Leopoldo Calhau’s tavern in Mouraria

Taberna do Calhau

Leopoldo Calhau, a gourmet architect who became a chef, opened a restaurant in Mouraria, an old Lisbon neighborhood.  The courtyard outside the restaurant offers a classic view of Lisbon: the walls of St. Jorge’s caste against a cerulean blue sky. But once you step inside the restaurant, you are in Alentejo. All the furniture and decor came from an old tavern in Beja. The menu offers a creative interpretation of the rustic food of Alentejo that is deliciously fun.

Our dinner started with an unusual combination of flavors that worked well together: eggs and peppers served in a bouillabaisse sauce. We then had a bowl of shrimp with minced lupini beans and garlic dressed with olive oil. This preparation is inspired by an old saying that lupini beans are the seafood of those who are broke. Another inventive dish followed: grilled vegetables and codfish confit served with a magical combination of coriander, olive oil and garlic traditionally used to cook clams Bulhão Pato style. Next, we had pork cheeks with an amazing sauce. Leopoldo would not reveal its ingredients other than saying that it is an Alentejo version of the sauce used in the francesinha, a popular sandwich in Oporto. Dessert was simply delicious: pears roasted in olive oil and sugar served in a wine made from pears poached in wine.

The tavern serves small plates meant for sharing that cost between 5 and 10 euros and offers interesting wines and olive oils from Alentejo. At Taberna do Calhau every meal is a party.

Taberna do Calhau is located on Largo das Olarias 23, tel. 21 585 1937.

Taberna Salmoura

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After failing to get a table at Taberna Sal Grosso, we walked the narrow, winding streets of Alfama towards Taberna Salmoura. The name of the restaurant appealed to us.  Salmoura is the Portuguese word for brine, a mixture of water and salt traditionally used to tenderize meat and enhance its flavor.

Taberna Salmoura is owned by Joaquim Saragga, the chef of Taberna Sal Grosso, together with Filipe Ramalho, an interior designer turned restaurateur. The concept of the two taverns is similar—traditional recipes cooked with local, seasonal ingredients–but Taberna Salmoura is more spacious and offers a different menu.

The restaurant was full but we found some seats in a large communal table by the kitchen. Filipe suggested we order a few dishes to share. We tried two xeréms (a version of polenta popular in the Algarve) one with duck and the other with a cockle called berbigão. Next, came rissóis stuffed with a manta ray filling, a salad made with snap peas, fava beans, turnip and peanuts. The grand finale was an oxtail pie. Everything was tasty and satisfying.

It is wonderful to find a restaurant with modest prices that does not compromise on the quality of the food it serves. When we congratulated Filipe, he told us that his dream was to create the kind of restaurant where he would like to eat regularly. At Taberna Salmoura he made this dream came true.

Taberna Salmoura is located at Rua dos Remédios 98 Alfama, Lisboa, Portugal, tel. 968711094.

 

 

Taberna Sal Grosso

Taberna Sal Grosso

When we arrived at number 22, Calçada do Forte in Lisbon’s old Alfama neighborhood, there was a group of people congregated around the door. They were all trying to get a table in a small restaurant called Taberna do Sal Grosso (Coarse Salt Tavern). An exasperated waiter explained that he could not bend the laws of physics to accommodate more guests. No one was happy with the news that miracles could not be made. We too walked away disappointed. But we were so intrigued by the tavern’s atmosphere that we made reservations for lunch two days later.

As soon as we sat for lunch, it became obvious why the place is so popular. It serves delicious food with a happy vibe at modest prices. This trio of qualities is rare. It is hard to keep the quality of the food consistent and feel happy about serving inexpensive meals. Joaquim Saragga, the chef and owner, manages to do it because because he views his restaurant as more than just a business.

Joaquim lost his job, so he decided to change his life. When he was a student in London,  he used to cook for his roommates. He remembered feeling happy in the kitchen, so he enrolled in culinary school and went on to complete a Masters in gastronomy.

