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Saturday, January 5, 2013

Grilled in Lisbon

Four days, three nights in Lisbon, post-Xmas - just enough time to take in the city's charms before it started raining and before my knees gave out from trucking up all those steep, steep city streets.  Firmly situated in the Bairro Alto district in a highly recommended hideaway B&B (Casa do Bairro), I arrived in Lisboa, as the multi-lingual Portugese call it, expecting to OD on cod, cod, cod (or bacalhau).  To my pleasant surprise, the culinary scene was more dominated by grilled fish, grilled fish, grilled fish, which I love - and boiled potatoes.  But look a bit deeper and it's clear to see that however quaint and conventional Lisbon may appear on the surface (those cute 18th C. trams and funiculars, to wit), there is a creative and innovative restaurant scene bubbling under the surface.

During such a short stay, it's inevitable that some gems will be missed, and my pre-voyage online searches led to some interesting prospects that Co. and I didn't get a chance to partake of, including Largo, Manifesto, Belcanto, Cantinho do Avillez, Alma, and SeaMe.  Next time.  Some of the highlights of our brief sojourn follow.

Restaurante 560

A 15-minute leisurely stroll through the Bairro Alto, pausing mid-way for a majestic overlook view of the sprawling city and waterfront, R. 560 makes interesting interior use of plywood boarded walls and ceiling with small illuminated squares - a hint of the creativity to come in the preparation of the food. 

Co. started off with an intriguing grilled fig and goat's cheese salad with citrus fruits vinaigrette (6€), with me opting for octopus carpaccio drizzled with olive oil and lemon juice (7€).  Both were hits, comprised of fresh ingredients, very Mediterranean.  Not having adjusted my culinary photography to the illuminated plywood ambiance, I'm reluctant to show you my bleary-eyed photo of the carpaccio, but here goes anyway.

Not quite ready to venture whole hog into whole grilled fish territory, 560 was a good starting point, with some offbeat fish choices on the docket for main dishes.  Co. was ready for cod, however, and went with the cod fish with roasted corn bread potatoes and sprouts (12.90€).  For me, it was the rather outrageous idea of accompanying grilled swordfish with sliced bananas (12.50€), which didn't seem so weird once I started eating it and finding that it made perfect sense.  As it turned out, after a couple of mutual tastes, Co. and I switched plates, with my palette less attuned to the sweeter option, and vice versa.  Nonetheless, no complaints - both dishes were delicately prepared and tasty.  The cornbread proved to be an inspirational addition to the cod dish.

The rather ordinary sounding crumble with red fruit (sorry, no photo) served as our only foray into dessert country, but it proved to be a stunner, and a perfect cap to a very good dinner.  With the usual 'couvert' (3€) opener of bread, olives, and red peppers (traditionally brought to the table soon after you sit down, and which is added to your bill unless you decline), the dinner plus a fine bottle of red (Tons Duorum, 12€) came to a ridiculous price of 57.50€.  Now that's a price/quality ratio that can't be beat in any country.

Rua das Gaveas, no. 78
1200-209 Lisboa
tel: 21 3468317


From the modern to the hole-in-the-wall 'we've been here forever' O Cantinho, one street over from Restaurante 560, our venue for a second night dinner in Lisbon.  Listed at one of the New York Times' travel guides as one of the top four restaurants in Lisbon, on the way back to the B&B from 560, I stopped by to chat with a grizzled guy hanging outside O Cantino wearing a Chicago Bulls cap and beckoning passersby.  'Oprah Winfrey ate here!' he proudly assured me after hearing of my Norte Americano origins.  My response was something along the lines of 'Oprah Windbag her very self?  Hell, I might eat here anyway.'  I don't quite understand his need to lure patrons, given his confirmation to what I had already learned online, that O Cantinho takes no reservations (or credit cards, by the way), and if you don't show up early (in Lisbon, early is 7:30 pm), you'll have to prime yourself for a long wait.  O Cantinho is something of a local dining institution, and after failing at snagging a reservation at Cantinho do Avillez, Co. and I showed up at O Cantino at 7:15 pm and found three tables inside already occupied.  My disappointment over Cantinho - I hope you are keeping your Cantinho and O Cantinhos straight here - quickly faded along with the warm reception, appetizing couvert, and tempting menu at O Cantino.  First things first, a large tray of uncooked whole fish is brought to the table - if one strikes your fancy, it will be prepared for the entire table at a price around 32€.  We chose to order from the menu despite the gargantuan offerings on the tray and the supplicating gazes of one or two of the fresh sea bass.

