Fine dining and views upstairs, greasepaint and spectacle downstairs
Claim to fame: Able execution by Bertílio Gomes, a former wunderkind of the new Portuguese school
Reason to go: The vibe of the space and its surroundings
To look out for: A table by the open French windows
Chapitô is a Lisbon institution. Thirty years ago, a grand but decaying property with a garden just below the castle was ceded to a recently formed collective for the cultural and recreational development of disadvantaged youth. The renovated venue soon became known for its circus and performing arts school, its cool bar with a view, its concerts and parties. It was a magnet for young leftists and anarchists, alternative lifestylers and general do-gooders, and for anyone who liked a good time.
The restaurant was initially a no-frills affair, in keeping with the ethos of the place, but a certain gentrification gradually crept in. While that process may be justifiably lamentable in other corners of Lisbon, here it’s a welcome improvement to a space that deserves it. The views from the upstairs restaurant are among Lisbon’s best. And don’t worry, all the razzmatazz is still going on downstairs.
Hiring Bertílio Gomes to run the kitchen was also an astute move. One of the early stirrers-up of classic Portuguese cooking, he is nevertheless no iconoclast, and likes to invoke his Algarvian roots as well as use ingredients from a broader Portuguese context. His amuse bouche on a warm summer night is a cold cucumber soup topped by almond flakes, with an onion and citrus backbone that makes it akin to a gazpacho, minus the tomatoes. As the evening sun tattoos the tabletop (its slight stickiness is explained by the waitress as being due to old varnish reacting to the sun, not to previous guests’ spills) and a pitch-perfect white of encruzado by Quinta dos Carvalhais brings the universe into balance, a tartare of cod wrapped in a thin ring of cucumber arrives sided by a coulis of papaya, ginger and lime, punctuated with Sichuan pepper and accented with radish and basil sprouts. (In Portuguese menu parlance, cod is called bacalhau fresco since national cuisine learned about the dried and salted version first.) The cod is not in charge here, but the ensemble is excellent.
Hake is a fish you’ll find fresh at most Portuguese fishmongers. At its best, pescada has a buttery flavor and a flesh that can handle cooking well. Bertílio Gomes’ ‘goose-bumped’ (steamed?) piece of hake, sizeable and with skin intact, is served with finely-sliced zucchini ‘cannelloni’ (he likes the mandolin) wrapped around a tomato sauce so thick and rich I’d like to meet his tomato supplier. The ameijoa clams that accompany them seem almost an afterthought, delicious though they are.
As the stars obediently arrange themselves in the night sky framed by the French window, a concluding dessert asserts Bertílio Gomes’ knowing way with elemental tastes and textures: raspberries on a sesame-biscuit base, buttressed by a fluffy egg-white cream and terminated at each end by thin discs of chocolate, like ears or wheels, depending on your imagination.
Everyone is ogling her as I leave, but the cartwheeling circus artist downstairs has nothing on those chocolate discs.