told us that the building used to be the home of a wealthy family. He bought it four decades ago and turned it into a restaurant that quickly became part of the community. It is a place where the locals stop before lunch and dinner to drink a glass of wine and sing a few songs. His son is the cook. “You have to come back to try his other specialties, tomato soup, purslane soup, lamb stew, and much more,” said José.

The house came with six large amphoras which José used to make 3,500 liters of wine to drink with his friends. Over time, he accumulated 28 amphoras, so now he has enough amphora wine to serve in the restaurant.

We left confident that Cuba is not Christopher Columbus’ hometown. After all, if he was born in a place with such enticing wine, satisfying food and harmonious singing why would he ever leave?

Adega da Casa de Monte Pedral is located at Rua da Fonte dos Leões, Cuba, tel. 936 520 036, email geral@casamontepedral.pt. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Taberna Albricoque

Taberna Albricoque

Albricoque, a quaint word for apricot used in the Algarve, is a great name for a Lisbon restaurant that blends the old with the new. The space is old; it opened in 1905 as a tavern for travelers from the nearby Santa Apolónia train station. The food is rooted in the traditional culinary vocabulary of the Algarve, the birth place of Albricoque’s chef, Bertílio Gomes. But the approach to food and service is new. Every recipe has been refined to make it more appealing. The character of the restaurant, imparted by features such as the original floor paved with hydraulic tiles, was preserved. But modern amenities, unthinkable in 1905, have been added.

Everything on the menu is delicious. Our meal began with a plate of olives that tasted like sausage because of the way in which they were fermented. There was also a salad made with the purple carrots that were common in the Algarve in old times. Then, the feast continued: savory muxama (cured tuna), plump oysters from Ria Formosa, crispy rissois de berbigão (cockle turnovers), silky alhada de raia (manta ray with garlic), extraordinary marinated carapau (horse mackerel) combined with figs and toasted almonds and served on shinzo leafs.

Chef Bertílio likes to explore the methods for preserving food used in the Algarve before refrigerators became common. He salts a fish called abrótea then hangs it in the cold for a couple of days to drain its liquid. The result is an intense, satisfying taste reminiscent of that of salted codfish.

We didn’t order the fried moreia (moray), because it is usually greasy and chewy, but the chef brought a plate to the table for us to try. It was very thinly sliced and perfectly fried, a revelation of flavor, texture and aroma. The meal ended on a sweet note with almere, a dessert made with the liquid that is left from the making of requeijão, flavored with thyme and pine nuts.

If you’re near Santa Apolónia, stop by Taberna Albricoque to try its delicacies. If you’re far, come to Santa Apolónia for the privilege of dining at Taberna de Albricoque.

Taberna Albricoque is located at Rua Caminhos de Ferro nº98, Lisboa, tel. 21 886 1182, email reservas@albricoque.pt.

The shark’s beach

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Roger Sobreiro, an American wine merchant of Portuguese descent, recommended a small restaurant called A Praia do Tubarão (the shark’s beach) that is his safe harbor when he visits Portugal. We drove to the picturesque town of Costa Nova to try it out.

The restaurant’s facade is painted with the traditional red and white stripes used to decorate fishermen houses. The same red and white palette dominates the cosy interior where Adriano Ferreira, the owner, was waiting for us. He has worked in Costa Nova for 50 years, first as a waiter and then, in the last three decades, together with his wife at A Praia do Tubarão.

“I hunt and fish and all hunters and fishermen are liars,” he said as a way of introduction. Despite this forewarning, we asked Adriano to choose our lunch menu.  “Most of our food is served in the pots where it is cooked: caldeiradas (boulliabaisses) , “ensopados,” and seafood rices. We follow two simple rules: everything is fresh and everything is cooked to order,” he explained.

Adriano went into the kitchen and returned with a plate of petinga (small sardines) and tiny fried balls of berbigão rice. Then, he poured two generous glasses of the wonderful Duas Quintas white from Ramos Pinto. The petinga was crisp, hot, luxuriously fresh and perfectly fried. The rice balls were flavorful and deeply satisfying.

We ate an “ensopado,” a plate made with fish, potatoes, onions, garlic, and olive oil. It is seasoned with “sal d’unto,” a salt and lard combination. It comes with a sauce called “alhada,” made from garlic, lemon and piri piri. The flavors blend to create a unique taste and aroma. The quality of the ingredients and the cooking is superb.

Dessert was a small bowl of the traditional “ovos moles,” a convent sweet made with egg yolks and sugar. The meal ended with a vibrant espresso made with Delta’s famous diamond blend.

We said goodbye to Adriano and promised to be back soon to this welcoming place that serves delicious traditional food.

A Praia do Tubarão is located at Rua José Estevão, 136, Costa Nova Prado, Ilhavo, tel. 234 369 602.