When he opened the tavern in 2015, he shunned the tricks that most eateries use to become more profitable. There are no couvert charges. He serves only two inexpensive but very drinkable house wines and a few artisanal beers. Desserts are modestly priced.

“I’m not trying to innovate, only to serve my favorite traditional recipes prepared with local, seasonal ingredients. I cook the food I like to eat.” he told us. Everything we tried was perfect: a watercress and orange salad, codfish cakes, manta ray and garlic, oxtail with quince, codfish and chickpeas.  “I needed to create my own job,” he explained, “but I also wanted to create a place where people feel at home.”

We proposed to take a photo of the staff at the door of the restaurant but then another wave of guests came in. Joaquim asked one of the chefs and the waiters to pose for us but he stayed inside the restaurant, clearing the tables and welcoming people. It is this dedication to serving others that make Taberna do Sal Grosso such a special place.

Taberna do Sal Grosso is located at Calçada do Forte, 22. Reservations are a must. They do not accept phone reservations. Reservations can only be made by sending a message through Facebook. You need to receive a confirmation in order for the reservation to be valid.

Where great views and delicious food go together

EPUR

It is often said that restaurants with good views serve lousy food. This aphorism doesn’t apply to EPUR, chef Vincent Farges’ new restaurant in Lisbon. Its windows offer beautiful views of the Tagus river and the rooftops of downtown Lisbon. But, once the food arrives, it is hard to choose between looking out the window and admiring the elegance of the sustenance on our plate. When we taste the food, our brain’s ability to process pleasurable sensations has to stretch even further.

Served on graceful white plates, the food looks ready for a Vogue photoshoot. Its beauty is not superficial, it stems from the quality of the ingredients and the meticulous preparations.

We tried a flavorful rabbit rillette with foie gras, seasoned with pear vinegar, a delicate avocado mousse topped with crispy Galician cabbage, the type of cabbage used to make caldo verde. Our lunch ended with a sumptuous soup starring a trio of marvelous fish: manta ray, sea bass, and monkfish.

It is hard to think of a better place to meet Lisbon for a lunch date than at Vincent Farge’s EPUR.

EPUR is located at Largo da Academia Nacional de Belas Artes 14, Lisboa, tel. 21 346 0519.

 

The sea tavern

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A dinner at A Taberna do Mar (the sea tavern) is a culinary plunge into the waters of Sesimbra, Trafaria and Costa da Caparica. These are the beaches near Lisbon where chef Filipe Rodrigues sources his fish.

Filipe was born in the Algarve. His grandparents were cannery workers who taught him some of the secrets of the sea. He discovered other secrets on his own, through years of hard work. After creating the menu for several popular restaurants, Filipe decided to open his own place. It is a cozy tavern with ancient stone walls and a quaint tile floor.

You can order a la carte or choose a menu prepared by the chef. Feeling adventurous, we went for the menu. The feast began with a warm tortilla decorated with cuttlefish ink topped with a cream of lupini beans, mint, and sea fennel, a plant that grows on sandy dunes. Then, we enjoyed a carob bun stuffed with dried horse mackerel accompanied by a miso mayonnaise. It came with a dumpling stuffed with tender veal tongue, seaweed and mushrooms. It was moist and delicious. We went back to the sea with a plate of sarrejão sashimi. Sarrejão is a fish from the bonito family that shines brightly when it is very fresh.

We were still savoring this delight when Filipe brought us his version of muxama. This prosciutto of the sea, made by salting and drying the best parts of the tuna, has been produced in the Algarve since Roman times. Filipe marinated the tuna in a mixture of soy and moscatel wine before he dried it. The muxama came with an exuberant combination of pumpkin pickle, sushi rice and a large shrimp from Algarve called “carabineiro.”

An appetizing bread seasoned with sardine sauce and a tasty mackerel soup came next. They were followed by xerem, an Algarve version of polenta, with berbigão and seaweed. Then the air filled with the aroma of grilled sardines that came from a tray where the sardine nigiri was being prepared. Our taste buds jumped for joy while the sardine melted in our mouth.

