The trailblazer of Lisbon’s fine dining scene
Claim to fame: A fine dining pioneer that hasn’t lost his spark
Reason to go: Flavor clarity and density, and immaculate presentations
To look out for: Lobster and crab in a tomato gazpacho; sea bass with green peas in different forms
Eleven was created with the express ambition of earning a star from the tire company, and of putting Lisbon on the current gastronomic world map. More than a decade later, no one can contest its success. The accolades have been pouring in since 2005, and there’s no doubt Eleven has helped raise Lisbon’s profile. In fact, today there are so many contenders on the fine dining scene in Lisbon that some of the very chefs who used to work here are conceivably stealing Eleven’s thunder. Or perhaps just its guests; it’s not hard to score a table at Eleven, and that’s a good thing. The food is up there with the city’s best, offering some of the most distinctive flavors you can find anywhere.
Situated at the top of Lisbon’s central Parque Eduardo VII in a purpose-built box with a glass wall, Eleven affords a foreshortened vista, with the sloped park rolling away below it to the Marquês de Pombal roundabout, from where downtown Lisbon extends abruptly to the river. The interior is far less interesting, with blue-white lighting and occasionally schmaltzy background music bringing a 1970s hotel lobby to mind.
And that’s ok, because it focuses your attention right back to where it should be: the plate in front of you. Joachim Koerper, of German origin with a knack for Mediterranean cuisine, makes pretty but unfussy presentations, always ‘signed’ with a tiny cube of tomato and a fennel frond. His lengthy CV features Moulin de Mougins under Roger Vergé and includes Girasol in Alicante, Spain. At Eleven he is executive chef and undoubtedly the most important of the eleven partners (hence the name).
Amuses include a creamy sardine soup, its flavor almost shockingly intense for this setting, but also obliquely appropriate. The piercing smell of sardines on a thousand small grills was once a characteristic Lisbon scent. This is followed by a slab of foie gras whose gold dusting is a bit overkill (bling is obviously a thing here) and whose accouterments of varying forms of orange and rum do not quite make the palate sing. Which the following two dishes do: lobster and crab in an ultra-thin, but ultra-intense, tomato gazpacho; and a seared piece of sea bass accompanied by green peas in various forms (all of them heavenly) and wasabi, appropriately muted.
Koerper and his lieutenants are certainly flavor wizards. Rarely has a pumpkin purée tasted so much of pumpkin, creamed peas so much of peas, tomato broth so much of tomato. These things are harder to achieve than one might think. The wine list glitters with plenty of jewels to make the emissaries of grand ole’ haute dining feel right at home, but its (appropriately dominant) selection of Portuguese wines could be more adventurous. And it evinces an intriguing tilt towards wines made by German and Swiss émigrés.