The third dish comes to the table – a re-invented take on the classic Portuguese dish of camarão al guillo (shrimp in garlic oil). A clear glass bowl, with a pastel pink shrimp mousse, with tiny poached shrimps underneath, topped with crispy fried shrimp heads. As our server, with a classy black leather full length apron, sets the bowls down on the table he says, “And now, here is your amuse bouche.” “Amuse bouche? This is only the amuse?!” I think to myself, and later say out loud to Susete. We’ve had two amazing dishes already so far – first, a crunchy tapioca cracker with oyster mayo, local Portuguese seaweed and green gazpacho; second a take on the classic ‘peixinhos da horta‘ done with pimentas (red bell pepper) in a crispy black tempura batter, paired with silky smooth red pepper and cilantro purées.
We honestly thought that we had gotten more than we bargained for with those first two small plates. Both were absolutely perfect, and next comes a full appetizer sized “amuse bouche”, along with the bread service, which consisted of three types of in-house made breads, one with corn flour, one traditional rustic bread, and the third, a gluten-free carob bread. Also served was Alentejo olive oil with a complexly deep and pungent flavour.
So, we haven’t even gotten to the entrée yet (entrée is ‘starter’ in Europe, as opposed to North America where the term is used for the main dish…. which is incorrect, by the way), and we’ve already had a half a meal’s worth of Michelin star food. If we didn’t already know before, we definitely knew at that moment, that we were in for a truly memorable evening.
I’ve been following Henrique Sá Pessoa for a while now…. just as long as I’ve been following José Avillez. Both of these guys are equally as influential on my journey into Portuguese cuisine, as I first saw them on an episode of No Reservations, when they were still just young rising stars showing Anthony Bourdain around the newly evolving Lisbon restaurant scene. While Avillez went on to pretty much own the Chiado neighbourhood, opening restaurant after restaurant (now sitting at 6), and earning 2 Michelin stars at his flagship, Belcanto, Sá Pessoa entered the realm of celebrity chef, with his cooking show “Ingrediente Secreto” and temporarily closed down his Alma, to renovate and re-invent it. In a new location (but still in Chiado), Alma is now the opposite of what it once was, with the deep brown wood and sleek leather design style… looking more like a restaurant that’s grown up into an older, more mature version of the stark white blank canvas that it used to be…. oh yeah, and it’s also now a 1 Michelin star joint.
The first official dish on our menu came next. We ordered the “Alma” tasting menu, and other than being the namesake menu, it was also very fitting as “alma” means ‘soul’ in Portuguese, and every single dish on this menu was based on traditional Portuguese soul food recipes. This made my heart sing, as it’s this feature of Portuguese cuisine that connects with me the most – the fact that it can reach right into you, embrace your soul with a warm hug, and instantly make you understand the meaning of saudade, the Portuguese concept of longing.
To start off the written portion of the menu, we were presented with local baby carrots served on a bed of bulgur wheat, served with queijo da cabra (goat cheese), mango gel, and a cilantro sauce. I’m such a carnivore when it comes to food, but this vegetarian starter dish was something I could eat day in and day out. Our server asked how we liked the dish and I told him I think I may end up crying at some point during the meal, because everything is just that good. That moment came during came when we ate the next dish.
The most perfect seared foie gras topped with coffee foam, and served with parsnip and green pea purées, apple, and toasted oatmeal. There’s times when you eat something and can’t do anything but sit there, close your eyes, breathe deeply, and just be thankful that you get to have experiences like this in life. I couldn’t even say anything at this point. I just sat there with that look on my face and Susete laughed as she knows exactly what that look means.
That feeling sat with me for the rest of the meal, as we were next served a fish dish based on the traditional ‘caldeirada‘ made with salmonette (red mullet), in a tomato seafood stock (think, bouillabaisse), with red mullet roe and Portuguese seaweed. Next, the crowning jewel of the menu, crispy-skin pork belly with velvety sweet potato purée and braised bok choy (based on the traditional Portuguese ‘leitão‘ – crispy suckling pig).
Always at these fancy places, I feel a little hesitant and slightly embarrassed to whip out my phone to take photos, but then the older German couple at table next to us said, “Hey, that’s a good idea!” and started to do the same. After chatting with our new friends, we found out that they eat at Michelin-starred restaurants quite a bit and still love taking photos, so I felt ok after that. They had just finished their dessert and the man said that he hopes we get the mango dish because it’s one of the best desserts he’s ever had, which is saying a lot since one of his best friends is a 3-star Michelin chef…. how I didn’t ask him which chef it was is beyond me, but at that point in the meal my brain wasn’t even working properly anyway.
After a quick palate cleanser of fresh lime and ginger sorbet with crunchy meringue and pickled cucumber and apple (a perfect dish in itself), just as hoped, our dessert was the mango dish that our German friend wished for us.
A quenelle of mango sorbet, a dome of maracuja (passionfruit) mousse, mango and passionfruit gels, black sesame both in crisp and purée form, and fresh coconut strips. It was indeed the perfect dessert, and the absolute best way we could’ve finished off the meal we just had.
As a last little reminder that we weren’t just in any normal restaurant, with our bill came a platter of chocolate truffles and craquelin pate-a-choux on a bed of cocoa nibs…. of course.
As a chef, I tend to gravitate towards soul food type of cuisines, and as diner I simply can’t afford to eat high-end most of the time, but once in a while we all deserve a bit of luxury in our lives, or what are we working so hard for? Alma allowed us to have an experience that bridges the gap, taking old school, soul pleasing dishes and presenting them in an innovative way, while still honouring the strong tradition of Portuguese cuisine. It’s actually a perfect metaphor for how I feel about culture in Portugal right now as a whole. There are very few countries I’ve been to that are able to seamlessly weave history and innovation together, and Portugal does it so well. The new generation of Portuguese are moving this country into the future and out of hardship, but also dearly hold on to their heritage and bring it along wherever they go.
Alma is a perfect reflection of the new Portugal.
Executive Chef: Henrique Sá Pessoa
CDC: Daniel Costa
Pastry Chef: Telmo Moutinho
Rua Anchieta, nº 15, Chiado, Lisboa