Original article 23 February 2017 by: 1843magazine
I first went to Lisbon in the late 1980s. I remember lines of washing hanging from the windows, white sunlight dappling the tiled façades of the houses and cats stalking the streets. But most of all I remember the smell of sardines, glistening silver, as they were grilled on tiny doorstep charcoal braziers lining the steep streets.
Today, the sardines have moved indoors for the most part, but the washing still hangs in the open air, looking increasingly out of place in a city of sleek boutique hotels. New restaurants are opening all the time, riding a wave of culinary excitement that was recognised by the cluster of Michelin stars awarded to homegrown talent in 2017.
To outsiders, this may seem something of a surprise: the phrase Portuguese gastronomy does not exactly trip off a slavering tongue. But food and the Portuguese are as tightly cobbled together as the calçadas (mosaics) on Lisbon’s patterned sidewalks. Spices brought rich rewards to the great explorers of Portugal’s Golden Age of Discovery. The Portuguese gave vindaloo to India and the technique of tempura to Japan. From Africa, they brought home piri-piri and a passion for fresh coriander. Food here is seasonal, respected, loved. It is the backbone of this long, ocean-facing body of land – and it is finally coming of age.
This culinary heritage is the common thread that runs through the kitchens of Lisbon’s best restaurants. You can taste it in Feitoria, where João Rodrigues pays homage to flavours brought back from the colonies in dishes like his tart of chocolate from São Tomé, served with an ice cream of spices, chocolate, kumquats and kaffir lime leaves. It is found in the gutsy, Spanish cooking of Sergi Arola, whose LAB won its first Michelin star in 2017. His head chef, Milton Anes, has managed to hold his Portuguese own with dishes such as barnacles from Adraga Beach with black beans, citronella cream and pancetta. It is like Portugal on a plate: the pancetta packs its punch as the taste of the barnacles washes across your tongue.
José Avillez, the leader of this new wave of Portuguese culinary talent, has a Lisbon menu at his two-Michelin-starred Belcanto Restaurant (above), composed of dishes that reflect the city’s identity. With “Suckling pig revisited, fried potatoes, orange, salad” he has elevated a rustic classic to new heights of culinary invention: the oranges are now a purée, the suckling pig a sliver of meat and – adding a pinch of humour – the potatoes, encased in a tiny paper bag, swing from a washing line.
Avillez now has six restaurants in Lisbon. The latest is Bairro do Avillez, where a tavern, serving dishes like pork-skin popcorn, adjoins a fish and seafood restaurant, Páteo.
Down the hill is the 19th-century Mercado da Ribeira, which re-opened as a food court in 2014. Many of Lisbon’s best-known chefs have a stall here, serving a cheaper version of their cuisine – chefs like Alexandre Silva (whose recently opened Loco gained a Michelin star for its menu-less succession of brilliant “moments”), and Henrique Sá Pessoa.
Sá Pessoa’s restaurant, Alma, opened in November 2014, and quickly won its first Michelin star. I tried their wafer of tapioca, cooked in seaweed stock and squid ink and topped with a touch of oyster mayonnaise, which was served with a clarified gazpacho. That was followed by a strip of roasted pepper, and then monkfish with baby shrimp, a curry of green courgette and a froth of lemongrass and coconut milk. The dishes danced on the palate and they sang of distant shores and Sá Pessoa’s dreams. It thrills, and slightly saddens me that they come from a different world to the doorstep sardines.