Bookish cuisine in an apropos setting
Claim to fame: Henrique Sá Pessoa’s return to fine dining
Reason to go: Dexterously walking the line between dazzling technique and real flavor encounters
To look out for: Stalwart Portuguese ingredients reimagined, with a waft of Asia
Henrique Sá Pessoa is one of the core group of new, exciting Portuguese chefs that emerged around the turn of the century. He opened the first Alma in 2009, in the Santos district, but it never really took off in the wake of the banking crisis, and closed its doors permanently in 2013. Pushing forty, at the end of 2015 he was back, a few more white hairs on his head and beard, but with a sturdier business setup, many of his former team on board, and a clear vision of what he wanted to do.
Combining coziness with a certain grandeur, Alma occupies a former storage area of the Bertrand bookshop in Lisbon’s Chiado district. Bertrand is said to be the world’s oldest bookshop continuously in operation (since 1732) and that may give you an idea of what its former storage areas look like: flagstones, vaulted ceilings and pillars by what must have been a side entrance to the building. Into this space has been inserted a kitchen, partly open and partly walled off with a vast shelf that serves as wine cellar. The dining space creates an L around the kitchen and never feels echoingly large, despite the grand framing. Tasteful oak details and discreet lighting from copper-shaded pendants evoke an atmosphere of craftsmanship. Serving staff treads and speak softly, but the scene they set is relaxed rather than reverential.
Amuses include tapioca crisps with oyster mayonnaise and seaweed, a shot glass of clarified gazpacho with a dollop of pennyroyal gel, and flakes of marinated bacalhau with a tomato-onion pickle and olive oil in ‘caviar’ balls. Clear, clean flavors, even refreshing. The third is a visual treat: red pepper fingers in an ash tempura with a coulis of roasted red peppers and smoke-flavored vinegar. The fingers, like stalactites of lava, are a treat in the mouth as well, while the coulis leaves a strange sensation of ketchup- and mustard goop on a hot dog. Perhaps it’s that smoke flavor.
A starter of grilled sardine on crisp bread, with roasted red pepper and aubergine purée underneath, arrives with dollops of smoked pepper mayo and tomato vinegar gel, plus a dusting of dehydrated black olives. Textures contrast nicely, but again that smoke flavor sounds an off note. If only the aubergine purée had had its own smoky flavor from slow roasting instead…
The main course blows away all smoky doubts, however: steamed parrot fish from the Azores surrounded by a deliciously damp and moreish rice with clams à Bulhão Pato (garlic, olive oil, coriander and wine). The accompanying lime and seaweed foam demonstrates very well how foam can have a purpose beyond the visual.
The chocolate bomb with salted caramel and hazelnut sorbet looks daunting, but is in fact a light and stylish breeze. Restraint is very much in evidence here, breaking decisively with Portuguese dessert tradition. The wine list is fairly ample, mostly Portuguese as one would want it to be, and does give regions such as Dão and Bairrada a look in despite the barrage of Douro bottlings.