Claim to fame: Inventive, flavor-confident cooking with a reasonable price tag.
Reason to go: Ox-heart carpaccio with muxama (dried tuna) and pickled turnip.
To look out for: A homeward stroll through Alfama’s arched alleyways.
In what used to be a butcher’s shop, with marble-slab walls and fitted, now vintage, fridges still in place, is Lisbon’s barest and arguably best-value restaurant for well conceived and executed flavor marriages; food that might need a bit of an explanation (amicably provided by the sunny, informal staff or the chef himself) but never seems, or tastes, outré for the sake of outréness. Best of all, it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg.
Boi-Cavalo literally means ox-horse, and can be understood as yak or wildebeest, or the type of cattle used for riding in some parts of Brazil (yes, we asked Wikipedia). Here, in the postcard that is Alfama, where tascas, fado taverns and tourist traps are the rule, it simply means ‘unexpected’.
What Chef-Owners Hugo Brito and Pedro Duarte set out to do, about three years ago, was to dig into the gastronomic history of Lisbon, high and low, and ‘connect with it’, as Hugo Brito says. More specifically, to take recognizably Portuguese flavors and textures such as cornmeal bread, berbigão (cockles), squid, baby broad beans, morcela (blood sausage), even lettuce, just to browse the current tasting menu, and combine them with less familiar ones in order to build new experiences with identifiable references.
This is evident in a cube of maize bread surrounded by a dense cockle sauce and topped with bits of garlic shoots and Asian pear. Perhaps even more so in squid ‘tagliatelle’ with passion fruit vinaigrette, flanked by a thick brushstroke of blood sausage and tamarind cream (a small marvel in itself), and a scattering of nori. Not to mention the baby broad beans with a broad bean purée, crisps of purple vitelotte potato and powdered egg yolk. Or the lettuce purée that beautifully captures the essence of lettuce, paired with pork loin and sweet-potato vinaigrette. A traditional nickname for Lisbon natives is Alfacinhas, ‘little lettuces’.
The wine list is short but manages to offer a good choice of less mainstream, and interesting, Portuguese wines. It includes an unsulphured white of encruzado, wittily called Em Cru, by the partnership between Quinta da Pellada and Os Goliardos, that has an almost cider-like character which goes well with several of the dishes. The single dessert, a dollop of banana cheesecake ice cream with horseradish cream and sake marmalade, is the kitchen’s weakest showing, but this may have been due to a slight excess of salt in the horseradish cream.
The space is simple in the extreme: a marble rectangle with no-nonsense wooden tables and chairs, lit by two lanes of Ikea ceiling lights with imitation carbon-filament bulbs. The open kitchen is in the back, behind the spot where the butcher’s counter must once have been. It feels like a basic café from yesteryear, though that’s not a bad backdrop for Hugo Brito’s and Pedro Duarte’s nostalgic-not cuisine.