Custard-filled flaky pastry tarts. Sardines caught just hours earlier and charred on a grill. Cod dried with salt then rendered fat and juicy again when rehydrated. These are the things that immediately sprang to my mind when I thought of the food of Lisbon. Simple tascas (taverna) doing sturdy fare with fresh ingredients, Tavares restaurant for something a bit gourmet, Ramiro for its exquisite seafood. Yet there was not much more to merit a shiny bright pin on the world culinary map. But in the four years since I first fell in love with this fabulous city, Portugal’s capital has undergone an electrifying culinary revolution.
At the vanguard of this radical renaissance of repasts is 35-year-old José Avillez, who, since my first visit, has opened five game-changing restaurants. First, the former head chef of Tavares struck out with laid-back Cantinho do Avillez. Then, in January 2012, came Belcanto, which won a Michelin star just 11 months after opening, before a second in November 2014. It’s in the grandeur of this old-school, wood-panelled dining room in the Chiado area of the city that you can understand the brilliance of Avillez’s mind and how his radical approach has helped turn the city into a foodie’s delight.
Take his ‘trilogy of olives’: first there’s a black olive fried in tempura; then an explosive olive paying tribute to the time he spent in the kitchens at Spain’s famous El Bulli; and, quite brilliantly, there’s an inverted martini, with a pool of verdant olive juice and a sphere of olive-shaped gin.
Equally playful is a faux Ferrero Rocher, in which the chocolate confection is stuffed with foie gras. But it’s with ‘suckling pig revisited’ that I get to the heart of what Avillez is all about — a traditional Portuguese dish taken to new heights. The meat has been slow-cooked low for 36 hours, the crackling is compacted and crazily crunchy, the orange is a puree and the potatoes — they’re gorgeous crisps, hanging from metal wire in a plastic bag. This is fun, skill and sensational flavour all at the same time.
You can see Avillez’s influence in Flores de Bairro, the restaurant in the Bairro Alto hotel. Here, young chef Vasco Lello embraces the new Portuguese cuisine, taking traditional recipes and styling them up with great effect. There’s an exquisite fish soup topped with a slender crab crostini, the wafer-like biscuit dotted with sweet threads of white crabmeat. Dining with me is Célia Pedroso, co-author of Eat Portugal.
“A massive increase in tourism has brought a slew of new restaurants and cafes to Lisbon. And with them has come a newfound appreciation for petiscos, or Portuguese tapas,” she says. “These small plates were once relegated to humble tasca bars. But now they’re everywhere, with chefs competing to attract diners with the best cod cakes or the most tender prego (steak sandwiches).”
Invigorated by the dynamic change in Lisbon’s food scene, Célia began leading food tours with her company Eat Portugal across her city, helping visitors quickly discover some of its best spots.
The next morning she takes me to the Mercado da Ribeira, a 19th-century market newly renovated in the Cais do Sodré area. We begin in the market proper, where merchants sell fish, meat and vegetables. I seek out piri piri peppers, bay leaves, garlic and almonds of the highest quality, sold by women with a song of life etched in their faces. We stroll through to the next hall, which is certainly much more commercialised but still has quite a brilliant food section. Here, many of the city’s best chefs have their names above kiosks offering petiscos of abundant variety. If you have only one day in Lisbon, this is where you should come.
Célia brings glasses of red wine from Alentejo and a platter of Iberian ham that includes a finely-aged reserve from Trás-Os-Montes and a pata negra. She recommends a pica pau — beef with pickles and olives — from chef Miguel Castro e Silva.
But it’s her knack of finding the city’s best kept secrets outside the market that she excels at. Célia leads me to sweet little Sol e Pesca, a fishing tackle shop that doubles as a tinned fish café. A funky spot, with Formica tables and stools, it only serves fish straight from the can accompanied by corn bread — you can try octopus, sardines and anchovies, and work out which tins you want to take home. From there, we head to Nova Pombalina to eat an amazing suckling pig sandwich, served in a crusty roll with crackling and gravy.
