Pristine fish at Taberna do Valentim

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We met Valentim, the chef and owner of Taberna Valentim in Viana do Castelo, as soon as we entered the restaurant. He was working hard at the grill but took time to show us the superb mullets that had just been delivered. “The seas are often rough during Winter so at times we have to close the restaurant because we can’t find fresh fish of the quality we seek. These mullets came from Póvoa do Varzim. The sea was rough yet the fishermen still went out. Their fish is gorgeous but the they take too much risk to catch it.”

Taberna do Valentim has offered the same small menu for 40 years: pristine seasonal fish perfectly grilled, fish rice, “ensopado de peixe,” a fish stew prepared with white pepper and served on bread toasts, and caldeirada (bouillabaisse). The quality is high and prices are modest so the place is always packed.

After a very satisfying lunch, we resumed our conversation with Valentim.  “I started working when I was 8, serving glasses of wine and codfish cakes in my mother’s tavern,” he told us. “Then, I began to cook, so I’ve been cooking for a long time. But time is not what’s important. Passion is. Unless you have passion for what you do you’ll never be great at it.” This passion is evident in everything that comes to the table at Taberna Valentim.

Taberna Valentim is located at Avenida Campo do Castelo nº45 in Viana do Castelo, tel. 258-827-505.

Prado: the prairie in Lisbon

Prado Composit

Never underestimate the power of the light of Lisbon. Chef António Galapito was happily working at Nuno Mendes’ Taberna do Mercado in London when he was offered the opportunity to open a restaurant in Lisbon. Galapito said he was not interested. But he agreed to see the space.

It is a place full of memories, from Roman ruins to old fish-canning equipment from a factory that once operated there. The ceilings are high, making room for generous windows that invite the light in. It was impossible for Galapito to say no. He called the restaurant Prado, the Portuguese word for prairie, to signal his intention of bringing the best products from the fields of Portugal to his table.

The light became the inspiration for the menu. The food is simple, fresh, organic and seasonal. The wines are natural and biodynamic. The vibe is relaxed and the decoration minimalist.

We sat at a beautiful common table made from old pine wood. Our dinner started with a refreshing strawberry kombucha. Then, a plate of bread and goat cheese arrived at the table. The bread, fermented for 28 hours at Gleba, fused with the flavorful goat cheese and melted in our mouth.

The menu has many small plates that are perfect for sharing. We sampled several of these delights:  mussels, leeks, parsley and fried bread, cabbage cooked with sour milk and sunflower seeds, pleurotus mushrooms, with pimentão (a traditional pepper-based paste) and crunchy sarraceno wheat, green asparagus, requeijão and azedas, mackerel, mizuna, lettuce and tangerine, and finally, squid from Azores cooked in a pork broth.

Dinning at Prado is a wonderful opportunity to taste pristine produce harmoniously combined to create satisfaction and joy.

Prado is located at Travessa das Pedras Negras, 2, tel. 210 534 649, email info@pradorestaurante.com. Click here for the restaurant’s website. 

Quorum

Quorum Composit

Just when we thought we knew every great restaurant in Lisbon, we found Quorum in Chiado. We went in without knowing what to expect. An amiable waiter greeted us with a glass of refreshing apple and pineapple cider made at the restaurant. It tasted like a Summer ale and set the evening of to an auspicious start.

As soon as the appetizers arrived, we knew that the dinner would be memorable. The trio, composed of sausage bread, “pataniscas” (codfish fried in batter), and dried, grilled octopus, was deliciously appealing. Sommelier Bruna Esteves filled our glasses with an interesting white wine made from Malvasia at Adega Cooperativa de Torres Vedras.

The following course was a delectable ravioli made with rose shrimp from Algarve and served in a sauce prepared with prosciutto and sausages from the Barroso mountain. It was accompanied by a delightful red from the Douro valley called Oboé. Next, came another savory treat: clams, potatoes and beetroots.

Soon after, a plate with pork belly cooked at 65 degrees for 28 hours and then cured arrived at the table. It had a rich, satisfying taste that was perfectly complemented by Quinta do Arcossó, a bold red wine made in Trás os Montes with the bastardo varietal.

Dessert was a gorgeous combination of sour oranges from Alentejo, olive oil, honey, and poejo (pennyroyal). It was paired with a “licoroso” (dessert wine) made with Fernão Pires at Quinta da Alorna. It was a fabulous end to a fabulous meal.

