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. 

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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.

The luxurious Dom Feijão

Dom Feijão

There are plenty of “tascas” in Lisbon, small informal restaurants that offer seasonal menus at low prices. But when locals want to have a nice meal with friends or family, they don’t go to a tasca. They prefer to pay a little bit more and eat at a neighborhood restaurant with better ingredients and service.

One of our favorite neighborhood restaurants in Lisbon is Dom Feijão (Sir Bean), a place with generous portions, modest prices and top-notch ingredients. What’s the catch? You have to be persistent to get a reservation or be prepared to wait for a table. The waiters don’t answer the reservations phone line when they’re very busy and they’re almost always very busy.

The restaurant is popular with families, on our last visit the place was full of grandparents, parents and children sharing the pleasures of the table.

Before we had time to open the menu, our waiter brought us some delicious fried marinated sardines and a plate of the same black-pork prosciutto they serve in heaven on special occasions.

We’d seen a large “sável,” a prized river fish, in the restaurant’s refrigerator so we asked the waiter whether we could order it. “Not today,” he replied “The sável has to be thinly sliced and marinated for a few hours. Sorry, but we cannot rush the preparation.”

We ordered instead poached cherne (sea bream). It was deliciously succulent, a reminder that when the ingredients are perfect, simple preparations are the best.

Next, we had grilled “secretos,” divine slices of fatty black pork. Two decades ago, these cuts of black pork were exported to Spain. Since then, the Portuguese have wised up and started consuming them. Exports suffered but our happiness boomed.

We ended the meal with some grilled codfish. The waiter asked what was our favorite part of the codfish so he could ask the chef to prepare it. Large tranches of codfish swimming with roasted potatoes in a sea of olive oil made our delights.

We told chef João Araújo how much we enjoyed the meal. “We’re a simple restaurant that serves traditional Portuguese food,” he said. “Our only luxury is the ingredients we use.”   This is, of course, the kind of luxury we fancy.

Dom Feijão is located near the posh Avenida de Roma at Largo Machado de Assis 7 D, tel. 21 846 4038. There’s a convenient paid garage underneath the restaurant. You can ask the waiter to validate your parking.

Belcanto

Composit Bel Canto

Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that Belcanto, the most celebrated restaurant in Lisbon, is close to the São Carlos opera house. Decorated with whimsical porcelain plates, the restaurant looks like a stage and its meals are as thrilling as a great opera performance.

Our lunch’s overture was composed of small bites often included in the couvert of traditional restaurants:  tremoços (lupini beans), olives, and a carrot and garlic salad. The presentation was unusual–they were served on top of Portuguese cobblestones. But the real surprise was that they all turned liquid once we bit into them, filling our mouth with explosions of flavor. This culinary prelude was accompanied by Vicentino, a wine from Zambujeira do Mar that left our paletes refreshed with hints of green pepper.

There were more surprises. First, a fake edible stone covered with salmon caviar. Then, crispy chicken skin with corn coriander and liver, a combination that tastes like roasted chicken. Next, a delicious algae cornet filled with tuna served inside a flower pot.

A genial waiter introduced a chorus of breads made from corn, buckwheat, quinoa, and puff pastry. Next came a duet for clams and “lingueirão” (razor clams) accompanied by a 1979 Porta dos Cavaleiros, a velvety red wine from the Dão region produced in the birth year of chef Avillez.

Then the arias started. The first was a Golden Egg–an egg cooked at a low temperature, covered with gold leaf and adorned with threads of fried leek. It arrived with a lively Arinto white wine made by António Maçanita in Pico, a volcanic island in the Azores archipelago.

The second aria was called Ocean Dive: a pristine sea bass (robalo) cooked in sea water with seaweed, “salicórnia” (samphire), razor clams, and mussels. We were still savoring the final chords of this crowd pleaser when a new theme was introduced: a flavorful remake of the bucolic “cozido” that the chef’s grandmother used to prepare with boiled meats and cabbage. It came with a vigorous 2012 Bruto from the Douro region.

The performance reached its climax with another traditional recipe reinvented: the roasted piglet from Bairrada. We don’t know what culinary sorcery was used to produce this perfect combination of crispy skin and juicy roasted meat. All we can tell you is that the result is magical.

A new theme was introduced by a duo of pre-desserts: a raspberry sorbet and an “abade de priscos” pudding. They were followed by a tangerine dream made from frozen juice and filed with tangerine sorbet. Vila Oeira, a rare dessert wine from Carcavelos harmonized with these sweet delights. Coffee and mignardises brought our meal to a blissful finale.

You have to be patient to dine at Belcanto. The restaurant is booked for weeks in advance. But it’s worth the wait to experience such an unforgettable culinary performance.

Belcanto is located at Largo do São Carlos in Lisbon, tel. 21-342-0607.

