I'm just back from Portugal and the trip was as wonderful, and the country as enchanting, as I had imagined it would be. There were quaint cobblestone streets with buildings that felt as though time had stood still for centuries. There were beautiful red tile roofs on every building as far as the eye could see. And the Portuguese people...so friendly, warm and inviting, and very patient with our feeble attempts at speaking their language! But what did surprise me was the culinary experiences we encountered!
I suppose I've never thought about Portugal as a culinary mecca. Being from Birmingham, AL (a culinary hot spot that is getting some serious attention as a foodie destination) I am spoiled by the numerous farm-to-table restaurants we frequent and James Beard Award nominated (and winning) chefs that are constantly creating new and exciting restaurants and bringing brilliant new ideas in cuisine to our city. So rarely do I go somewhere with the anticipation of finding better food. But Charles, my foodie husband, is always scouring the web looking for unique dining experiences when we travel...and he scored big with a couple of restaurants on this trip!
In Lisbon, he found BECO Cabaret Gourmet, one the the restaurants by two Michelin star chef José Avillez. The entertainment begins before you even enter the restaurant, when you are directed to a small podium in the back of one of his restaurants, where you are playfully "checked out" before you are deemed worthy of entry, then ushered through a secret bookshelf door (speakeasy style) into a cavernous, but cozy, dimly lit space. There is a preset menu of about 15 delightfully surprising small plates each magically transformed to match the "vibe" of the cabaret and artfully presented. To say each bite was delicious would be an understatement. Our menu consisted of exotic items like beet "taco" with spicy tuna; foie gras with cotton candy and lyo raspberry; tagliatelle with prawn, fennel and caviar. We had a roasted strawberry and beetroot ice cream served as a tube of lipstick that was delicious...and I don't like beets! The show was more flirty and fun than scandalous or shocking and even the chef got in on the act, wowing us with her singing talent. It was a delightful evening that I will make sure to recommend to clients visiting Lisbon.
The second restaurant he found was Euskalduna Studio in Porto. Another hidden (and I really mean hidden, the sign is tiny and you have to push a disguised doorbell to request entrance) gem where there is one seating for only 16 people each night. The menu is customized for each person and the chef keeps a data base with each patron so that he knows what you've been served on previous visits and can make sure you have a unique experience each time you dine with them. Everything is fresh from their own gardens and local suppliers, delivered to the restaurant each morning. They serve 10 courses of ecstasy, each bite perfectly balanced and, if you choose, paired with the perfect wine accompaniment by the talented sommelier. It was a 3-hour dining experience where we were lined up along the chef's counter where we could see the flurry of activity and skill of the chef and his talented team to create each beautifully executed dish. It was truly one of the best dining experiences I've ever had and a must for any of my foodie clients visiting Porto. Reservations do need to be made well in advance - and I'm sure will be nearly impossible once he earns the Michelin stars he is destined to receive.
But even outside of these two amazing restaurants, we found incredible cafés, patisseries, and neighborhood hot spots serving traditional Portuguese dishes that were delicious. Of course, being a country on a peninsula, their traditional seafood dishes are plentiful...sardines, mackerel, lobster, shrimp, crab, mussels, and octopus are menu staples. But, they also have phenomenal cheeses, breads, potato dishes, cured meats and unbelievably sweet fruits to savor. And as for the wines - their vineyards produce a tremendous variety of options - but of course, the Douro Valley is the only place in the world that produces the famed Port wines. Some of our tastiest finds were at Ribadouro in Lisbon and Café Paris in Sintra (the mussels and octopus salad were amazing!) Even our hotel's restaurants (Hotel Lisboa Plaza in Lisbon, Hotel Teatro in Porto, and Douro Palace Resort & Spa in Douro Valley) exceeded our expectations with their fresh and tasty dishes.
Needless to say, we dined extremely well and have acquired a great appreciation for the cuisine of Portugal! One last note - no trip to Portugal would be complete without sampling the pastéis de nata (traditional custard tarts) or pastéis de bacalhau (cod fritters) offered in almost every establishment around the country. In my opinion, the best pastéis de nata are from Pastéis de Belém, the bakery using the recipe that originated with the monks at the Jerónimos Monastery centuries ago. Bom Apetite!