From hipster food stalls to inventive fine dining, there’s more to Lisbon’s dining scene than codfish and custard tarts, as Lara Brunt discovers
Ferrero Rocher is not what I expected to see on the menu at Lisbon’s only two Michelin-starred restaurant. “It’s not quite as it seems,” our waiter at Belcanto says with a twinkle in his eye as he places the dish on the crisp white tablecloth. As I bite into the crispy shell studded with hazelnuts, it’s not chocolate that delights my tastebuds but rich, smoky foie gras.
It’s just one of many culinary surprises dished up by the Portuguese capital. Long overshadowed by its Spanish neighbour, I have to admit my knowledge of Portuguese cuisine starts with custard tarts and ends with salted cod. While the ubiquitous pastel de nata and bacalhau remain much-loved favourites of Lisboetas, the city also has a burgeoning and buzzing food scene.
Leading the way is José Avillez, a 36-year-old chef who has built up an impressive empire of six restaurants, five of them in the capital including Belcanto, awarded its second Michelin star in 2014. A protege of Ferran Adrià, Avillez combines respect for local ingredients with a playfulness that does his patron proud.
Along with the foie gras-filled Ferrero, the 360° Discoveries degustation menu includes 15 imaginative courses influenced by the seafaring nation’s golden age in the 15th and 16th centuries when Portugal built up a vast empire of colonies from Goa to Brazil. “What I try to do is a new Portuguese cuisine based on 600 years of [history of] travelling around the world, bringing and taking different ingredients, techniques and knowledge,” says Avillez.
The three-hour experience involves dish after dish of gastronomic wonders matched with wine from around a dozen Portuguese vineyards. Highlights include ‘The Porthole’ featuring tiny morsels of shellfish served in texturized seawater on a porthole-style plate, and ‘The Garden of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs’, a shimmering sous-vide egg with leeks and mushrooms topped with gold leaf.
The three-hour experience involves dish after dish of gastronomic wonders
Next up, after a tip-off from our concierge at Hotel Valverde, a beautiful boutique hotel that opened last year on the grand Avenida da Liberdade, we dine at Leopold in Mouraria, one of Lisbon’s most historic bairros, or neighbourhoods. Housed in a former bakery, the restaurant redefines unpretentious and intimate, with three tables, a “kitchen” behind a large marble counter with no stove, and a six-course degustation menu for an incredible €32.
At the helm is Tiago Feio, a former sous chef at Largo, one of the city’s most renowned contemporary Portuguese restaurants. “I don’t have a stove so I use sous-vide, fermentation and dried products,” he says. “I’m more creative when I have restrictions. I like to play with texture and create a minimalist atheistic.”
Served on dark green cabbage plates by venerable Portuguese brand Bordallo Pinheiro, each dish is almost too pretty to eat. Almost. We devour grouper ceviche with peach, blueberries and almonds; Asian-inspired Azores beef with soy sauce, seaweed and purslane; and creamy sous-vide egg with shitake mushrooms and buckwheat. As we savour the petit fours of figs preserved in sugar syrup, topped with pennyroyal mint, we’re treated to our first taste of fado, the melancholy music born in Mouraria, drifting from a bar across the street.
The tempo is more upbeat the following day at Sunday brunch at Sítio, the ground-floor restaurant in Valverde Hotel. Featuring live jazz and bossa nova, the tables in the leafy courtyard soon fill with hip Lisboetas making the most of their weekend. The equally good-looking staff are dressed in casual Lacoste uniforms, a nod to the brand’s Portuguese creative director, Felipe Oliveira Baptista, while chef Carla Sousa’s menu features brunch favourites served as petiscos, or small plates (call them tapas at your peril).
The tables in the leafy courtyard soon fill with hip Lisboetas making the most of their weekend
We tuck into a selection of egg dishes and cured meats, followed by our first taste of the fabled bacalhau. A Portuguese staple for centuries, there are said to be 365 different recipes for the dried and salted fish – one for each day of the year. “If you only learn one word of Portuguese while you’re here, best make it bacalhau,” jokes one of our fellow diners.
Another stylish new arrival is the revamped food court at Lisbon’s historic Mercado da Ribeira, the city’s biggest fresh food market. Opened last May as the first permanent foodie venture for Time Out magazine, the market features over 30 stalls selling local and regional specialities, including cheeses, sausages, tinned sardines and ginjinha (wild cherry liqueur).
Five well-known chefs have also set-up stalls here, including Henrique Sá Pessoa and Marlene Vieira, offering small plates from just €5. We opt for a succulent bifé marrare (steak with peppercorn sauce) from Café de São Bento, an outpost of the restaurant on the street of the same name that is widely acknowledged to serve the city’s best steak.
Of course we can’t leave without sampling Lisbon’s famous sweet treat, so we jump on a tram and head west to Pastéis de Belém in the Belem district. The patisserie has been baking the soft-centred, flaky custard tarts since 1837 and serves up to 50,000 a day in peak season. We queue impatiently outside the beautiful blue and white azulejo-clad store, teased by wafts of custard and cinnamon, before finally being rewarded with a still-warm tart.
Sardines, tinned in winter or fresh in summer, are another much-loved staple that every local we meet insists we must try. The city goes especially sardine crazy in June during the Festival of Santo Antonio when the narrow streets of Alfama, the city’s oldest quarter, fill with the smell of grilled sardines in honour of Lisbon’s patron saint.
We enjoy fat, juicy ones at Super Mario, an old-fashioned tasca in the Chiado neighbourhood where the daily menu is written on a large sheet of paper taped on the wall. Packed with locals, we follow their lead and bookend our meal with deliciously gooey Azeitão sheep’s cheese and a strong bica (espresso). “You like?” the owner asks, unnecessarily, as he clears our empty plates. “We like,” I assure him. “We like a lot.”