Walking down the tiny medieval alleyway, we approached the almost unnoticeable dark green door with a red awning above it, on the lower level of a 16th-century building. Every time I return here, this is the point where I take a deep breath, allowing my senses to take in everything around me, as it always feels like I’m returning “home”. As I open the door and take a couple steps down into the cramped, lower level 26 seat restaurant, I catch the eyes of the two ladies half-hidden behind the counter of their miniature-sized open kitchen space, about the size of one person’s station in a Toronto restaurant. They don’t speak any English at all, and I barely speak Portuguese, but food is our universal language, and we connected on my first visit here, as soon as they found out that I’m a fellow chef. There seems to be a global brotherhood/sisterhood with chefs. Doesn’t matter who you are or where you come from… we understand each other, and (almost) always welcome each other.
As soon as I say “Olá, boa noite!” with a big smile on my face, they recognize who I am, even though I haven’t been there in a while. Their cautious curiosity as to who’s coming in immediately turns into a warm welcome of an old friend. Sitting down at the table, Susete and I both take another deep breath, and look at each other with complete contentment. This is the place that started it all, this is the place that feeds our souls… nothing ever changes here, and it’s just the way we like it. It’s perfect.
Every chef has a couple of places that have inspired the very fabric of their personal cooking style. For some, it’s a place they’ve worked where they’ve learned from a great mentor, other times it’s their grandmother’s home kitchen. I get a lot of my culinary inspiration not only from the restaurants on my resume, but even more so from the places I visit around the world, and the people I meet along the way. It’s often the most humble of spots that reach right down inside me to make a profound change in my gastronomic DNA. Restaurante O Beco, in the old Alfama district of Lisbon, is that place for me. Susete and I discovered it on a whim while wandering just around the corner from our apartment on our first visit to Portugal’s vibrant capital, and we fell in love with it instantly.
Authenticity is the long sought-after thing that every tourist looks for when visiting an ancient European city like Lisbon, but ironically, it’s that touristic hunt for authenticity that makes many things completely inauthentic. Many places turn into sort of theme parks for visitors, as they present what they think the tourists are looking for. At O Beco though, they are just themselves…. take it or leave it. They only speak Portuguese, they NEVER change the decor, and Head Chef Rosa Silva and her protegé, Rosa Graça continue to serve up the classic Portuguese tavern dishes that they always have. O Beco is as authentic Portuguese as you can possibly find.
For such a tiny restaurant, the menu is pretty extensive, but it’s best to keep it simple when ordering and stick with the classics. A basket of bread and a bottle of wine is a must here, as it is at any Portuguese restaurant. You can eat your way through Portuguese history here, starting with traditional entrées (appetizers in North America) such as the succulent Camarão al Guillho – poached shrimp swimming in garlicky olive oil that makes for a perfect sauce to mop up with bread, or Peixinhos da Horta – a Lisbon restaurant staple of battered green beans that is the predecessor of Japanese tempura.
Mains are an easy choice for me, as there are three dishes that always make my heart happy. All are quintessentially Portuguese.
There’s no argument that bacalhau (salted cod) is so ingrained into the Portuguese soul, that no menu would be complete without at least one bacalhau dish on it. The Lisbon favourite is also my favourite – Bacalhau a Bras. Rehydrated salted cod, sautéed in a pan with shoestring potato matchsticks and lightly scrambled eggs… garnished with olives and parsley. It doesn’t sound like much, but when done right, it’s creamy, crunchy, and salty. The potatoes and egg are the perfect vessels to showcase the Portuguese love for bacalhau. The brine on the olives helps cut through the heavy layers of starch and protein, and the parsley garnish adds just a touch of peppery freshness needed to balance it all out.
The Alentejo region, which makes up 1/3 of Portugal is hot, dry, and home to the infamous black Iberian pig, which produces the best pork in the world. This is where Carne de Porco a Alentejana comes from. Perhaps the original surf & turf, it’s a curious combination of cubed pork marinated in pimentão (fermented red pepper paste) and pan fried along with small Portuguese clams, as well as fried potatoes. As with all dishes in the south of Portugal, garnishing with cilantro gives this smokey, meaty plate a nice lift of brightness. This has become one of my signature dishes, and this is the place where I learned to make it. It took me a while to earn their trust, but Rosa was nice enough to share her recipe with me… that’s the moment when I knew they really like me.
If there’s one characteristic that defines Portuguese cuisine, it’s simplicity. Great quality ingredients are just so easy to find there, so quite often not much needs to be done at all to make a wonderful meal. This is exactly what you can expect when you order O Beco’s robalo (sea bass). Grilled fish is something that Portugal is famous for, and Chef Rosa keeps it traditional, serving up a whole grilled sea bass, only seasoned with Portuguese sea salt, drizzled with olive oil, and served with a simple side salad and some roasted mini potatoes. Wedges of lemon finish it off.
O Beco isn’t a fancy Michelin star restaurant, or a super trendy new hangout spot. It’s a local tradition… a neighbourhood gem. You always know what to expect, and the two Rosas deliver with consistency each and every time. The old school, non-touristy Portuguese spots can initially be a little intimidating for those unfamiliar with them, but I guarantee you, the minute you say hello (in Portuguese, of course), and greet them with a warm smile, they will offer a smile back and welcome you with open arms. From that point on, their hospitality will be unparalleled. It will feel like you’re being treated to dinner in your friend’s grandmother’s home. Both the food and the people will touch your heart and be with you forever, and after you eat there, you will finally begin to understand what Portuguese cuisine truly is. This little restaurant in a hidden alleyway, in an ancient quarter of the city, became the original inspiration for the way that I cook now, and it will always feel like “home”.