Cosmopolitan cuisine with local flavors
Claim to fame: Chef José Avillez’s flagship restaurant, the crown jewel of his almost two dozen establishments
Reason to go: Contemporary Portuguese cuisine that will surprise you
To look out for: Lunches can realistically be booked within a week or two, dinners will require long-term planning
Lisbon’s most highly regarded fine dining restaurant has moved, but only one door up from its old address. The new space, originally part of a monastery, is bigger, airier and filled with soft, natural light pouring through three arched windows, the central one serving as the entrance.
This setting––thick marble pillars and arches, tall vaulted ceilings of exposed brick and modern light fixtures––seems much better suited to Chef José Avillez’s deft homage to Portuguese gastronomy: witty but substantial, grand yet humble, surprising but also comforting.
A steamed brioche with cod liver is an excellent starting point: it rolls classical elegance, contemporary technique and an essential Portuguese flavor into one. The cod liver is a tiny explosion of aromas, much more striking than the now familiar ‘spherified olive’ that bursts in your mouth. It’s followed by a marvelous cherry gazpacho with almond foam, contrasted with somewhat more gimmicky cubes of foie gras served on playing cards. The ‘false cherries’ that come next, filled with another quintessentially Portuguese flavor, that of sarapatel made with pork innards, hits the spot in the same way as the cod liver brioche.
A selection of breads and butters features a stand-out broa, or Portuguese cornbread. Topped with unflavored but mighty Azorean butter, it envelops the taste buds and grips the chops in a grandmotherly embrace that lingers in the mind long after.
The succession of main courses is consistently pleasing, surprising, satisfying. Razor clams with cream and granita of lupin beans (typically served pickled as a beer snack), touched off with tart green peach, combine clean flavors with fabulous textural contrasts. Lobster is served with caviar and a purée of smoked white beans, marrow, and sautéed spinach with a streak of pork belly. Unexpectedly, this generates a comfort food sensation, somehow reminiscent of hot dogs with ketchup and mustard. It’s a little unnerving, but then we’re not here to be rubbed only the right way. And the accompanying wine––an Arinto from the volcanic island of Pico in the Azores––disciplines the whole with its ample but settling acidity.
A word about the wines. Selected by young and genial sommelier Nádia Desidério, the nine wines that accompany the Evolution menu are a master class in what the Portuguese call ‘gastronomic wines’ and a showcase of what Portuguese winemakers outside the mainstream are capable of. Only one of the nine is properly red (two are pink, one orange, the rest white). What they all share is that zesty acidity which is the main requisite of a wine made to accompany food. Thankfully, flabby fruit bombs and tropical concoctions are nowhere to be seen.
A glorious duet of carabineiro, or scarlet shrimp, delights twice: first the body, served with Portugal’s version of polenta, xerém, spiced with cod’s swim bladders and Hart’s pennyroyal mint. This feels like an oblique take on the classic Alentejan bread porridge, açorda, or perhaps a rice dish from the Sado river valley, where Hart’s pennyroyal is common. The brightly colored shrimp sings in the mouth. Then comes its head, baked in salt and otherwise left alone to do its magic. Restraint is rare in these circles; here it is both welcome and admirable.
The two final main courses are equally remarkable: first is sea bass, minimally cooked and served with smoked avocado, lime zest, pistachio oil, salsify and dashi. It’s nowhere near as recherché as it sounds, but a fair amount of research must have gone into finding this ideal flavor combination, which subtly underscores the divine protagonist. The second is hay-smoked squab accompanied by slow-roasted aubergine, a zucchini flower stuffed with pigeon and foie gras terrine, and a hazelnut-cinnamon sauce. The mildly gamey, dense red meat––and the gutsy red wine (2010 Quinta da Manoella Vinhas Velhas, from the Douro) to go with it––are almost a shock at this point, but what a welcome shock! The creamy, softly smoky aubergine is the perfect foil, and the sauce adds a pleasingly medieval touch to this marvel of modern barbarism. The terrine, meanwhile, deserves its own slot on the menu.
Desserts, wisely, dial down the temperature. First are a pair of queijo da serra cheeses, aged 45 days and 4 months respectively, to settle and slowly reignite the palate. These are served with a fantastic Carcavelos fortified wine, similar to Madeira and conducive to prolonged ruminations (we’ve been eating for nearly four hours, but there’s no rush). A witty take on a ubiquitous Portuguese dessert, bolo de bolacha, is followed by ice cream flavored with sepia ink, nougat, and dark chocolate, offset by salt, olive oil and coriander leaves. Again, the sum is impressively balanced and ingeniously Portuguese.
Service, it needs to be said, is as expertly calibrated as Avillez’s dishes, and equally or even more unaffected, which is crucial. Engaging, disarming and discreetly enthusiastic, the staff makes single guests comfortable while gauging precisely how to interact with couples and larger parties.