 

 

Magano

Composit Magano

When lunch time comes, some Lisbon residents dream about being magically transported to the plains of Alentejo. “O Magano,” a restaurant in the Campo de Ourique neighborhood, is a place where these dreams come true. Open for more than a decade, it brings to the capital untranslatable Alentejo delights such as “pézinhos de coentrada” and “carne de alguidar.”

We told our waiter that we wanted to try a little of everything. “I can bring you the menu or you can leave it up to me,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes. We agreed to put him in charge and soon the table was covered with small plates of codfish with chickpeas, grilled peppers, favas with chouriço, miniature pies, green bean tempura, and marinated partridge with razor-thin fried potatoes.

“This was a wonderful lunch,” we said, complimenting our waiter on his choices “It’s not a problem if you want to skip it,” he said “but I had something else for you to try.” He went to the kitchen and brought back a steaming terrine of tomato broth. He carefully placed a piece of bread on each soup plate. Then, he poured the tomato broth and toped each piece of bread with a slice of grouper. The result was pure culinary satisfaction.

We made it clear that we didn’t have room for dessert. “I understand,” our waiter said with an enigmatic smile. He then brought us a plate with “queijadas,” “lérias,” “fidalgo,” and a Portuguese version of “îles flottantes.” “Just in case you change your mind and decide to end the meal on a sweet note,” he said. It was a pleasure to succumb to these temptations.

Magano means mischievous boy in the slang of Alentejo. Our waiter is a magano who knows that no one can resist the brilliant simplicity of the food of Alentejo.

O Magano is located at Rua Tomás da Anunciacão 52 in Lisbon, tel. 21 395 4522. Reservations are a must. 

The last harbor

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The existence of one of Lisbon’s best fish restaurants has been a closely guarded secret for more than half a century. Its name is “Último Porto” (the last harbor). Now that the secret is out, we might as well confess everything.

The restaurant is tucked away in the corner of one of Lisbon’s harbors (Rocha do Conde de Óbidos). It is not a glamorous place. But for fish lovers it is heaven.

There are tables inside and an esplanade surrounded by containers that is very pleasant when the weather is warm. It is easy to park and the walk to the restaurant is beautiful with the river in front of us and the city on our back.

“Último Porto” opens only for lunch and it is always full of locals. Grilled fish is the main event and the stars of the show are the “salmonetes” (mullets). Their skins are colored with yellow and orange hues, their flavors as bold as their colors. But, there are many other great choices, from sea bass to codfish.

Many restaurants showcase their fish in a refrigerated display. Others bring a fish platter to the table so that customers can choose what they want. At Último Porto, the fish is treated like a work of art—shielded from light and protected from the elements. It only leaves the refrigerator to go to the grill where it is cooked to perfection. It is this care that makes the last harbor our first choice for grilled fish in Lisbon.

Último Porto is located in the Estação Marítima Da Rocha Conde d’Óbidos, tel. 21 397 9498. It only serves lunch and reservations are a must. 

 

 

 

A poetic lunch in Alfama

composit-os-gazeteiros

We got lost in the old Alfama neighborhood on the way to a new restaurant called “Os Gazeteiros.” It is difficult paying attention to where we’re going when there’s so much to appreciate: quaint streets, beautiful tiles, ornate doors and ancient windows. GPS systems are befuddled by the confusing street names and the locals give conflicting directions. It is all so that Alfama can keep its secrets.

We called the restaurant to apologize for being late and we were reassured in a charming French accent that this was not a problem.  When we arrived, we learned that we had spoken with the chef, David Eyguesier.

David explained that lunch was a three-course fixed menu inspired by seasonal, organic products. He then retreated to the kitchen that overlooks the small dining room to work on our meal.

A fragrant aroma preceded the arrival of the first course: a vegetable rice cooked with garlic confit, accompanied by slivers of black pork sausage, baby watercress, and an arugula ice cream. The flavors were delicate, the combination harmonious and inventive.

We asked David where he learned how to cook. “The name of the restaurant is the answer,” David replied smiling. “Gazeteiros are students who skip school to have fun. I’ve never been to culinary school. It’s ironic that the restaurant is located on Rua das Escolas Gerais (General Schools street).”

“So, how did you end up opening a restaurant in Alfama?” we asked, curious. “I fell in love with a woman who brought me to Lisbon,” he confided. “I always cooked for friends and I was inspired by the quality of the Portuguese produce. There are amazing products that sell for a fraction of what they would cost in Paris. Opening a restaurant to cook with these ingredients was a natural idea.”

David returned to the kitchen and we sat back enjoying the sight of the colorful trams that pass periodically right by the restaurant.

The second course was a culinary poem composed of seared sea bream, radishes pickled in cider vinegar, noori and fish broth.

The dessert was a sumptuous trio of pears marinated in ginger syrup, a walnut crumble, and a cream of “requeijão” infused with vanilla, verbena and thyme.

Alfama has a new secret: a restaurant run by a culinary poet. Reserve a table before the word gets out.

Os Gazeteiros is on Rua das Escolas Gerais, 114-116, Lisbon, tel. 218-860-399, 939-501-211