As the train got closer to its destination, the anticipation continued to build. We arrived at the Oriente station, and the excitement heightened even more. I stepped off the platform, down the steps on my way to the metro… looking out at the azulejo covered buildings, the Rio Tejo in the background, the hustle and bustle of this busy capital… a feeling of relief and comfort hit me. I’m back. Lisbon feels like home.
I don’t know why I have such an affinity for Lisbon. Well, no, I do… there are thousands of reasons. But I mean, why does it feel like home? Why does it bring comfort and peacefulness? I’m not Portuguese. I didn’t grow up with Portuguese parents or any kind of exposure to the Portuguese community as a kid. Paris has that affect on me as well. There are just some places that do that to a person, I guess. Maybe that’s why there’s those stupid quiz things all over the Internet, “Where you’re supposed to really live”.
I love history. I love imagining all the people who walked the streets of these old cities, that were so highly developed, while North America was still a very rough and wild land. I love hearing about all the stories that happened here. I love the way that places like Lisbon can contrast the old and the new, while also integrating them together. The ability to find that balance is rare, and Lisbon does it with the best of them.
Lisbon is a city that has the ability to continuously play with my senses. The history, the strong cultural identity, the food, the markets, the architecture, the landscape.
After getting out of the metro, I arrive in the Baixa (downtown) and walked across the Rossio and Restauradores squares, up a HUGE escada (stairway) to Carmo district, which is a little connector area for 3 neighbourhoods – Baixa, Chiado, Bairro Alto. This is where I’ll be staying for the next 3 days.
After checking into my apartment, the first order of business was to go find some almoço (lunch)! I walked down the hill into the trendy Chiado district, best known for plenty of hot restaurants and shopping. We don’t really have one single area in Toronto to compare to Chiado. Maybe take Yorkville, Yonge/Dundas, and Yonge/Eglinton, wrap it all up in a bundle with cobbled streets, centuries old buildings, plenty of hilly streets and staircases, and you have Chiado. There are no hipsters here, this is a place to shop, eat, and be seen. My favourite Portuguese chef, José Avillez has 5 restaurants in this neighbourhood, one of them (Belcanto) having 2 Michelin Stars.
Naturally, it was one of Avillez’s restaurants that I had to sit down at to eat lunch. Located inside and in front of the São Carlos National Theatre, Café Avillez can be a little hard to find, as the outdoor part is just a patio in the middle of an open square, and there is very little signage indicating the main restaurant’s location, which is inside at the front of the theatre.
The staff was on point. These were pros. They’ve been trained well, and it shows. This isn’t a Michelin star joint, it’s a bistro, but everything under Avillez is done with precision and pride. I was about to have the best meal I could to start off my time in Lisboa.
I ordered petiscos dishes (small plates), since that’s very much my style of what I like to eat and what I want to serve. I had a croquette novilha (beef croquette), Farinheira com ovo (pork and flour sausage with a soft poached egg), and Gambas com alho e malagueta (shimp in garlic oil, garnished with red chile pepper slivers).
The shrimp was perfectly cooked… they can often be overdone, but not here, they were just right, and even though they were swimming in garlicky oil, they weren’t oily to eat.
The Farinheira dish really opened my eyes. For about a month, I’ve been working on a dish that came to me on a sleepless night, and had basically the same ingredient combination. I had made it bad, then made it amazing, then made it just ok… Avillez’s dish just helped me work out the kinks in my own dish. The creaminess of the egg, balanced so nicely with the flavour of the sausage, and the slight crunch of the farofa. It was a perfectly balanced, texturally, and flavours-wise.
I was happy. This was a meal that made me smile just eating it. It made me satisfied with life in general. Sometimes you have those kinds of meals, where it doesn’t really matter what else is going on in your life, what difficulties or obstacles you’re facing… eating the food just makes the world good again. For chefs, these meals also inspire and open the mind. These meals help me to adjust and refine my own dishes… sometimes even come up with new ones. Certain flavours can just awaken dormant ideas in my brain, and even if it has nothing to do with a dish I ate, somehow, somewhere a door gets unlocked deep in my brain, and ideas come flooding out. This is why I came to Portugal.
As a funny side note, I ended up having lunch with a couple from New York (well, they were at the table next to me and we just chatted the whole time). Bob Richman and his wife Susan were here on a month long stint, as Bob was working part of their trip. He’s a filmmaker. A cinematographer to be exact. Turns out he was the cinematographer on An Inconvenient Truth, Waiting for Superman, and the Paradise Lost trilogy. Funny how chance meetings happen.
After lunch I wandered the Chiado for a little while, visited Livraria Betrand, Portugal’s oldest book shop (just because I love it there) and then headed back to rest a bit… Is had a tiring last couple days.
After a good nap and shower, I was ready to go again, it was dinner time now, and being in Lisbon, with all the choice available, I put a lot of pressure on myself to find great places to eat. My area is in a central hot spot, so I figured I’d scour the many restos close by, as sometimes one of your greatest finds can be just around the corner.
Oficina do Duque sits off the escada, the large set of stairs that lead from the Baixa up to Bairro Alto, cutting through Carmo. They had and open kitchen, so of course I sat at a table directly in front of it… watching them at every move. I’m pretty sure this made them suspicious and threw them off s little. There were three cooks in the kitchen, but at the time, it wasn’t over busy, so one of them jumped on dish duty. He must be the new guy. Throughout dinner, the head chef kept jumping in and out of the kitchen, looking on his phone, hopping on the stove, tasting something, barking orders, stove, fryer, taste, stove, bark…… he was clearly in the process of developing a new dish. If you’ve never seen this process, a chef in the creative stage, you should. Its interesting, scary, intimidating, and inspiring all at the same time. Every time I’m in this process at home, my wife, Susete just watches me and thinks it’s so funny how intense it can get.
The waiter was great… to start. More on that later. Any question I asked, he happily answered, and when I asked for suggestions, he told me his favourite without hesitation, which is always a good sign in a server. I took his suggestion and ordered the Rabo do Boi. I really didn’t know what this was, but he told me its beef, and it’s the best thing on the menu. Sold.
My dinner was what appeared to be a perfectly braised personal size rump of roast… I didn’t even need a knife, it just shredded with the touch of my fork. The food here is great.
During dinner I was working on this blog, so I was writing a lot. I think it may have spooked the staff a bit. I was sitting alone, facing the kitchen, writing throughout dinner. I don’t know about Portugal, but if this was in Toronto, and someone
came into my place like that, I’d suspect ‘reviewer’. If this is what they thought, it either made them scared, or just down right pissed off.
The waiter took my finished plate away, and this is where it turned south. My great experience so far, was flipped on its head as I was completely ignored for the next 35 minutes. No one came back to ask if I wanted dessert (which they are always trying to sell you here), or even my bill! They walked passed me over and over and didn’t even look my way. So. why did I even wait 35 minutes? Well, because I wanted to give them the benefit of the doubt, and see if they would catch on. In the end, I had to chase down someone just to pay. Keep in kinda, this is a SMALL place, no way they didn’t see me. Anyhow, that was a sour end, so I spent the next hour or so of my night, wandering the Bairro Alto, which after dark, turns from a sleepy neighbourhood into street party town. It got late, I was tired, and I had to work on these blogs. Headed home to end off the night. In spite of one miss, Lisbon, te amo.