Looking back to get ahead
Claim to fame: A vintage cabinet crammed with youthful vigor
Reason to go: The old and forgotten dishes as well as the new and well-begotten ones.
To look out for: Avoid a long wait for a table by going very early, or for lunch
The ‘tavern’ part of the name is intended to be taken seriously, even if the space is a former grocer’s, or mercearia. This tiny restaurant celebrates the old taverns of Lisbon in style and décor, and on parts of the menu. On others it roams freely and inventively, but always seasonally. And it continues the tradition of the mercearia by selling products such as cheese and olive oil direct from the producers.
Eight small marble-topped tables plus one larger wooden one equals 20 seats in this deep but narrow cavern clad with classic cement floor tiles and wall vitrines displaying select items for sale. It’s not cramped, but the low vintage chairs are from an era before a large proportion of the population carried excess baggage, so to speak. The supple, easy-going staff navigates the dining room with grace, showing and explaining the day’s menu on a large blackboard.
Chef-owner André Magalhães isn’t into ‘concepts’. The principle here is simple: he uses what’s in season, what’s local and not too expensive, bringing back forgotten tavern-style dishes and inventing new and eclectic ones when the inspiration moves him. The ‘forgotten’ part isn’t iron-clad, however: a bowl of ameijoas à Bulhão Pato, an iconic and very much current Portuguese dish of clams, garlic, wine, fresh coriander and olive oil, is mildly enhanced by the addition of chouriço, in what appear to be fried, tiny cubes. The paprika-y and porky-smoky flavor of the chouriço doesn’t dominate, as it is apt to do, rather it adds a solid texture and an aroma that hasn’t been allowed to leach into the supreme taste of the clams. Well done.
Similarly, an oyster tartare does not subtract from the flavor or mouthfeel of the fresh oyster, instead adding complexity with oil and spices, as well as tastes and textures with salicornia (salicornia maritima) and a pine needle-like ‘sea fennel’ (crithmum maritimum). Two large-ish chunks of corvina, braised in citrus juices, laid on a bed of seaweed and squirted rather liberally with hot sauce, are like a gently heated version of ceviche with more of the raw fish texture intact. A very filling and properly fishy dish, but excellent for anyone who believes fish can’t reach the places meat does.
The more traditional dishes include fried moray eel (made with dried, then brined pieces of eel) and the old Lisbon specialities iscas com elas (wine-marinated, sliced liver served with boiled potatoes and a sauce cooked with – wait for it – minced spleen) and meia-desfeita de bacalhau (a cold or warm ‘salad’ of salt cod, chickpeas, onions and other spices). These are more frequent on the lunch menu.
Wines are all from the Lisbon region, an appellation that nowadays extends much farther north and east than it used to. More important, they are wines that André Magalhães buys without intermediaries, meaning he can keep prices lower. The house red and white, served from carafes in squat glasses, handle most of the dishes well and live up to the tavern ethic. It’s a shame, though, that the quirky wines from Casal de Santa Maria, grown along the steep Sintra coastline, are not here.
Desserts are appropriately simple. They include a mint mousse with berries, fresh figs briefly baked with goat’s cheese, and a flourless chocolate cake that has aficionados in paroxysms.