Kimchi kisses and bao bear hugs
Claim to fame: Kiko Martins, the boy wonder from Rio de Janeiro and Trás-os-Montes keeps fine-tuning his repertoire
Reason to go: A hike through an adventurous corner of Asian cuisine
To look out for: The peacock that occasionally struts along the top of the garden wall
Kiko Martins recently added this restaurant to his mini-empire, which now covers several corners of the globe but is mostly concentrated to downtown Lisbon. Situated on the edge of Bairro Alto, O Asiático initially sends contrasting signals: a doorman to usher you through an entrance hall decorated with spices in glass jars and wallpapered with photographs from southeast Asia of the kind that earnest western travelers take. Once you’re in the handsome main dining room, however, a more urbane sophistication takes over. The softly lit space ends in a glass wall giving onto a small garden enclosed by a high wall, allowing lucky guests to eat under the stars. There’s also an upstairs bar with tables for more private dinner parties.
The pan-Asian theme provides considerable scope for variety, and the fairly short menu of smallish cold and hot dishes and desserts roams accordingly. An urbane sophistication applies here too: those assuming that the name (‘the Asian’) signals some kind of authentic importation of Asian street food should think again, and look elsewhere.
Or else adjust their expectations and enjoy such well-crafted dishes as shrimp gyozas in a tom yum soup sprinkled with tiny marinated mushrooms. The mackerel nigiri with meringue instead of rice is inventive, even if some sort of flavoring of the meringue might have added a nuance. Ceviche is hardly Asian, but Kiko Martins version is curled in a tasty Asian way: tuna ceviche with coconut milk added to the tiger’s milk, accompanied by tender cubes of coconut marinated in lychee juice.
The highlight of the meal, however, is a bao with a pork belly and shrimp filling, touched off with kimchi (sometimes it’s wasabi, the waiter informs us). Baos are being rolled out in many restaurants in Lisbon these days, but this one leads the pack: a perfect combination of flavors, textures and consistencies. Desserts range freely across the south and east of the Asian continent, sometimes with their tongue in their cheek, as in a ‘sweet curry’ of coconut cake with spicy tropical fruits, a curry cream and frozen yoghurt. Wasabi, for all its current overuse, does very well indeed in a dark chocolate cake with citrus and berry sauce.
The wine list is short but appropriately international, even if Oceania is the closest it gets to Asia. Service is affably attentive. And numerous. It’s almost as if Chef Kiko wants to make the point that he doesn’t scrimp on staff, like so many restaurants hereabouts do. Guests can only be grateful.