Filipe asked us whether we would like to repeat any of the items from the menu. We answered in unison:  yes, we would love some more sardine nigiri!

The meal ended with three desserts: a carob mousse served with tangerine sorbet, a bread pudding and a crème brulée where the milk was replaced with a berry puree.

A Taberna do Mar is a place where East meets West, where Japanese cooking techniques are used to recreate Portuguese flavors with delicious results.

Taberna do Mar is located at Calçada da Graça 20 B, in Lisbon, tel. 21 093 9360.

 

An unforgettable supper at Ceia

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If food was just fuel for the body, how come there are meals that linger in our memory as incandescent moments? One of these moments was a lunch amid the vineyards of Herdade do Esporão prepared by a young chef called Pedro Pena Bastos. Another such moment was a recent dinner at a new Lisbon restaurant called Ceia, the Portuguese word for supper. The setting was different but the chef was the same.

We were received in the spacious courtyard outside the Ceia dining room by sommelier Mário Marques. He offered us a choice of two welcome drinks: cherry kombucha or a natural sparkling wine from Quinta da Serradinha. The drinks came with plates of beet beignets served with smoked codfish eggs. Like everything else in this enchanted evening, these choices seemed unusual until we tried them and perfect once we tried them.

Mário invited us into the serene dining room where a long wooden table awaited 14 lucky guests. Pedro welcomed us with three tantalizing bites: Jerusalem artichokes, French toast with seaweed and cockles, and venison from Alentejo served with fermented walnuts and black olives. They were followed by a precious taco made with rose prawns from Algarve, beetroot pearls and yuzu.

A Japanese-inspired tomato broth with mackerel and broccoli showcased Pedro’s ability to create unusual combinations that work perfectly. Then, a large oyster shell from Alvor was placed on the table surrounded by bowls with sweet oysters, fermented asparagus and lima caviar. We were still savoring this intense taste from the sea when flavors from the woods arrived: grilled Hokkaido pumpkin, mushrooms, and a beurre blanc made with Indian cress.

The service progressed with the pace of a sacred ritual that has been perfected throughout the ages. Alexandre Coelho, our amiable server, invited us to visit the adjacent room where chefs place final touches on their next offerings. It is fascinating to observe the choreographed precision that produces such refined food.

Each guest received a bowl of pasta, only it was not pasta—it was the freshest squid, delicately cooked, cut like tagliatelle and served with a sauce made with bergamot zest, hazelnuts and pickled onions. The flavors of the sea continued with a line-caught robalo (sea bass) dressed with chanterelle mushrooms, marjoram and fennel cooked in parsley oil.

A beautiful loaf of sourdough bread smoked with tomato and thyme created an intermission that separated the fish from the meat courses. It came with aged butter seasoned with salt from Castro Marim and a bright-green, spicy olive oil from Pedro’s family estate.

These rustic flavors prepared out palates for the next dish, a rectangular prism of slow-cooked bísaro pork jowl that melted in our mouths. The other meat course was a cylinder of beef from Simental cows, grilled on charcoal and adorned by collard greens and buckwheat.

Next, came a plate of lovage with compote, ganache and sorbet made from a huge Buddha’s hand lemon cultivated in Alentejo. The pungent citrus notes readied our palates for a trio of desserts made with enoki mushrooms, cocoa and quince.

Coffee, brewed in a double-globe glass coffee maker, was served with gum made from dehydrated beets and coriander, raspberry bonbons, and spicy cookies coated with a cream of turmeric and sweet potatoes.

Throughout the meal, Pedro Pena Bastos combines tastes, aromas, textures, and temperatures with the skill of a master orchestrator. His deep understanding of the subtle qualities of different ingredients allows him to create brilliant flavors and invent bold harmonies. The result is a culinary symphony that is unforgettable.

Ceia is located at Campo de Santa Clara, 128. Lisbon. Click here for the restaurant’s website.

 

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.