Later, we visit Belém, home of the city’s most famous bakery Pastéis de Belém, in all its blue-and-white-tiled glory and room upon room of delight, selling the famous pasteis de nata (egg custard tarts) as well as tasty savoury tarts.
But we’ve come for a sunset stroll along the River Tagus towards Feitoria. Here, chef João Rodrigues rivals Avillez for technical flair and inventiveness. Each dish is a thing of beauty. A red prawn hangs on a piece of coral, beneath it a mayonnaise made with black olives and a prawn crisp. There’s the most spectacular tuna belly tataki with ramen broth, and a dessert of ‘fake strawberry’ leaves us gobsmacked by its flavour sensation and brilliance. This is truly luxurious without being gratuitously ridiculous.
The riverfront at Belém is a place that marks Portugal’s history as a nation of seafarers and adventurers, paying homage to its past — a past that made its food today. In those days, Lisbon made its mark on the world. These days its ambition is to be known as a culinary capital. It seems to be working. visitlisboa.com
Five food finds
For sardines and other fish in brightly-coloured tins, visit the old shop in Baixa or, the small branch in the Mercado da Ribeiro.
A Nova Pombalina
Succulent suckling pig sandwiches served with a warm, crusty roll with rich gravy, potato chips and slices of orange.
Eat Portugal Food Tours
Journalist, co-author of Eat Portugal and cook, Célia Pedroso leads food tours to the hidden gems of Lisbon.
Confeitaria de Belém
Reputed to sell the best pastéis de nata tarts, in lovely rooms close to the Jerónimos Monastery, this bakery also sells savouries.
Lisbon’s famous sour cherry brandy served in small glasses in this traditional hole in the wall. Choose ‘com ou sem elas’ — with or without the cherries. Largo de São Domingos, 8.
Four places for a taste of Lisbon
Hop from kiosk to kiosk in this newly-renovated covered market, tasting small plates offered by some of the city’s best chefs as well as young guns new to the food scene. Miguel Laffan, of Michelin-starred restaurant L’And Vineyards in Alentejo, offers piri-piri chicken and double-fried chips that he calls ‘Inglesas’ (English). Try bolo do caco (light, soft bread from Madeira, made with flour and sweet potato), served with garlic butter or platters of cheese or ham at Manteigaria Silva and the tempura green beans at Café de São Bento.
How much: From £12 per person for three plates. Avenida 24 de Julho 50.
Bica do Sapato
This modernist restaurant — the name means tip of the shoe — in an old port building near Santa Apolónia (the main Lisbon railway station) is co-owned by actor John Malkovich. There’s a fantastic terrace overlooking the Tagus, where you can watch vessels glide along the river and floor-to ceiling windows if it’s a chill wind. Try amêijoa à bulhão pato — salty clams with garlic and coriander served in a brass pot — and soak up the briny juices with fresh crusty bread.
How much: Three courses from £25 per person.
This is the finest restaurant in José Avillez’s culinary empire — he also has casual Cantinho do Avillez, trendy Mini Bar in Teatro São Luiz, Café Lisboa inside centuries-old Teatro Nacional de São Carlos and even a street kiosk selling pastéis de massa tenra (meat pastries) and custard tarts. But it’s at Belcanto that you’ll discover the essence of Avillez’s playful food philosophy that draw on the rich but somewhat simple history of Portuguese food and taking it to new heights.
How much: Three courses from £65 per person.
A beautiful dining room on the ground floor of the Altis Belém hotel, with vast windows overlooking the Tagus, this one Michelin-starred restaurant is an easy tram ride away from the centre of Lisbon. Here chef João Rodrigues celebrates the best of Portuguese produce to spectacular effect. Dishes come exquisitely presented in beautiful crockery — a bowl in the shape of a mollusc, say, or a sea urchin — and much of the cooking wows with technical skill and subtle understanding of flavour.
How much: Three-course dinner from £45 per person.
How to do it
Published in the Jul/Aug 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)