Food for thought, food for the soul. All eggs in one basket, crying over spilled milk, peas in a pod, go bananas! It seems our whole world rotates around food. After all earth itself is mostly water, orbited by a giant cheese ball, and when we arrange to meet people it usually involves food or drinks, as a vessel for good conversation.
Food in Portugal is famous for being good, excellent even. Try to find someone who said they had a bad gastronomical experience in Portugal, I dare you. We, the proud Portuguese, owe this to our history of discoveries around the world, trading products in different continents and cultivating new crops. Can you believe there were no mangoes in Brazil? The Portuguese brought them from South Asian. More recently, promoting our eatable culture are a number of young Portuguese chefs giving us our own but with a twist. Among many, rock-star of Bacalhau, José Avillez stands out alongside his astonishingly successful business.
Currently, he owns 8 restaurants of his authorship in Portugal and one in Dubai, his own line of wines and still two cooking tv shows and a regular segment on one of the national radios. If this man ever has time to sleep, please tell me his secret.
On a flash Instagram interview, as things work these days, José Avillez himself answered a few questions we had for him. Not only is he a great chef, but he’s incredibly nice.
If you have ever wondered what Portuguese cuisine is like on the eyes of the chef:
“Uma cozinha muito rica com muito sabor e muita história”
Avillez describes the Portuguese cuisine as very rich with a lot of flavour and history. He says the world has yet to discover Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato, Queijadas de Sintra and Bacalhau à Brás, which I will proceed to try to describe to you, dear readers, to the best of my capacities.
Amêijoas à Bulhão Pato are essentially steamed clams, with a special sauce someone named after someone else. The best part, I have to confess, is not the clams themselves but the naughty bread you soak in the sauce, make a mess out of and drip the towel with while it’s making its journey into your mouth. The sauce consists of olive oil, cilantro, garlic and occasionally lemon, this explosive combination of flavours is what we rave on about.
Queijadas de Sintra are, very crudely, a Portuguese cheesecake. I have tried to explain what this is multiple times, as it’s one of my favourite things in the world, although I don’t think I have ever succeeded. Basically, because they look or taste nothing like a regular cheesecake, despite indeed being made out of cheese mainly, plus eggs, sugar and cinnamon.
Bacalhau à Brás is what fish and chips could have been if elaborated further. It’s codfish, chips, scrambled eggs and onions. This is serious comfort food, and don’t squint if you don’t like cod, this is what the Portuguese give children who claim they don’t like fish. I fell for this as a child when throwing a tantrum for not liking Bacalhau. My foreign friends who have visited me still remind me of those ‘eggs with bacalhau’ I got them to try when in Lisbon.
As a cheeky question, I asked him if he thought that Bacalhau à Brás had the potential to be the Portuguese fast food worldwide and I must say I owe this idea to my entrepreneurial dad who won’t cease to make this dish into a business deal every time we have it.
Chef Avillez quickly swept the rug from under my feet and said that Bacalhau à Brás could easily dominate the world but it would never be fast food. I take this strike of embarrassment and hold myself up proudly for my dad. Bacalhau à Brás is too exquisite for fast food, especially the one the chef makes, given the ‘explosive olives’ – you never know until you try. Long will be the years until we can go to the chippy and ask for BÀB.
And finally, I gave the chef an ultimatum, 48 hours in Lisbon, what are the essential restaurants?
3 of his own authorship and Zé da Mouraria, apparently a hidden gem in the heart of the city. A very traditional ‘tasca’ only serving grandma-style authentic dishes, where half a portion is enough for two. A restaurant with very little Instagram footprint but a big live followship, from Portuguese tv starts to my aunt’s office lunches.
Bairro is a matrioska of a restaurant, because you get not one, not two, not even three but four restaurants inside one, all with the chef’s signature. The entrance may fool you, as it’s a small door leading to what looks like a ‘tasca’, however highly visible given the mob of people surrounding it during busy hours. Once you get in, the maze of corridors and tables unravels in a setting that looks like the streets of Lisbon. Funny how you leave the streets only to get deeper into the neighbourhood (bairro). I have to say it’s quite an unexpected journey, the first time I went there, I was amazed, confused even, entering Mary Poppins bag. How could all that fit through that tiny door?
The restaurant unfolds into Páteo, Taberna, Pizzaria Lisboa and Mini Bar. From anywhere in the main space you can get food from the first three. Páteo has more of a conventional menu of Portuguese inspired dishes, some with a twist, some more classic, all incredible. Taberna is a tapas bar serving charcuterie and cheese boards and other smaller delicacies with a side deli where you can get some of the products. Pizzaria Lisboa is a Pizza restaurant, serving thin-crusted pizzas with some portuguese inspiration (but don’t worry you can still get a Margherita).
Mini bar is a more hidden venture. Formerly located in a close by theatre, it lost its surroundings but not its core. It is all about spectacle and deceiving your eyes. You can read more on it in my article on gastronomic experiences in Lisbon. For now I’ll leave you with the idea of edible cocktails, avocado shots and all of the things that shouldn’t go together but somehow do…
Belcanto is one of the seven two michelin-starred restaurants in Portugal and currently #42 on “The World’s 50 Best Restaurants List”. It serves a modern twist on Portuguese classics on a very high end setting, with still the calm and laissez faire of the Portuguese people. It is said to be one of the best restaurants in Lisbon. “To cook, serve and nourish. To care for those who sit at our table.” is the motto of the restaurant, fancy dining but with no frills.
Cantinho do Avillez is special for the chef as one of the restaurants is located in Cascais, his hometown (and mine too). Also located in Lisbon in two different neighbourhoods and now as well with residency in Porto, it joins the best of both worlds. It won’t cost you the luxury of a michelin star (2, actually) but it will upgrade your bar tapas. Here again, the foundation of the dishes is on Portuguese cuisine, but it derives from the basics as it takes inspiration from the chef’s travels.
This is pretty much your basic guide to Portuguese food, follow the chef and come back to me later, let me know if it is ever possible to eat badly in Lisbon.