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.

 

A restaurant called Romando

Rest. Romando

Call us old fashioned, but we don’t like to outsource our choice of restaurants to trip advisor. So, we contacted a friend who’s a bon vivant to ask whether he could recommend a good place for lunch near Vila do Conde. “Make reservations at Romando,” he said without hesitating. “It’s been around forever, serving great traditional food.” We duly called the restaurant and drove to the address they gave us. We arrived at a brand-new building decorated with modern furniture. Could this be the right place?

As soon as the first course arrived–robalo (sea bass) with shrimp rice–we knew that we were indeed at the right place. The fish had been filleted and cooked in the oven seasoned only with salt and olive oil. It is a simple preparation, but the timing has to be precise in order for the freshness of the fish to sing. And sing it did, joined by a choir of shrimps wrapped in sea aromas and rice grains dressed in tomato robes.

Next, our waiter brought us codfish cooked with red pepper, onion, and diced prosciutto. It was deeply satisfying with all the great ingredients pulling together to make the overall taste much more than the sum of the individual flavors. Finally, we tried some tender, succulent grilled meats accompanied by crispy French fries and flavorful beans.

As far as dessert is concerned, it suffices to say that Romando’s puddings, tarts and cakes tempt the most virtuous souls to indulge in gluttony.

Rosa and Armando Pena opened the restaurant soon after they got married, more than a quarter of century ago. Rosa was in charge of the kitchen and Armando managed the dining room. They combined their names and called the place Romando.

The restaurant quickly gathered fame. But the secret of their success is that they never rested on their laurels. They kept evolving, searching for better ingredients, upgrading the quality of the service and, more recently, renovating the restaurant premises. At the same time, the cooking stayed grounded in the techniques of Portuguese cuisine and in the love and commitment that inspired Rosa and Armando to combine their names.

Romando is located at Rua da Fonte, nº221 in Árvore near Vila do Conde, tel. 252 641 075. Click here for the restaurant’s web site.

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. 

Lunch at Noah

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We had a perfect lunch at Noah, a scenic restaurant in the Santa Cruz beach, with very dear old friends. Our table was so close to the sea that it looked like the waves were taking part in our conversation.

The food was simple, grilled sardines and peixe galo (dory) fillets with tomato and pepper rice. A rosé called Pinta Negra produced nearby by Adega Mãe paired perfectly with the fish.

Time flew while we enjoyed the delicious meal, the eternal beauty of the sea and the precious gift of friendship.

Noah Surf House is on Avenida do Atlantico, A dos Cunhados,  tel 261 932 355. Click here for their web site.

 

Mugasa

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Bairrada is a region in the center of Portugal known for its refreshing sparkling wine and its “leitão” (roasted piglet). The best leitão in Bairrada comes from a restaurant called Mugasa located in the middle of nowhere in a small village called Fogueira.

The restaurant’s owner, Álvaro Nogueira, retired from a desk job and opened a small café in 1981. He wanted to learn the art of roasting piglets to turn his café into a restaurant. But the learning curve was steep until one of his cousins, a master roaster, offered to teach him.

After this jump start, Álvaro kept perfecting his art. In 1991, he entered a competition organized by a gastronomic society and won first prize.

“Why is roasting so difficult?” we asked Álvaro. ” Every pig is different, with a different size and fat content. We use six wood-fired ovens and every oven is different. We have to make constant adjustments to guarantee perfection. That is why we only roast four piglets per oven, to have time to make all the necessary adjustments.”

“In the first 20 minutes, the oven has to be very hot, between 280 and 300 degree Celsius to make the outside crunchy. Then we cover the wood with ashes to bring down the temperature. There are many details so we have to pay close attention. The traditional seasoning made with garlic, lard, white pepper, and salt is important but you cannot use it to cover up mistakes.”

We sat at the table to try Mugasa’s leitão. It is indeed remarkable, crunchy on the outside, succulent on the inside, with just enough seasoning to accentuate the taste of the meat.

Álvaro is very proud of the celebrities that drive to Fogueira just to eat at his restaurant. But he is even more proud of his son Ricardo. “My son is the best master roaster in Portugal,” Álvaro said smiling. “He learned my secrets and discovered new ones.”

Many Bairrada wine makers eat regularly at Mugasa, so you often overhear discussions about weather conditions and grape maturation. The restaurant offers some of the best wines from these producers at very attractive prices.

The formula for Mugasa’s success is easy to write down but hard to replicate: amazing leitão plus great Bairrada wine = unforgettable meals.

Mugasa is located at Largo da Feira, Fogueira, Aveiro, tel. 234 741 061

 

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.

 

 

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.