On fire, or in Portuguese “en Chamas,” is the only way to describe today’s scene in Lisbon. And while this article relates to the restaurant scene, honestly, the whole of Lisbon is en Chamas: restaurants, bars, cafes, nightlife, shopping, wine…you name it. Lisbon also offers the traveler the gift of a Euro that goes farther here than other places in Europe. It is a must destination and should be on the tip of every explorers tongue. It is only fair since the Portuguese explored most of the world with one of its largest navies. Now it is our turn.
I only had four nights to explore this spectacularly beautiful city so I did some homework before arriving thanks to the fantastic concierge at the nearly perfect Bairro Alto Hotel. The hotel is right smack in the area filled with restaurants, bars, clubs and shopping and is a short walk from the easy train terminals to go out to Sintra or up the coast to Cascais (where one can have a sublime fresh seafood lunch with a 20 year old bottle of Douro red wine sold for near nothing). The city is a walkers dream and nightmare. Dreamy because of the constantly changing colors, muted yet vibrant, gorgeous tile work both on buildings and on the sidewalks (like in Rio) and vistas. Dreamy also for the young and beautiful people of Lisbon as Portugal has one of the youngest populations in Europe. Nightmarish though unless you love the elliptical at your gym as the city is all hills…think San Francisco but where everyone speaks in poetry and parties most of the night (no 2 am cut off here as no one really goes out much before 2).
Back to the Bairro Alto Hotel–this gem is small but very hip and the staff are lovely and extremely helpful. They guided me on a restaurant tour beginning by sending me an electronic document that printed out on about 10 pages highlighting the restaurants of the city. With that, and a computer, I narrowed my options down to several and then further narrowed to a top 3 (the first night was a casual grab and go out). I am happy to say that the food experience was spectacular and I can’t wait to return to try more. That said, there is zero chance I would return to Lisbon without visiting these three foodie (and wine) special places.
First, there is Belcanto. This is a restaurant with a long history. It opened in 1958 but there is nothing fifties about the spot as it is a recent makeover and takeover by the wunderkind of Portuguese hip cookery, Jose Avillez. Young, clever and attractive, Avillez has set the Lisbon food scene en chamas. In fact, I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that two of my three tops are places owned and helmed by Avillez. Belcanto is the higher end spot filled with dishes that bridge the traditional Portuguese (which can be heavy though tasty) to a futuristic, almost El Bulli style, adventure where the cuisine is light and creative. My friend and I had the “Uneasiness Menu” the name alone catching our eyes. Uneasiness here means pushing your palate and creating food that is also art. Avillez does that beautifully and the food is amazing. Dish after dish were creative with some looking as if seafood is set on sand at the beach, a piece of suckling pig is dancing on air, molecular olives and cod add tastes that would satisfy the most exacting Portuguese Grandmother in her kitchen but also would be a hit with the trendiest traveler. We did the wine pairing which is something I have begun to loathe to do since sometimes that is a miss. Here it was a hit and helped as my knowledge of Portuguese wines was limited before the trip. All were great. The meal ended with a nice conversation with the handsome and witty Mr. Avillez. Walking out of the restaurant and into the Chiado district, I knew my decision to visit two of his spots was a wise one.
And that was proven true upon dining at Cantinho do Avillez a few blocks away from Belcanto (and also near the wonderful restaurants that I can also recommend-Largo, 100 Maneiras Bistro and a hop from the
Bairro Alto hotel). This is the antithesis of the modern elegance of Belcanto where one has to ring a bell to enter. At the Cantinho it is hustle and bustle, friendly, and really a restaurant of now. Simply decorated and nice but butcher block style tables make for a great spot to linger over wine and food. The tomato and bread soup (a play on pan de tomate) alone makes me want to return asap. But all of the food was spot on and terrific. Think rustic meets hip and refined. Damn good. We had a wine by the name of Character and that sort of says it all about where Portugal food and wine are going. Another favorite wine was Explicit. Gotta love it.
Rounding out the top 3 but in no way in the shadow of the other two is the sublime Restaurant Alma. This gem is located a taxi ride (or 20 minute walk) from the Bairro Alto hotel in a quasi residential neighborhood. Once inside, however, it takes on a special air. All white and small with a cloud for a main light fixture (think art not cartoon), it makes a wonderful place to dine and enjoy the time. The restaurant is owned and helmed by respected and acclaimed chef Henrique Sá Pessoa who is known throughout Portugal for his presence on their version of the Food Network. But this is not all about glamour and glitz because the food is special in its own right. There is a Menu Traditional and a Menu Contemporary. We chose Contemporary and loved the merger of traditional flavors with right now tastes. Creative yet a bit more restrained than that of Mr. Avillez at Belcanto this restaurant is the perfect bridge between the rustic freshness of the Cantinho and the sometimes molecular brilliance of Belcanto. One can’t go wrong and the place and service charms as well as the food and wine.
Actually charm is probably the best word for Lisbon. The whole city is charming. Sitting on the roof deck at the Bairro Alto hotel is charming. Walking the streets is charming. Sipping wine at the BA Wine Bar, or in a seaside cafe in Cascais, or strolling through the park or stopping at one of the hundreds of tiny bars in the Chiado and Bairro Alto area is charming. But there is also heat, in the food and in the nightlife. But that’s another article. Get to Lisbon and catch its fire. It is En Chamas, indeed.