Enchantment at Ceia

Standing in the shadow of Lisbon’s old pantheon, we knock on an inconspicuous door that opens into a courtyard erected in 1728. On our right is the entrance to one of Lisbon’s most hallowed dining rooms: a restaurant called Ceia. Those who’ve been here before experienced much more than superb food, exquisite wines, and courteous service. We had an enchanted evening.  

João Rodrigues, Ceia’s owner, is an alchemist who knows how to transform a meal that nourishes the body into a celebration that nurtures the soul. He gathered a star team, headed by chef Diogo Caetano and sous-chef Tiago Silva, and trusted them with precious ingredients: pristine organic produce freshly picked at Herdade do Tempo in Alentejo.

Ivo Custódio, the sommelier, greets us with an old acquaintance: a white wine made by Luís Mota Capitão, the iconoclast winemaker of Herdade do Cebolal. We enjoy the wine and the conversation with the other guests. Then, Ivo invites us into the dining room. We gather around a long wooden table to hear him explain that the meal is a journey through Portugal’s culinary and enological landscapes.

The voyage starts at the bottom of the ocean with tuna tartare on crunchy seaweed crackers, seaweed sponge cake, and gooseneck barnacles. An Atlantis rosé made with Negra Mole on the Madeira Island enhances the sea flavors.

We rise to the ocean’s surface with the taste of briny oysters paired with tart apples from Alcobaça and seaweed ice cream. The oysters come with a magnificent 2014 white wine from Colares, a small region near the sea where the vines, planted in the sand, survived the phylloxera scourge that decimated Europe in the 19th century. Made by Chitas (the nickname of an old producer called Paulo da Silva) it is a complex wine that fascinates and delights.

We arrive at the beach with a delicately cooked turbot seasoned with smoky olive oil powder and served in a Bulhão Pato sauce. It is so delicious we barely resist the urge to ask for seconds. 

But we find new joys in the lowlands where a sourdough bread fermented for three days and a cornbread baked with dried fruits await us. They come with Amor é Cego, a piquant oil made from Galega olives. There are also plates of luscious butter from Pico, an island in the Azores archipelago.

Ivo serves an elegant 2012 red from Quinta de Lemos in the Dão region. It is made with Jaen–a grape varietal brought to Portugal by pilgrims who traveled to Santiago de Compostela. Like the wine, the conversation flows freely around the table.

In the plains, there is rabbit served with an ice cream made from escabeche, a traditional sauce prepared with vinegar and olive oil. Kompassus, a sparkling wine made from Baga, a red grape from Bairrada, refreshes our palate. 

We climb up the mountain with a roasted purple cabbage dressed with a pennyroyal and champagne sauce. It comes with Sousão, a vibrant red wine from Vale da Raposa in the Douro valley. 

At the top of the mountain, we taste pigeon and potatoes from Trás-os-Montes served with a fermented garlic sauce. There’s also a mystery box with a delightful croquette and a scrumptious Philo-dough cup filled with sorrel leaves. 

Ivo serves a celebratory Breijinho da Costa, a fortified wine made in Setúbal with purple muscatel grapes. The meal ends with sweet fireworks: a noisette pave, petals of roasted peach, thyme ice cream, and lemon curd. And there are mignardises: a traditional Abade de Prisco pudding, coconut biscuits, cinnamon and strawberry truffles.  

Everybody lingers around the table feeling a sense of camaraderie. Then, we say our thanks and goodbyes and walk into the warm night in a state of enchantment. 

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

An unforgettable supper at Ceia

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This article describes our experience in Ceia when Pedro Pena Bastos was the chef. Pedro is now at Cura. Ceio has a new star team, headed by chef Diogo Caetano.

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.