(pictured is the Octopus Tartar with Ginger and Mayonnaise at Cafe Lisboa)
Before I got to Portugal I read some articles, talked to friends who’d been to see where I should eat. Most of them recommended traditional places. In my research I came across articles like this one in the Times. It suggests two restaurants one very traditional and one more modern. Both of them looked very simple and for what ever reason I got on the plane imaging Portugal as a land of simple restaurants serving delicious traditional regional cuisine.
Boy did I have a surprise in store.
I arrived in Lisbon from Berlin in the early evening.
Once settled I whisked Neil into a taxi and to the terrace at the Barrio Alto Hotel. It gets a lot of hype and for good reason: it’s lovely, has great drinks, a breathtaking view and enough bar snacks to make a meal of, which is exactly what Neil and I did. It was a great first night place to hang out and soak in Lisbon.
The first real meal I had (other than the buffet breakfast at the Corinthia Hotel Lisbon) was on the train to Porto.We travelled Comfort Class, depending on when you travel it costs 80 Euros for a round trip, lunch was an extra supplement of about 14 Euro and included the above food, red wine and coffee (espresso). The vegetables were fresh, tasty and not over cooked, the steak was tough, the potatoes cheesy good and the dulce de leche pudding for dessert was so rich and sweet Neil and I spoilt one.
Still I would heartily recommend you have lunch on the train if for no other reason than it’s really fun. It’s just so nostalgic, I loved it.
Our hosts in Porto wanted to know if there was someplace I wanted to have dinner, after minimum searching I came across Cantinho do Avillez Porto. It was the first restaurant I had eaten in since landing in Portugal: wow what an amazing way to start a vacation!
The Executive chef is Jose Avillez the most famous restaurateur and chef in Portugal who has 6 restaurants, I ate at 4 of them. Reason in itself to visit Portugal. More on him and his mini restaurant empire later. The view of all the major Port houses on the Gaia side of the Douro river is an amazing sight. The river side is lined with restaurants.
I had lunch at Fish Fixe and it was pretty much perfect. An amazing view, a beautiful spring day, charming service by the owner of the restaurant who couldn’t have been more charming. As is typical in Portugal they place bread and often appetizers on the table when you sit down. These are not free as you might think but rather have a small tariff associated with them, so if you don’t want to pay don’t let them put them down on the table! I always say yes because in my experience that are always so good! Here they offered olives, marinated spicy cheese cubes and a tuna pâté of sorts and wonderful fresh bread. How could I not have cod fritters and Vino Verde for my first lunch in Porto? So good. I wish I had more time in Porto as I would love to have gone here again for dinner or for another lunch with Neil.
In my search for the perfect traditional seafood restaurant I asked the concierge at our hotel where we should go. Admittedly it was a fancy hotel, so maybe it wasn’t the best place to ask. He said you must go to 5 Oceanos, it’s near the sea and they have the best seafood. It was a bit of an adventure getting there, we had to figure out the very impressive and modern subway system in Porto and then walked several blocks to the restaurant.
From the outside the place looked kind of Greek, all blue and white. It looked a bit more fancy than I was expecting. We were greeted in English, by a waiter who said: what hotel are you from?
At first glance this did not seem like a local fish place. In fairness the hotel did make the reservation…
We sat down and nearly fell over when we looked at the menu. 110 Euro for Lobster? 65 Euro for Sea Bass? WTF? We quickly realized that these prices were not the prices of a dish but rather were the price of the fish per kilo (2.2 pounds) so the real piece of fish you got would be according to your specifications. Meaning that basically an entree were in the 17-28 Euro range. Much better.
As it turned out this was a spectacular recommendation, I had a fish and bean stew that was just perfect. Neil had a huge slab of perfectly cooked, fresh out of the ocean, Sea Bass. In the end it was an excellent recommendation and a wonderful meal/evening, once we understood the menu, had a glass of Vino Verde we also realized the room was filled with people speaking Portuguese.