Quorum’s chef, Tiago Santos, trained as a geographer before going to culinary school. He likes to wander throughout Portugal in search of unique products and producers. He prepares his culinary finds with meticulous techniques and an exuberant imagination that make his dining room one of the most exciting in Lisbon.

Quorum is located at Rua do Alecrim 30 B Lisboa, tel. 21 604 0375.

Attla

Attla Restaurant

After cooking around the world with Alain Ducasse and other starred chefs, André Fernandes moved with his partner Rita Chandre to Costa Rica in search of an exotic life filled with adventurous pursuits. They found a market for their talents catering luxurious events in spectacular natural settings. It was a blissful existence except for the feeling that the Portuguese call “saudade”: they missed Lisbon.  One day, this feeling became so strong that they packed their recipe notebooks and flew back home.

They opened a restaurant in the Alcantara neighborhood called Attla that serves fresh fish from the Atlantic coast and seasonal, biological products.  It is an intimate place with a relaxed vibe. We felt like we had been invited to a dinner party at a friend’s house. The food is wonderful, a combination of inventive textures and flavors that make the meal interesting and fun.

We tried many small plates that are perfect for sharing. Our dinner started with a “sarda,” a large Atlantic mackerel, adorned with Cordycep mushrooms, fried bread and a bechamel sauce made with miso and beer. It was followed by an extraordinary squid served with an ink curry, angel hair pasta and watercress. There were many more delights: artichokes with eggplant, sea spaghetti with a kefir emulsion, codfish with new onions and hazelnut chimichurri, royal mushrooms with cauliflower and Swiss chard, white asparagus with a palette of appetizing sauces, spicy blue shrimp with almond milk, bisque and potato noodle.

The dinner was brought to a perfect ending by a plate of strawberry and eucalyptus ice cream decorated with chocolate from Equador and a cracket made from hazelnut and carob.

Talking to André and Rita helped us understand why Lisbon is such a unique place. Young people travel the world looking for their vocation only to find that their talents shine most brightly in Lisbon.

Attla is located at Rua Gilberto Rola 65, email contact@attlarestaurant.com, telephone 21 1510555 and 93 250 9887. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.

 

 

 

 

 

The donkey’s shelter

Cozido no Pão

When we visited Moínho de Avis at Serra de Montejunto, Miguel Nobre showed us his new venture–a small restaurant sheltered from the wind with sprawling mountain views. It is called Curral do Burro (the donkey’s shelter) because it occupies the place where the donkey used to lodge. “Donkeys were a miller’s prized possession because they carted the bags of grain and flour back and forth, so they had to be well fed and protected from the elements,” Miguel explained.

Miguel used his skills as a carpenter to build the restaurant’s furniture. The menu offers simple, delicious food: mussels, clams, cockles, eggs with farinheira (a type of sausage), and grilled black pork.

The specialty is “cozido no pão” a combination of meats, sausages, potatoes, cabbage and carrots cooked in the oven inside bread. The vegetables have a glorious taste imparted by the sausages and the meat. It is a privilege to enjoy these deeply satisfying flavors on a mountain top, sheltered from the wind, away from it all.

Eating at Curral do Burro requires making reservations in advance by sending a Facebook message to Moínho de Avis, click here for the link.

 

 

Dining with the minister at Campo Maior

Taberna O Ministro

We strolled around in Campo Maior, a small town in Alentejo close to the border with Spain, looking for a place for lunch. We noticed a tavern called O Ministro (the minister) which was full of locals. There was a bottle of Caiado–the wonderful entry wine from Adega Mayor—on every table. Encouraged by these favorable omens, we decided to enter.

Traditional music played in the background, mostly fado tunes about the travails of love and the fickleness of life. Every now and then, a folk song from Alentejo came on and the locals raised their voices to sing along.

A plate with codfish cakes, slices of sausage, and green olives arrived at the table. We ordered “migas” made with bread and turnips and fried cação, a small shark that somehow manages to swim from the coast to the menus of Alentejo. We also ordered “carne do alguidar,” marinated pork loin. We were astonished by the quality of everything that came to the table. It was delicious and deeply satisfying food, with a perfect sense of time and place.

João Paulo Borrega, the chef and owner of this magical restaurant came out of the kitchen, and stoped by each table to ask whether people liked his food. “The food is fantastic,” we told him. “Can we make reservations for dinner and arrive a little early to talk to you?” Sure, he said with a bemused smile.

