Stopping for lunch on the way to Algarve

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If you’re traveling on the highway from Lisbon to the Algarve, resist the temptation to have a quick bite at a highway stop. Drive instead the 9 km from the highway to Grândola, a town in the middle of Alentejo, to enjoy a proper meal at “A Talha de Azeite” (the Olive Oil Amphorae). The restaurant is run by a couple with a reserved demeanor, Celina and Luís Gonçalves. Celina heads the kitchen and Luís manages the dining room.

Grândola has been famous since ancient times as a hunting ground. Luís used to organize wild boar hunts. Celina prepared such appetizing food for Luís to eat in the middle of the day that the other hunters pooled some money and asked Celina to cook for everybody.

These hunter lunches gathered fame and the couple decided to open a restaurant. Twelve years ago, they found a room with an old olive press inside a shopping center. They converted it into restaurant, using the red amphoras that once stored olive oil for decoration.

A Talha de Azeite serves home-cooked meals prepared with the traditional recipes from Alentejo. We tried codfish with “migas gatas,” a delicious bread preparation. It was followed by arroz de canivetes (razor clam rice) that combined the briny taste of the seafood with the earthy flavors of red and green peppers. Finally, we had grilled “secretos” a fatty cut of black port thinly sliced and seasoned to perfection.

When we asked for the check, Luís told us it would be a mistake to leave without tasting Celina’s famous baked chocolate mousse. The mousse was indeed delicious. He also recommended that we come back for the wild boar and the fried eels when they are in season. We dully marked our calendars.

A Talha de Azeite is located at Rua Dom Nuno Álvares Pereira Loja 17 C.C. in Grândola, tel. 269 086 942.

 

Sweet gratitude

Casa do Gato Preto

The recipe for Sintra’s queijadas was created in the 13th century by friar João da Anunciação at the Penha Longa convent. We know that the voluptuously thin crust is made with flour, lard, water, and salt. And that the indulgent filling has requeijão (a ricotta-style cheese), egg yolks, and two ingredients added in the 15th century: sugar and cinnamon. Each pastry store in Sintra has its own secret version of the recipe.

What are the best queijadas in Sintra? We’ve been pondering on this question for years, but the answer still eludes us. When we try the queijadas at Piriquita, we think nothing can be better. But then we taste the queijadas from Pastelaria Gregório and we fall in love with the crispness of the shell and the sweetness of the filling. Lately, we went to Casa do Preto and were astonished by the harmonious marriage of filling and shell.

One thing we know: these queijadas lift our minds above everyday concerns and fill our souls with sweet satisfaction. Thank you friar João!

Casa do Preto is located at Estr. Chão de Meninos 40, in Sintra, tel. 21 923 0436.

 

A noble crab soup

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Almost three decades ago, a friend took us to a new restaurant called Nobre in the Ajuda neighborhood. The name, which means noble, came from the surname of the chef, Justa Nobre. We recall with fondness the meals we enjoyed there. After a successful run, Nobre closed so that the chef could pursue other projects,

Last week, the same friend invited us for lunch. We were delighted to discover that we were going to a new restaurant that marks Justa Nobre’s return to Ajuda. It is called “À Justa,” an expression based on the chef’s first name that means “just right.”

The menu offers a cuisine without foreign accents that has the satisfying taste of authenticity. The recipes are grounded in the cooking of Justa’s grandmothers. But they are not a copy of the past. They reflect years of refinements shaped by the personality and creativity of this self-taught chef.

The restaurant was full. The Portuguese like to flirt with contemporary food trends but they always come back to their one true love, which is the traditional cooking of Portugal.

We had a great meal that included bright green fava beans, chickpeas with codfish, codfish “pataniscas,” and fried cuttlefish. These delights were preceded by a classic of Justa Nobre’s repertoire: the spider crab soup. Its aristocratic taste makes all other seafood soups in Lisbon look common by comparison.

Many chefs keep their secrets, but Justa generously shared some of her recipes in a book titled Passion for Cooking. We translate her recipe for spider crab soup below. But you must try the original at À Justa where they make it just right.

 

Justa Nobre’s spider crab soup

Ingredients: 2 large spider crabs weighing about 1 kg. each, 3 liters of water, 3 tablespoons of sea salt, 150 grams of margarine, a large onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a parsley bunch, a sliced fennel head, 4 tablespoons of tomato paste, half liter of cream, 0.1 liter of dry white port, one teaspoon of powdered ginger, one teaspoon of saffron, 2 tablespoons of potato starch.

Preparation: Boil the crabs in the salted water for 8 minutes. Remove them, let then cool off and extract all the meat. Return the shells to the pan. Add some shrimp shells and let them boil for 10 minutes. In a large pot, melt the margarine and add the sliced onion, fennel and garlic. Let these ingredients cook briefly and then add the white port, the cream, the tomato paste, the spices, and two liters of the crab broth. Mix the potato starch with some cold water and add it to the soup. Check the seasoning and strain the soup. Add the crab meat and serve the soup it in the shell of the spider crab.

À Justa is located at Calçada Ajuda 107, in Lisbon. The restaurant seats only 36 people, so reservations are a must. Call 21 363 0993 or email reservas@ajusta.pt. Click here for Justa Nobre’s web site.