After an all too short visit in Porto we were back on the train to Lisbon. It had been forever since Neil had eaten pizza (5 days) so we decided that on his last night in Portugal we would go to Pizzaria Lisboa and boy are we glad we did! Charming room, modern feeling with handsome marble-topped tables with the most welcoming, charming staff. The pizza was some of the best we have ever eaten.
I had a Bica which feature spicy salami and Neil had the classic Margherita.
To start we split a lightly spiced, incredibly thinly sliced Tuna Carpaccio and a Salad with Artichokes, Parmesan and Balsamic. And to finish, even though we certainly didn’t need any more to eat we had to try the wood fired pineapple with lemon and basil sorbet. Amazing.It was at this point that I decided to make my time in Lisbon to be mostly an eating tour of Jose Avillez’s restaurants.
In my 7 days in Portugal I went to 4 of his restaurants. I didn’t go to Bel Canto which is by far the fanciest and most expensive. I also didn’t go to the Lisbon outpost of Cantinho do Avillez as we’d been to the one in Porto.
In total he has 6 restaurants 5 in Lisbon and 1 in Porto.
I loved all of them and would tell you to seriously consider this as an eating plan if you are visiting Portugal.
With the exception of Bel Canto his restaurants are affordable, with smart, playful menus that focus on traditional Portuguese cooking with a twist. Jose Avillez trained at many fine establishments and schools, his most impressively sting was with Ferran Adria at El Bulli.
His restaurants Bel Canto is the only eating establishment in the country to receive 2 Micheline stars. Across the street from Bel Canto is Cafe Lisboa where I enjoyed lunch on the terrace in the courtyard in front of the national theater. The next night i enjoyed the tasting menu at MiniBar a sophisticated, clubby room, where from 45 Euro I had the tasting menu sitting at the bar. I think there was about 6 courses (including 2 deserts) and because I was sitting at the bar, my preferred location, I was also offered extra tastes of drinks by the well versed handsome barmen. This place could be in New York expect no where in New York could you find such deal on a tasting menu by a renown chef. With drinks my entire even cost about $65 USD. It’s hard to say, but if I had to I would say that this was my favorite of all the places of his I ate. In part because the vibe was so urban, sophisticated, fun and friendly. The staff at all his restaurants were exceptional with such an amazing consistency that I have never experienced anywhere else. The Portuguese have to be some of the most hospitable people on the planet.On my last night in Lisbon, a restaurant was suggested to me that I thought I would check out, but then I got off at the wrong subway stop. It was going to be a long walk to get there, but I figured I had nothing else to do so I started walking. I didn’t actually make it very far before I saw A Cevicheria. Wow, just wow. First off the design. Who wouldn’t want to sit in a cooly minimalist room under the danglingly arms and tentacles of a fake octopus? It gets better, the tasting menu here is 35 Euro ($40). The scene is lively, fun, urban hipster and again very friendly. From the moment I sat down at the bar the couple next to me who were in Lisbon on business from Brussels could not have been more engaging. Same goes for the staff (again). How I managed to walk in and get a seat on a Saturday night at a place this hopping is just another testament to the food scene in Lisbon. Certainly as a New Yorker I tend to eat around 8 which in Portugal is early so when I left around 10:30 there was a wait to get in, but there was a also a lively, little outside seating area where people were drinking, snacking and more than happy to wait.Heres what it looked like when I left. The food was equally outstanding with two of my favorite things that I had the entire trip: A Pisco Sour: And squid ink infused butter with sea salt to accompany fresh warm corn bread:The bread was also served with a variation of something I had in an other restaurant which is a super pure tomato purée to dip your bread into, this one had ricotta in it and was topped with caviar: Gazpacho with tapioca pearls was the first course:and much more. This trip was hands down the most spectacular food trip I have had anywhere. Because the dollar is strong the Euro is more manageable and when you add in the struggling Portuguese economy and well it makes for a very attractive place to visit. I would not normally have eaten so consistently at such high end restaurants if it had not been for how incredibly affordable they are.