Late in the afternoon, he sat down to talk with us. Like most Alentejo cooks, he learned cooking from his mother and grandmother. His restaurant opened in 1989 and has changed location over the years. It is named after João Paulo’s father, a man whose role in the revolutionary days after April 1974 earned him the nickname “the minister.”

João Paulo tells us that the current restaurant location is ideal. “I want to cook by myself, and this space has the maximum number of tables I can comfortably handle.” He talks enthusiastically about his favorite recipes: fried rabbit, toasted chicken, chickpea soup, and ensopado de borrego (lamb stew).

“Why does your food taste so good?,” we asked. “I am going to show you my secret,” he said, inviting us into the small kitchen. He pointed to an old, tiny refrigerator. “Everything I use I buy fresh every day. That is why I have no freezer, just this small refrigerator. At the end of the day I give away any leftovers to my friends. The next day I start everything from scratch. Meats, fish, vegetables, herbs, sauces, everything has to be fresh.”

All his products are local and seasonal, produced by people he knows. He rattled off the names of the friends who supply him: the olive-oil maker, the farmer who plants the potatoes and onions, the person who chooses ripe melons for his table; the list goes on. The quality of his sourcing would make many three-star chefs envious.

João Paulo talks with great knowledge about the details of the different recipes and the properties of various herbs and spices. “People often use too much laurel. That is a mistake,” he says. “Laurel is very powerful and can overwhelm other ingredients.” “The cuisine of Alentejo does not require much fussing around,” he explains. “But the ingredients need to be first rate and the last flourishes before the dish is brought to the table have to be perfect. Some dishes are finished with white wine, others with vinegar, herbs play a key role.”

We sat down for a wonderful dinner. It started with toasted chicken perfumed with vinegar and prepared with olive oil, garlic and parsley. Then came a steaming chickpea soup with Alentejo sausages, Savoy cabbage, carrots, and mint. Next, we tried the fried rabbit. The meat had been  marinated with rosemary, thyme, pepper, white and red wine. Then it was stewed to perfection in a large iron-cast pan with olive oil, garlic, and some more wine. Delicious slices of ripe melon brought this memorable meal to a sweet finale.

No matter how much you travel, it is hard to find food that is as simply satisfying as the one served in this little tavern in Alentejo. If you have a chance, come to Campo Maior to dine with the minister.

Taberna O Ministro is located at Travessa dos Combatentes da Grande Guerra
Campo Maior, Portalegre, tel. 351-965-421-326.

A dinner in grape country

País das Uvas

Paulo Laureano recommended that we try O País das Uvas for dinner. “Sopa de Cardo (thistle soup) is one of their specialties,” he said.

The name of the restaurant, which means The Grape Country, is a literary reference. It is the title of a book by Fialho de Almeida, a writer born in 1857 in Vila De Frades, the Vidigueira village where the restaurant is located.

The restaurant is full of ancient amphoras inscribed with messages left by patrons praising the food and the hospitality. António Honrado told us that this place has been a tavern for more than a century. He bought it 17 years ago with his wife Jacinta to turn it into a restaurant.

In the early days, Jacinta’s mother was in charge of the cooking. But she was advanced in age and the work was hard. One day, Jacinta told her mother that they had hired a new cook who had come during the night to prepare the most popular dishes on the menu. Jacinta’s mother worried that hiring a new chef would worsen the quality of the food. But upon trying the different dishes she exclaimed: “They taste exactly like my cooking! Who prepared them?” “I did,” confessed Jacinta. Since that day, Jacinta has been the chef at O País das Uvas.

We ordered the famous Thistle Soup and Cozido de Grão, a traditional chickpea stew made with cabbage, carrots, potatoes, meats, and sausages. Both dishes have bold, satisfying flavors that made our taste buds fall in love with the simple ways of Alentejo.

After dinner, António and Jacinta invited us to see their discovery. When they did some construction on the restaurant, they uncovered a cellar that is many centuries old. It has a well-preserved clay-tile floor, graceful arches and a water well. They restored the cellar and devoted it to producing amphorae wine with the help of Paulo Laureano.

We bid farewell to António and Jacinta, promising to return. Then we went out into the warm Summer night, enchanted by the honesty of the food and the warmth of the people of Alentejo.

O País das Uvas is located at Rua General Humberto Delgado, nº19, Vila De Frades, Alentejo, tel. 284 441 023.