Serra d’Ossa

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It was an act of bravery. We drove up the serpentine road to Serra d’Ossa to dine at a restaurant we couldn’t find on trip advisor!  But a trusted local source told us that this was the place to go if we wanted to taste the rustic food of Alentejo. And so we went.

We were welcomed by Paula Patinho who owns the restaurant with her husband Francisco. Her mother cooks and her father makes the house wine. We were surprised by the menu prices: they were half of what we would have paid in Évora or Estremoz.

Francisco suggested that we start with “sopa de cação” (dogfish soup), continued with a tomato and fried meat soup, and ended with “lagartos,” thin strips of black pork grilled to perfection. The flavors are bold but harmonious perhaps because all the ingredients were local, cultivated in the same lands by the same people.

The house wine is staged in stainless steel. It tastes pure and smooth and pairs perfectly with the food.

We asked Francisco what makes the food taste so great. “There is a deceiving complexity to the cuisine of Alentejo,” he explained. “The preparations look simple but pushing the flavors to a higher level takes time and requires many ingredients.”

Our audacity was greatly rewarded. We discovered an inexpensive restaurant that does justice to the rich culinary tradition of Alentejo.

Serra d’Ossa is located on Rua Principal, 77, Aldeia da Serra D’Ossa, Redondo, tel. 266-909-037.

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

 

Eating with the best people in Vila Real

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“I’m sorry, but we cannot accommodate you. We won’t have a free table any time soon,” said Eleutério Lameirão in a serious tone that agrees with his solemn name. His small restaurant, located in a residential area of Vila Real, was full of regular customers.

Before we left, we took a glance at the menu and found a quote by Julia Child: “People who love to eat are always the best people.” Inspired by this quote, we decided to wait. Eleutério gave us a puzzled look, but fifteen minutes later he had a table for us.

We ordered rissois, fried breaded dough shaped like a half moon with a shrimp or meat filling. Eleutério brought them to the table and waited around to see our reaction. They were crispy on the outside and full of flavor on the inside.  When we said “wow, these are amazing!” Eleutétio abandoned his shy demeanor and smiled, pleased by our reaction. He went back into the kitchen and brought us a plate of codfish cakes. These were also extraordinary: light, airy and slightly crunchy, a four-part harmony of cod, parsley, egg, and potato.

Finally, we had small sardines called “petingas,” incredibly fresh, fried and seasoned to perfection. They came with an hearty bean rice that melted in the mouth and blended with the salty sardines.

The restaurant was still very busy but Eleutério came to chat with us. He told us that the menu is always small, three or four items made with the best fresh ingredients and modestly priced. The recipes have been refined over many years and require great attention to detail. “It is hard work because there’s no room for distractions. Everything has to be right, the timing, the temperature, the seasoning. But it is worth it because when everything is right the taste is amazing,” he said. If you ever have the privilege of eating at O Lameirão, we think you’ll agree.

The restaurant O Lameirão is located on Rua da Cruz, Vila Real, tel. 259 346 881.

Avillez’s neighborhood

Bairro do Avillez

It is common for writers to imagine new worlds and share them with us. But it is uncommon for chefs to pursue this creative strategy. José Avillez, the Michelin-starred chef of Belcanto, dreamed of an old Lisbon neighborhood where friends gathered to share great food. He imagined timeworn buildings guarded by carved wooden doors with windows adorned by crocheted curtains.

When the space once occupied by the 13th-century Convent of Trindade became available, Avillez seized the opportunity to make his dreams come true. He invited architect Joana Astolfi to design an installation inspired by old building facades, artist Cátia Pessoa to create ceramic sculptures representing fish and vegetables, and painter Henriette Arcelin to produce a large tile panel at the famous Viúva Lamego factory.

The result is a fun atmosphere perfect to enjoy the classics of Portuguese cuisine, refined and, in some cases, reinvented. Bairro do Avillez (Avillez’s neighborhood) has a grocery store (Mercearia) with some of the chef’s favorite products, a tapas bar (Taberna), and a restaurant (Páteo).

In the Taberna, you can eat a wide variety of “petiscos” (the Portuguese word for tapas), from Portuguese prosciutto and sausages, to codfish with cornbread, and roasted piglet.

The Páteo offers pristine fish from the Portuguese coast, grilled, cooked with rice, or combined with bread, olive oil and garlic in a fragrant “açorda.” The menu also includes great seafood (lobster, shrimp, clams, crab, and razor clams), delicious steaks, and grilled black pork from Alentejo.

There’s a wonderful house wine made in collaboration with Quinta do Monte d’Oiro. And there is also a great new line of artisanal beers called Selection 1927.

We told José Avillez that we were impressed to see him take time to welcome the people who walked in to see the new space. He told us that these gestures are important to him: “What makes Portugal unique is the combination of great ingredients and a rich culinary tradition with our warm hospitality.”

Chef José Avillez is a dreamer who makes Lisbon more fun with his gracious demeanor and delicious food. It is a privilege to be in his neighborhood.

Bairro do Avillez is located at Rua Nova da Trindade, 18, Lisbon, tel. 215 830 290.

