Traditional Portuguese cuisine turned inside out
Claim to fame: At 37 years old, José Avillez is already one of Portugal’s most revered chefs
Reason to go: Creative tech cooking that hasn’t lost touch with its roots
To look out for: Lunches can realistically be booked within a week or two; dinners will require longer planning
Casual observers might be forgiven for thinking José Avillez is a brand rather than a man, such is the rate at which he has rolled out new restaurants in Lisbon, ever broadening his reach and expanding his chunk of the market. But if there is any place where the man José Avillez, his culinary personality and beliefs, rules over any branding, it is here.
Belcanto is a small restaurant facing São Carlos square in the heart of Chiado, diagonally across from the opera house (where José Avillez runs Café Lisboa). It has been there since 1958, a discreet, clubby sort of place where men of means enjoyed masculine meals. Avillez took it over in 2012.
It is still a discreet, clubby sort of place. Twenty-eight seats in a undistractingly beige dining room. The space in fact has a 1950-60s bourgeois feel to it, which one assumes is intentional. The only striking feature is a wall decorated with unfinished porcelain plates, dried in various states of tensility. It pleases the eye as well as the mind, and is a soft source of light.
But eyes on the plate before you. Or rather the glass of ‘elderini’, a refreshing dry martini made with elderflower that opens the meal. This is followed by four stones, and instructions from the waitress to eat first the black one, then the white one, and leave the two in the middle alone, as they are real stones. The fragile edible stones contain cod and chickpea, pillars of the Portuguese pantry. A vase of flowers placed on the table is revealed to contain another amuse, a perfectly crisp filigree cone with velvety tuna inside. A roast chicken crisp with maize cream and kernels has a comfort-food effect, which again may be intentional.
Connoisseurs of newer cooking techniques will find references here to dishes by Ferran Adrià and other kitchen conjurors. And while Belcanto (along with Mini Bar, also run by José Avillez) is undoubtedly Lisbon’s main exponent of such techniques as spherification, liquid nitrogen freezing, dehydration et al, it’s not a slave to them. This is exemplified by the starter, a beautiful carabineiro, or scarlet prawn, which has simply been lightly grilled. It is utterly delicious as it is, sweet and succulent. The scattering of rosemary ashes adds little beyond the visual, and the brushstroke of sauce seems almost unnecessary as the creature has its own, rich sauce inside its head.
A fillet of red mullet, expertly grilled, has a reassuring sea-saltiness. It is served with a sauce made from its liver, as is traditional, and a xerém (cornmeal porridge) with clams spherified in Bulhão Pato sauce (garlic, olive oil, coriander and wine). This kind of dish seems a good example of what is at the heart of José Avillez’s gastronomy: an homage to the characteristic ingredients and recipes of Portugal, but refined, reframed and occasionally turned inside out. A pre-dessert of raspberry sorbet, pork rind, dehydrated raspberry and a dollop of concentrated Abade de Priscos pudding is a good example of the latter: pork belly is traditionally an ingredient in this classic Portuguese dessert.
The mandarin dessert is a beauty to behold, and technically impressive, but the mandarin sorbet on the side is ultimately more satisfying than the iced fruit shell and its creamy contents. Service is above reproach, just like the wine list is.