Where to eat in Lisbon and get a taste of Portugal’s culinary renaissance

Portugal boasts a rich culinary history and a growing number of Michelin stars; its capital caters to all tastes, with nods to Asia at high-end restaurants and local snacks at hole-in-the-wall joints

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 12:31pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 June, 2017, 5:48pm

With an average of 260 days of blue skies a year, Lisbon is Europe’s second sunniest capital. In recent years it has also become a culinary shining light as Portuguese cuisine has reclaimed its position as one of the most important around. We have much to thank this country of barely 10 million people for.

Starting your day with coffee and marmalade? The Portuguese took the former to Brazil and introduced the latter to England. That sublime tempura in Japan? Thank the Portuguese for perfecting the technique centuries ago.

If you’re feeling spicier, chilli didn’t exist in India until the Portuguese trading ships landed there, and vindaloo even takes its name from “vinha de alhos” or wine and garlic, the two original ingredients.

As for egg tarts – available in Macau and all over the world – we’ll get to them with help from a taxi driver and a monk.

One man who has helped lead the recent Portuguese culinary renaissance – or renascimento – is Henrique Sa Pessoa. He’s the Jamie Oliver of Portugal, a celebrity chef with a serious following and an impact far beyond the kitchen. Unlike Oliver, he also holds a Michelin star, at his elegant Lisbon restaurant, Alma.

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Alma means “soul” and its menu features contemporary Portuguese cuisine with Asian touches, a combination that saw Alma win that star within just 10 months of opening in 2015. Sa Pessoa says: “This year in Portugal we went from having [a total of]14 Michelin stars to 21. It really shows the momentum building across the country. In Alma we seek to serve much more than a meal: we serve emotions, identity, knowledge. In the end, we seek to develop a kitchen with depth, a consequence of our experiences.”

Sa Pessoa has cooked around the world and has visited the former Portuguese enclave of Macau on four occasions; he attended the 2013 Gastronomy and Wine Festival at the city’s Clube Militar. “Macau is an interesting market and would be the most obvious choice for international expansion,” he says. “The public likes and understands Portuguese cuisine and it could attract a lot more people.”

Sa Pessoa’s success comes from celebrating the local, and not overcomplicating great produce. “We have a menu called ‘from coast to coast’ where we try to use local fish and seafood – octopus, percebes [rare and expensive goose barnacles], shrimp, monkfish, hake kokotxas [essentially fish throats].

“Our confit of suckling pork with crackling is loved by our Asian guests, and of course we have a take on bacalhau.”

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Ah, bacalhau. The Portuguese word for cod – both fresh and salted, although the latter is by far the country’s most popular and ubiquitous ingredient; in fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find the fresh fish. Sourcing it was once hugely dangerous, gruelling work, fished by line from small boats off Greenland, before being salted and dried. Today, industrial fishing fleets deliver it from the freezing seas off Norway, Iceland or Newfoundland, with Lisbon markets and stores offering huge selections.

The dried, salted cod needs to be soaked in water for a couple of days before it can be used, but when it’s ready it’s said that there are three different cod recipes for every day of the year.

In five days, I didn’t see a menu in Lisbon not carrying it, at least in some form. Most memorable among them was that at AlmaLusa Baixa-Chiado, an elegant 18th century building converted to a beautiful 28-room boutique hotel.

The restaurant, Delfina, is typically Portuguese: relaxed and convivial, a place where meals are savoured and diners linger. It’s the work of restaurateur Antonio Oliveira Silva and business partner Carlos Miguel, secretary for the Portuguese Gastronomy Association.

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Bacalhau defines the country’s cuisine like no other ingredient, Miguel says. “Obviously, seafood is so important in a maritime nation, but it’s our versatility with one ingredient that speaks volumes.”

Miguel also explains how The Lisbon Food Festival, held every April, has rapidly grown in size and acclaim, attracting culinary giants from around the world keen to discover dishes and techniques.

At Delfina the pasteis de bacalhau are exceptional. It’s one of the simplest ways to serve cod, the crispy, seasoned exterior gives way to flaky, perfectly salted fish with parsley and onion, all mixed into a creamy potato and egg mixture. A sensational and vastly underrated mouthful.

Of course, Lisbon also has a tradition of cheap eats in small, humble joints at prices that would stun visitors. A brilliant walking food tour with Singular Trips takes you to places you may otherwise miss.

For example, tendinha means “little tent” and denotes a hole-in-the-wall spot serving snacks known as petiscos and other quick eats.

The Tendinha do Rossio was founded in 1840 and has even featured in legendary fado songs – the melancholic but beautiful soundtracks to the city. A delicious bowl of steaming seafood and vegetable soup, perfect for lunch? That’ll be 1.30 (US$1.45, HK$11.30). A cod cake is again hard to turn down, especially accompanied by a small glass of sparkling local white wine.

Not far away, past the pretty blue jacaranda trees of Dom Pedro Square, sits Casa das Bifanas. A bifana is a boneless pork cutlet cooked in white wine and garlic, served in crusty bread with mustard and piri piri chilli sauce. Hearty, honest, filling, cheap and delicious – and usually washed down with a beer, even at 10 o’clock in the morning.

Another alcohol-based surprise comes in the form of a potent cherry liqueur known as ginjinha. Made from sour cherries with water, sugar and cinnamon, the original recipe dates from the mid-19th century and a number of tiny stands still exist, serving quick shots – with or without a cherry in the bottom – to locals. Smartly dressed businesspeople, construction workers and elderly locals alike all pop in for a 1 tot before carrying on with their day.

But the last word in Lisbon’s cuisine has to go to egg tarts, its most famous sweet export. They were first made at the 16th century Mosteiro Dos Jéronimos, a monastery in Belem just a short drive from Lisbon’s city centre. Monks had a surplus of chickens – and therefore eggs – so created the dessert in 1837 to use them up.

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Only a handful of chefs know the recipe, and must sign a lifelong agreement never to disclose it. There’s even a baking room where the ingredients are first mixed so the secret doesn’t get out. Today, an incredible 20,000 pastéis de Belém are sold every day to hordes of visitors lining up outside the blue-and-white-tiled exterior.

The pastry is crisp and buttery, the surface of the custard blistered and slightly caramelised. Dustings of cinnamon or sugar are optional extras, while an espresso is the perfect accompaniment.

Ask most Lisboetas – inhabitants of Lisbon – and they’ll have their own favourite. No one I spoke to cited the pastéis de Belém, and one passionate taxi driver even went as far to say that “They sell 20,000 lies a day!”

For what it’s worth, my standout choice was at Manteigaria. “Manteiga” means butter, as the premises were once a butter producer, a luxury item in the days before refrigeration. The interior is all-marble, and they say they have “no secrets” – with a large glass wall allowing you to watch the tarts being made daily until midnight. The filling is the clincher, creamy but not oversweet, consistent and not cloying.

As with the other parts of Lisbon’s vibrant food scene, being the best in town is a matter for debate – and that can only be a good thing.

Alma, Rua Anchieta 15, Chiado, Lisboa, tel: +351 213 470 650; almalisboa.pt

Delfina, AlmaLusa Baixa-Chiado, Praca do Municipio 21, tel: +351 212 697 440;

almalusahotels.com/en/delfina-restaurant

Tendinha do Rossio, Praça Dom Pedro IV, 6, tel: +351 213 468 156

Manteigaria, Rua do Loreto 2, Largo de Camoes, tel: +351 213 471 492; facebook.com/manteigariacamoes

Lisbon Food tour singulartrips.com