Portugal is back on the global gastronomy menu
As Portugal’s economy strengthens, more visitors are supporting restaurants old and new.
Scattered across the Seven Hills, Lisbon’s azulejo-covered buildings (buildings covered in blue-and-white tiles) stack together forming countless arches through which the yellow eléctricos, or trams, pass, rickety over the cobblestones shiny with wear.
The city’s transformation, immediately evident in the towering cranes to rival Manhattan (or Camps Bay) bending over these once-dilapidated buildings, transforming them into hotels or luxury apartments for short-term rentals, is fairly recent. Until 2015 Portugal was in the grip of an economic crisis after the catastrophic crash of 2010.
One of the sectors to recover, hand in hand with tourism, has been the restaurant industry. Now it’s common to stand in two-hour queues at the height of summer for bowls of ceviche at chef Kiko Martin’s A Cevicheria in Príncipe Real’s hip Rua Dom Pedro V. Or to wait three months on a waiting list for a table at lauded chef José Avillez’s Michelin two-star restaurant, Belcanto, or swig beer-while-you-wait bought with plastic booze tokens at the no-reservation ticket system at Cervejaria Ramiro, the city’s shrine to the finest seafood in a working man’s tavern.
From trendy to old school, carnivorous to vegans, in Lisbon there’s a restaurant or hole-in-the-wall diner to suit your taste and budget, and reciprocally a market to support it.
The Lumiares Hotel [from €246 per double room in the off-season] is a new star in Lisbon’s accommodation scene in the gentrifying neighbourhood of Bairro Alto, where many older locals still live and work, and bars and clubs serve the night-time crowds. In this converted former 18th-century palace, guests can enjoy the privacy of apartment living combined with the service, including room service, of a regular hotel.
Adjacent to the rooftop bar that looks all the way to the fortress of the São Jorge Castle on the hill is Lumni, by veteran chef Miguel Castro e Silva, where he serves what he calls "terroir-based food with a story and a history" in a slick setting.
"Remember, traditional Portuguese food was meant to feed the peasant, the farm worker, to give them energy for a long day. Most of our popular dishes are a derivative of that," he explains, saying he prepared fish tartare more than 20 years ago, long before the rest of the world embraced ceviche.
Dishes on the menu are some of his oldest, and still en vogue, such as sea bass with orange and fennel, chestnut soup with dumplings and a porcini risotto that exemplifies the skill needed to make deceptively simple food exceptional. An eight-course tasting menu costs from €56 per person.
There’s a twinkle in his eyes. "People have short memories," Castro e Silva says. "And this current economic recovery is very new. When you’ve been in the industry as long as I have [more than 26 years], you understand that fashions come and go. Weather, price, the temperament of the people, they play a part. But solid cooking skills are evergreen."
At one of Lisbon’s newer restaurants, Prado (meaning meadow), chef Antonio Galapito, just 27 years old, has returned home from a number of years working under famed chef Nuno Mendes in London. His return signifies a sign of the times, as restaurants, and opportunities for younger people who left during the crisis, mushroom in neighbourhoods across Lisbon.
It’s hard to imagine that the sunshine-filled space filled with jungle-like potted plants was once a fish factory.
It comes full circle when Galapito speaks passionately about the in-season Portuguese sarda (a type of mackerel) and meagre (similar to sea bream) on the menu.
Prado’s team has managed to delight Lisboetas in another way too — there’s plenty of greenery on the plates.
Sharing portions studded with seasonal fish and vegetables (the latter a rare sight at Portuguese restaurants) arrive as they’re ready.
"I like the combination of meat and salad, or fish and vegetables," Galapito says.
Delicate clams are drenched in a smoked butter sauce with wilted chard, coriander and fried bread; the fish dishes come with radish and ferments (there are experimental jars on the counters); and, the most surprising, there is a dessert of barley "rice" pudding with salted caramel enriched with mushroom dust. Natural wine, ethically butchered meat, fairly paid farmers — the young chef lists Prado’s philosophy, but emphasises you can’t call what they do typically "Portuguese" food. Expect to pay about €65, with wine, for two for dinner.
What constitutes Portuguese food? Every chef I speak to tells me about Portugal’s golden age of the discoveries, when this tiny sea-faring nation was the king of transcontinental voyage.
It was Vasco da Gama who brought chillies and tomatoes to India from the Americas. Maize arrived in West Africa in 1502 via the Portuguese too. Clues of Portugal’s exploration heyday, and its (unforgivably violent) colonial past, can be sound scattered around the world. Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Macau and Goa, for example, all bear traces of Portuguese rule and, in return, have influenced the local food.
"Due to our extensive travel, we brought a lot of influence and we’ve left a lot of influence," José Avillez explains at his popular Bairro do Avillez complex of four restaurants, including the closed-door cabaret Beco, housed in a former church in chic Chiado.
He notes the Arab impact on cookery, especially in the Algarve in the south. This includes ingredients such as almonds, oranges, coriander, carob, dried apricots, raisins, sugar cane and saffron. "We use cinnamon in our cooking like no one in Europe, except a part of Spain that was influenced by the Arabs too," Avillez says.
"And rice?" he asks. "The Portuguese serve white rice as a side like Asian countries. We’ll eat rice with fish, with meat, and to share. In Spain and Italy they only have it in a main dish, like paella." He goes on to explain that Portugal shares some similarities with Mediterranean countries, though it’s situated along the Atlantic Ocean.
"Olives, bread, tomatoes, wine, the things of the Mediterranean diets, we have it here. But when you travel around the country – the Algarve, the centre, the north — you’ll find so many ingredients that you only get there."
Portugal may be small, but the rich and diverse composite of regional produce and livestock make it difficult to identify a singular Portuguese cuisine. There are dishes that have won the foreign visitor’s heart over the years – grilled sardines, buttery €1.50 custard tarts, warming caldo verde (a soup of potato and collard greens), açorda ( bread, garlic and egg stew) and garlic-studded prego (tender beef sandwiches). We’ve come to appreciate the egg-rich confections with their roots in Portugal’s convents.
For chef Henrique Sá Pessoa of Alma, a one-starred Michelin restaurant in Chiado, it all began as a Portuguese contemporary kitchen, one of the first back in 2009 to "democratise fine dining to make it more accessible". Sá Pessoa’s overall goal is to showcase the creative side associated with the roots and traditions of Portuguese cuisine, he says.
"At Alma we show the modern, cosmopolitan side of the kitchen, but at the same time always drawing on our established culinary traditions." The five-course seafood tasting menu is €100 a person.
Sá Pessoa says that it’s an exciting time to run a restaurant in Lisbon. "We’ve made our errors as a nation, but I am very proud to be in Portugal, and to be part of a group of chefs that are changing our gastronomy."