Food with character

Composit Moma

Rua dos Correeiros is a street in downtown Lisbon where leathersmiths once sold harnesses to horseback riders. Local residents are used to seeing commerce evolve. But they are surprised by the how much space has recently been taken by souvenir shops and pizzerias. Will Lisbon end up losing its unique character? they ask.

At the end of Rua dos Correeiros we saw a new restaurant called Moma Grill that was full of locals. Curious, we decided to try it.

We loved the space with its mosaic floor, warm lighting, large blackboards with culinary drawings, and Thonet chairs. The owner, João Vaz Guedes, was so gracious that we were predisposed to like the food.

But when we asked for his recommendations and he said “pasteis de massa tenra,” our hearts sank. These delicate combinations of fried dough and meat filling were often on the table during our childhood. How could a restaurant compete with memories of food prepared by our grandmothers? “It’s not fair,” we told João, “the bar will be too high, we prefer to try something else.” João smiled and said, “I am very interested in your opinion, let me bring you a plate.” The pasteis were smaller and crispier than the ones we are used to. But we loved them, they were some of the best we ever had.

Our group tried an assortment of other items from the menu. Everything was delicious. The arugula salad was perfectly dressed. The codfish cakes were light, with the perfect mix of  potato and fish. The grilled sardines were moist and succulent. The partridge was magically infused with the taste of olive oil and vinegar. The black pork was bursting with flavor.

The meal was well paced and the service had a quiet elegance that is rare. For the grand finale, João brought an irresistible raspberry tart accompanied by a glass of ginjinha (a cherry liqueur).

The wine list is short, but the choices are careful and the prices modest. We had a great white Encruzado and an excellent red from the Douro region (Quinta dos Aciprestes).

João and his wife Maria loved to cook for friends so, after retiring, they decided to open a restaurant to serve food inspired by Portugal’s culinary heritage. It’s people like them that keep Lisbon’s character going strong.

Moma grill is located on Rua dos Correeiros, 22-26, tel. 911 762 349. 

 

 

A comet called Noélia

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“One good thing about Winter is that it is easier to dine at Noélia” our Algarve friends told us. “In the Summer it is impossible to get in.” Curious, we made reservations a week in advance.

As soon as we sat down in this seaside restaurant in the village of Cabanas, we knew we were in for something special. There was a festive atmosphere and the aromas of the sea filled the air.

The restaurant is noisy but our waiter was a mind reader who guessed what we wanted without the need for much verbal communication. And so a perfectly chilled bottle of sparkling wine arrived, followed by a plate of steamed langoustines. “They were caught this morning” the waiter told us. “I know you’ll like them.” We were so impressed by the crustaceans’ exquisite taste that we vowed never to eat frozen seafood again.

Our main dish was rice with lemon, corvina, and conquilhas, small cockles that only exist in the Algarve. We appreciated in silence the sublime combination of flavors. A Dom Rodrigo, a sweet combination of fios de ovos (egg threads) and almonds, rounded the meal.

Noélia, the chef, seemed to be everywhere: cooking, talking to regulars, giving instructions to the staff, making final adjustments to the plates before they were brought out. She is a culinary comet that brightens everything she touches.

Suddenly, she arrived at our table and asked: “did you like the food?” “We loved it,” we replied. “But we’re sorry we’re too full to try other dishes.” “Next time order oyster risotto and favas with cuttle fish,” she said. “I get up at 6:00 am to make sure I buy the best oysters in Algarve.” And she was gone as quickly as she had arrived.

Outside, the moon was painting the sea with its silver light. But no one in the restaurant paid any attention. The moon cannot compete with a comet called Noélia.

The Restaurante Noélia & Jerónimo is located in the village of Cabanas near Tavira, Algarve at Rua da Fortaleza, Edifício Cabanas-Mar, Loja 6, tel, 281370649. Reservations are a must.

 

A roadside restaurant

Composit Pombal

Before highway A1 was built, it took a long time to drive from the north of Portugal to Lisbon. To make the trip easier to endure, our parents liked to stop at a small roadside restaurant in Pombal called Manjar do Marquês. As soon as we sat down, we were served a delicious tomato rice with a choice of accompaniments, such as codfish cakes, veal milanese, or fried hake.

After a long hiatus, we recently returned to Manjar do Marquês. We entered the restaurant’s new premises just off highway A1 with some trepidation. What if the food is not as wonderful as we remember it? Would we destroy our childhood memories? Luckily, some things never change: the tomato rice is as appetizing as ever.

We asked the owner, Maria Graça, what makes her rice taste so good. She smiled and answered: “My husband really wanted to have a restaurant. I worked for the phone company and had no cooking experience. But I was very much in love with him, so I quit my job to become a cook. My food was different because everything I did, I did with love. And that continues to be true.”

Today Maria Graça is 84 years old and still works 10 hours a day at the restaurant. Could her hearty tomato rice be the key to longevity?  It’s worth stopping by Manjar do Marquês to find out.

Manjar do Marquês is located on Estada Nacional 1 (IC2), Pombal, 170 km north of Lisbon, tel. 236-218-818. Click here for the restaurant’s website.