The highlight of our meal was unquestionably the huge appetizer of clams in garlic and lemon sauce - it's been so long since I've had clams that good, sopping up the sauce with the bread and downing it with a bottle of red that we had to wait for the server to go fetch at a nearby wine shop.  Co.'s codfish cakes provided a nice counterpoint to the clams.  I made out much better with the two grilled dorades as a main dish vis-a-vis Co.'s less interesting heaping helping of fried whiting.  One thing is for sure, you will not leave O Cantinho hungry.  Total, dinner for two, no desserts, plus one bottle of vinho: 70.80€.

For a litany of stories to take back home, be sure to check out the clothing shop a couple doors down across the street from O Cantinho - the one with various vintage offerings in the window.  As Co. tried on a litany of various cocktail dresses - finally opting for the vintage-looking but new black one, pretty sexy if you ask me - I had a memorable conversation with the owner, whose mostly coherent, sometimes not, ramblings covered topics ranging from her once beautiful breasts to the collectors from around the world who she claims comes to her shop for original copy Disney comic books to the vintage ties hiding in a corner, including that weird skinny olive one that she refused to discount for me.  Maybe next time.

Rua do Norte, 46
1200-223 Lisboa
tel: 213 464 265
If you go, remember: no reservations, no credit cards.


And on the third night. . . Guarda-Mor.  Having difficulty reserving at my listed options, we had our concierge snag a table for us at this local establishment that did not show up on my radar as I conducted my pre-voyage research.  With trepidation, we made our way out into the night to Rua do Guarda-Mor (hence the name), situated in a narrow street between Madragoa and Lapa.  Another warm welcome, this time perhaps too warm, we were quickly brought a couvert of bread, olives, and crab spread, accompanied by  a gratis aperatif drink.  Guarda-Mor is comprised of two finely appointed rooms - see the first photo above - and it slowly but surely filled up on the Friday evening of question.  

I enjoyed my simple but gratifying plate of pimentos padrom (4.50€), while Co. dug into her boudin noir Portugese style (morcela assada, 4.90€).  Once again, Co. struck out with her delicate but fried filetes de peixe galo with a plate of risotto and beans (13.90), not quite realizing what she was ordering beforehand.  I had no complaints over a rather standard, but tastily so, plate of gambas fritas accompanied by a really boring, uninspired plate of white rice (15.90).

My praline de chocolate (3.90€) also outperformed Co.'s stab at what the Portugese can do with a creme brulee (leite creme queimado, 3.90€ - apparently not much).  Perhaps needless to say, I was more impressed by Guarda-Mor than Co., solely a function of choices.  In sum, I wouldn't go so far as to say it's one of the better restaurants in Lisbon, but you could do worse.  Total bill, with wine (Marques de Borba, 16€): 71.15€.

Rua do Guarda-Mor, 8
1200-682 Lisboa
tel. 213 978 663

Two other venues worthy of mentioning, both at which provided more than satisfactory lunches: First up, Caseiro Restauante, just a couple blocks walk from the famous monastery in Belem, this may be your best option in the overly touristical area, cozy, homey food, packed to the gills, relatively inexpensive.  Another fine lunch was had at Santo Antonio de Alfama in, not surprisingly, the tres-Montmarte-like neighborhood of Alfama.  And when I say grilled fish, I mean grilled fish.

Rua. de Belém, 35, - Lisboa
tel:  21 36 23 107 and 21 36 38 803

Beco de Sao Miguel 7
1100-538 Lisboa
tel. 21 888 1328

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