 

A restaurant called Romando

Rest. Romando

Call us old fashioned, but we don’t like to outsource our choice of restaurants to trip advisor. So, we contacted a friend who’s a bon vivant to ask whether he could recommend a good place for lunch near Vila do Conde. “Make reservations at Romando,” he said without hesitating. “It’s been around forever, serving great traditional food.” We duly called the restaurant and drove to the address they gave us. We arrived at a brand-new building decorated with modern furniture. Could this be the right place?

As soon as the first course arrived–robalo (sea bass) with shrimp rice–we knew that we were indeed at the right place. The fish had been filleted and cooked in the oven seasoned only with salt and olive oil. It is a simple preparation, but the timing has to be precise in order for the freshness of the fish to sing. And sing it did, joined by a choir of shrimps wrapped in sea aromas and rice grains dressed in tomato robes.

Next, our waiter brought us codfish cooked with red pepper, onion, and diced prosciutto. It was deeply satisfying with all the great ingredients pulling together to make the overall taste much more than the sum of the individual flavors. Finally, we tried some tender, succulent grilled meats accompanied by crispy French fries and flavorful beans.

As far as dessert is concerned, it suffices to say that Romando’s puddings, tarts and cakes tempt the most virtuous souls to indulge in gluttony.

Rosa and Armando Pena opened the restaurant soon after they got married, more than a quarter of century ago. Rosa was in charge of the kitchen and Armando managed the dining room. They combined their names and called the place Romando.

The restaurant quickly gathered fame. But the secret of their success is that they never rested on their laurels. They kept evolving, searching for better ingredients, upgrading the quality of the service and, more recently, renovating the restaurant premises. At the same time, the cooking stayed grounded in the techniques of Portuguese cuisine and in the love and commitment that inspired Rosa and Armando to combine their names.

Romando is located at Rua da Fonte, nº221 in Árvore near Vila do Conde, tel. 252 641 075. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.

Optimism is the best recipe

Composit Optimista

There’s an elegant 17th century palace in Bairro Alto that once belonged to the grandfather of the Marquis of Pombal. The palace, which remains beautiful despite its decadence, was converted into an art center called Carpe Diem in 2009. Hidden inside the center was a cafeteria that served delicious food designed in collaboration with artists. The couple who managed the cafeteria, Rita Andringa and Filipe Rocha, also organized magical banquets in the rooms of the Pombal palace.

In July 2017, the Lisbon municipality decided to give the palace a different use and the cafeteria had to close. To continue their food adventures, Rita and Filipe hired two talented young chefs (Pedro Correia and André Andrade) and opened a restaurant. Decorated with a white unicorn and pieces of art from their favorite artists, it continues the tradition of combining art with delicious food that is original and thought provoking. Aware of the fact that food service is a risky venture, Rita and Filipe named their restaurant “The Optimist.” The couple felt encouraged when a friend remarked that “optimism is the best recipe.”

Our meal got off to a good start with bread that came with a delicious Bulhão Pato sauce, the traditional sauce that accompanies clams. A mushroom butter competed with the brilliant sauce for the bread’s attention.

Next, came the fava ceviche that had been recommended by Rita. It was a revelation: full of flavor and with a firm texture that is lost with traditional preparations. The meal continued with moist and rich oxtail croquettes that were accompanied by an appetizing rice made with fresh and dried tomato. Then a splendid codfish arrived topped by a poached egg and soaked in a flavorful broth made with garlic, herbs and seaweed.  Finally, a collection of pork cuts that had been marinated for 24 hours and slow cooked for 7 hours arrived at our table. Every minute of preparation was well spent to produce the resulting complex, satisfying flavors.

The restaurant was full but Rita made everyone feel at home while waves of beautiful plates with delicious food keep coming from the kitchen. We’re optimistic about this place!

The Optimista is located on Rua da Boavista 86 in Lisbon, tel. 21 346 0629. Click here for the restaurant’s web site. 

Mesa de Lemos

Composit Quinta de Lemos

The most elegant place to dine in the Beira region is called Mesa de Lemos. Located near the village of Canas de Senhorim, the building is ensconced in the ancient granite boulders and looks like an integral part of the landscape. It was built three years ago by Celso de Lemos to showcase the wonderful wines he produces in the winery that also bears his name.

The restaurant tables overlook the surrounding vineyards, making us feel as if we are dining in the middle of the vines. There’s a fixed menu with optional, but indispensable, wine pairings. The delicious food is created by chef Diogo Rocha who was born in Canas de Senhorim. He draws inspirations from local traditional recipes to produce food that is elegant and satisfying.

Our meal started with a joyous sparkling wine called Geraldine in honor of Celso’s daughter. It has very fine bubbles and an elegant brioche aroma that combines perfectly with Diogo Rocha’s appetizers, a set of preparations reminiscent of a picnic in the countryside.

Next came Dona Santana, a complex red made from the four emblematic varietals cultivated in the Dão region: Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz, Jaen, and Afrocheiro. It paired perfectly with the braised bízaro pork. The last entrée was codfish adorned with an ethereal parsley foam and paired with an elegant red wine made from a single varietal, Afrocheiro.

The dessert feast started with an interesting experimental fortified wine produced by the quinta. It continued with a cherry pudding and a salty ice cream made from requeijão, a pastry filled with a sweet bean paste and a chestnut-shaped concoction made from egg yolks.

The wines of Quinta de Lemos are diamonds that sparkle anywhere. But at Mesa de Lemos they have their perfect setting.

Click here for the Mesa de Lemos web site. The restaurant is located at Quinta de Lemos, Passos de Silgueiros, near Viseu, tel 961 158 503.

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.