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.

 

A comet called Noélia

Noélia composit

“One good thing about Winter is that it is easier to dine at Noélia” our Algarve friends told us. “In the Summer it is impossible to get in.” Curious, we made reservations a week in advance.

As soon as we sat down in this seaside restaurant in the village of Cabanas, we knew we were in for something special. There was a festive atmosphere and the aromas of the sea filled the air.

The restaurant is noisy but our waiter was a mind reader who guessed what we wanted without the need for much verbal communication. And so a perfectly chilled bottle of sparkling wine arrived, followed by a plate of steamed langoustines. “They were caught this morning” the waiter told us. “I know you’ll like them.” We were so impressed by the crustaceans’ exquisite taste that we vowed never to eat frozen seafood again.

Our main dish was rice with lemon, corvina, and conquilhas, small cockles that only exist in the Algarve. We appreciated in silence the sublime combination of flavors. A Dom Rodrigo, a sweet combination of fios de ovos (egg threads) and almonds, rounded the meal.

Noélia, the chef, seemed to be everywhere: cooking, talking to regulars, giving instructions to the staff, making final adjustments to the plates before they were brought out. She is a culinary comet that brightens everything she touches.

Suddenly, she arrived at our table and asked: “did you like the food?” “We loved it,” we replied. “But we’re sorry we’re too full to try other dishes.” “Next time order oyster risotto and favas with cuttle fish,” she said. “I get up at 6:00 am to make sure I buy the best oysters in Algarve.” And she was gone as quickly as she had arrived.

Outside, the moon was painting the sea with its silver light. But no one in the restaurant paid any attention. The moon cannot compete with a comet called Noélia.

The Restaurante Noélia & Jerónimo is located in the village of Cabanas near Tavira, Algarve at Rua da Fortaleza, Edifício Cabanas-Mar, Loja 6, tel, 281370649. Reservations are a must.

 

A roadside restaurant

Composit Pombal

Before highway A1 was built, it took a long time to drive from the north of Portugal to Lisbon. To make the trip easier to endure, our parents liked to stop at a small roadside restaurant in Pombal called Manjar do Marquês. As soon as we sat down, we were served a delicious tomato rice with a choice of accompaniments, such as codfish cakes, veal milanese, or fried hake.

After a long hiatus, we recently returned to Manjar do Marquês. We entered the restaurant’s new premises just off highway A1 with some trepidation. What if the food is not as wonderful as we remember it? Would we destroy our childhood memories? Luckily, some things never change: the tomato rice is as appetizing as ever.

We asked the owner, Maria Graça, what makes her rice taste so good. She smiled and answered: “My husband really wanted to have a restaurant. I worked for the phone company and had no cooking experience. But I was very much in love with him, so I quit my job to become a cook. My food was different because everything I did, I did with love. And that continues to be true.”

Today Maria Graça is 84 years old and still works 10 hours a day at the restaurant. Could her hearty tomato rice be the key to longevity?  It’s worth stopping by Manjar do Marquês to find out.

Manjar do Marquês is located on Estada Nacional 1 (IC2), Pombal, 170 km north of Lisbon, tel. 236-218-818. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

Eating by the sea in Azores

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Beira Mar, a family-owned restaurant in the Azores island of Terceira, has been a favorite dinning destination for four decades. It is always busy so, if you don’t have a reservation, you’ll probably have to wait for a table.

The service is orchestrated by a small troupe of waiters who move with elegance and speak with eloquence about fish and seafood. We could not tell whether they had trained as ballet dancers or as marine biologists.

Our meal started with “cracas,” a local type of seafood that has a delicate crab-like meat and a wonderful salty juice. We then sampled some orange delicacies called “lapas” that were briny and full of flavor.

Next, we had some amazing boca negra (black mouth), a fish that in continental Portugal we call cantaril. We also tried some wonderful species that were new to us: cântaro, bicudas, and lírio. They were all incredibly fresh and arrived at the table grilled to perfection. Terras de Lava, a white wine from the nearby Pico island, was the perfect complement to all this bounty from the sea.

Beira Mar is a simple place; no money was wasted on decoration or fancy silverware. And yet, the restaurant feels luxurious because we can enjoy the sunset over the harbor while feasting on the precious flavors of the sea. It is the kind of luxury we love.

Beira Mar’s address is Canada do Porto, number 46, São Mateus, Terceira, Azores, tel.  295 642 392. Reservations are highly recommended.

A tavern called Wednesday

Quarta-Feira rest composite

André Freire, the manager of the beautiful Évora pousada, urged us to try a tavern called Quarta Feira (the Portuguese word for Wednesday). “It’s a special place,” André said with a smile. “There’s no menu; you have to trust Zé Dias, the owner, and go with the flow.”

As soon as we entered the restaurant, we became friends with Zé Dias. He moved to Évora from a village in Beira Alta called Quarta Feira, the name he used for the restaurant. Dias worked as a typographer until he opened this tavern 25 years ago with Luisa Batista, a great local cook.

Dias’ enthusiasm for food, wine and life in Alentejo is infectious. Everything he serves comes from people he knows well, from the producers of cheese and sausages to the maker of the clay pots that are integral to Luisa Batista’s cooking. When we asked Dias how he managed to convince Paulo Laureano, a renowned Portuguese enologist, to make the house wine for Quarta Feira, Dias replied “Of course he said yes; we’ve been friends for a long time.”

Our dinner started with slices of local sausages and prosciutto made with black pork from Alentejo. Then a warm sheep cheese seasoned with oreganos arrived, busting with flavor. Next, we had some wonderful mushrooms cooked in mushroom water, seasoned with olive oil, garlic and coriander. “The secret is all in the timing,” Dias tells us and we believe him because at this point we believe everything he says.

The meal’s main event was the house specialty: black iberian pork shoulder marinated in wine cooked slowly in a clay pot. It was so delicious that our taste buds scintillated with delight. The dessert was composed of dried figs, walnuts, cooked quince, and samplings of two conventual desserts.

The meal ended with a glass of licoroso from Herdade do Mouchão. This sweet wine with notes of fruits and spices was a perfectly simple ending to a simply perfect meal.

Zé Dias is a philosopher king who disguises as a tavern owner so that he can share with his guests the joy of living in Alentejo.

Taberna Típica Quarta Feira is on Rua do Inverno 18, Évora, tel. 266 707 530.

Noah surf house

Noah Composit

If you’re looking for the perfect place for a romantic date, we suggest you try Noah Surf House, a restaurant in the Santa Cruz beach, 40 miles north of Lisbon.

The restaurant building is minimalistic, designed to frame the gorgeous ocean views. The space is furnished with colorful tables and benches made from reclaimed wood, as if to stress that everything on the beach is a gift from the sea. The sea is also the inspiration for the menu, which includes clams Bulhão Pato, fish soup, shrimp with garlic, octopus salad, seafood rice, and fried fish with tomato rice.

If you go to Noah for lunch during Fall or Winter you might have the privilege of having this magical place to yourself. If you go for dinner during Spring or Summer, you’re likely to find the restaurant full of beautiful people who gather here to enjoy the setting of the sun.

It is impossible not to fall in love with Noah. And it is easy to fall in love with the person who brought you there.

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