Lamprey is in season!

Lampreia (lamprey) is a very strange fish that, somehow, gained favor with emperors and kings. The Romans included it in banquets prepared for Julius Caesar. The oldest known Portuguese cookbook, a 16th century collection of recipes attributed to Infanta D. Maria, has a single fish recipe that describes how to prepare and cook lamprey.

You don’t have to conquer Gaul or marry royalty to eat lamprey. Many Portuguese restaurants offer this delicacy between January and April. It is usually served stewed, accompanied with rice. You find excellent lamprey at Solar dos Presuntos, a traditional Lisbon restaurant where you can dine like a king.

Restaurante Solar dos Presuntos, Rua das Portas de Stº Antão, 150, Lisbon. Tel. 21 342 42 53, GPS coordinates: 38º43’07″N and 9º08’51″O. Click here for their website. 

O Cantinho do Avillez

This small restaurant near Chiado has a funky, bohemian décor that makes it look like a theater set. The servers, all implausibly good looking and articulate, are clearly trained actors.

Chef José Avillez directs this food theater. He has great credentials, having apprenticed with Alain Ducasse and Ferran Adrià. Here he cooks traditional fare with original variations that create new layers of taste.

It is difficult to choose from the menu because everything is so delicious. There is vegetable tempura that is crunchy and crisp, savory partridge turnovers with an intense, gamey flavor, homemade canned tuna with a pungent mayonnaise of ginger and lime, sautéed chicken liver and grapes perfumed with Port wine, and so much more.

When you leave O Cantinho you feel like you’ve just seen a wonderful play that you would love to see again.

Rua dos Duques de Bragança, 7, Lisboa, tel. 21-199-2369. Click here for the restaurant’s website. Reservations are a must.

Pasteis de Belém

When you land in the Lisbon airport, there’s a heightened anticipation for what comes next. There’s the usual ritual of waiting in line, searching for your luggage, going through customs, all transforming you from in transit to landed. But here, arriving isn’t the best part. You drive out of the airport towards the river Tagus. As you get close, you first see the seagulls. Then, you see the Tower of Belém and the Jerónimos Monastery, monuments to the many “caravelas” that departed from a nearby dock. A marble Henry the Navigator leads a pack of explorers, pointing the way to the new world. But that’s not why you came here. You came here for a small pastry shop just down the road.

In 1834, the government closed down all Portuguese convents and monasteries. The friars of the Jerónimos Monastery needed a source of income. So, like other religious orders in Portugal, they used their ancient recipes to make pastries for sale. The Jerónimos monks made little cups of flaky pastry dough filled with custard and topped with cinnamon. All monastery pastries are delicious, but these “pasteis de Belém” are a piece of heaven. The recipe hasn’t changed since the pastry shop opened in 1837, and everything about it is shrouded in mystery. Only three master patissiers, who prepare the cream and dough in the “Oficina do Segredo” (secret workshop), know the recipe.

These pastries are ephemeral bites of cinnamon and warmth. They must be eaten right away, never saved for later. Every coffee shop in Portugal produces an imitation, but none quite captures the lightness of the dough, the creaminess of the filling. These imitations even bear a different name: “pasteis de nata.” Because there is only one place in the world where you can get “pasteis de Belém.”

Antiga Confeitaria de Belém, Rua de Belém, 84-92, Lisbon. Tel. 21-363-7423. Email: pasteisdebelem@pasteisdebelem.pt. Click here for website.

Beer and seafood in Lisbon

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When Portuguese chefs are not working, they like to gather at Cervejaria Ramiro to enjoy some beer and seafood.

The restaurant is located in an unglamorous part of Lisbon and looks like an ordinary place. What makes it unique is its extraordinary seafood.

Ramiro does not serve farmed shrimp that arrives, tired and frozen, from far away lands. Instead, they offer you precious fresh shrimp from the Algarve. They prepare exquisite “carabineiros,” large shrimps once abundant in Spain but now available only in Portugal. They cook tender clams, a wonderful crab called “santola,” and salty percebes brought warm to the table.

Even though Ramiro is in business since 1956, it is excluded from tourist guides for national security reasons. If the Spaniards learned about Ramiro’s seafood, they might invade Portugal.

Av. Almirante Reis, nº1 – H, 1150-007 Lisboa, tel. 21 885 10 24, email geral@cervejariaramiro.pt, click here for website.

Tasca da Esquina

“Tasca” means a modest establishment that serves cheap wine and “petiscos” (the Portuguese word for “tapa”). When well-known chef Vitor Sobral opened this restaurant he probably called it tasca to signal its affordable price. But the quality is excellent.

There is a daily menu featuring small dishes, all original, all prepared with great care. There is also a degustation.

Three star food almost at tasca prices, that is what you get at Tasca da Esquina. Reservations are a must.

Rua Domingos Sequeira 41C , Campo de Ourique,  1350-119 Lisboa, Tel. 919 837 255, email info@tascadaesquina.com. Click here for web site.