Two days into our Lisbon section of our research trip, and Lisbon has yet to let us down. Successful is an understatement, as we continue to be amazed by this awesome city. For Phil, it’s all a first time experience, so it’s definitely understandable. It’s his first time in Europe, exposed to the type of history, architecture, culture, food that is here. He’s well travelled, and has seen a lot of great things, but Europe is a different animal from what he’s used to. For me though, I’ve been to Europe several times now, and some really great places. I’ve even been to Lisbon a couple times now… this leg of the tour with Phil is now my 3rd stop in Lisboa, and I still am in awe of the place.
As I messed up our schedule a bit, during the planning stage, we had to stay our first night in a hotel that I booked last minute, instead of going directly to our AirBnB that I’d rented for us. Due to this, after our 1st day in Lisbon, we’re still pretty much in-transit, as we will have to switch places again. Our AirBnB apartment rental isn’t available for check-in until 3pm, so we check out of the hotel, store out bags in their tiny luggage room, and head for the market. Oh, the market. The ‘El Dorado’ for chefs and food lovers. The land of OZ, the Mercado da Ribeira is one of the most magical places in Lisbon. When we first got into town yesterday, I wanted to start Phil off proper, by hitting up Café Lisboa for lunch and the O Beco for dinner, and the plan definitely worked. He was surprised and amazed by the sophistication as well as subtle confidence that the food world here in Lisbon has to offer. Now, it was time to up the game. By the end of day 2, our Lisbon game would be upped 5 fold.
On first entering the Mercado da Ribeira, located across from Cais do Sodre train station, you can smell the fresh fish stands, the fresh produce, the chiles, pumpkins, cilantro…. The fish mongers here have the freshest fish possible, as literally half of Portugal is coastal. Everything comes from the sea right next door. We walk the aisles and there’s fish we’ve never seen before, and even the ones we do know already, we’ve rarely seen them this fresh and at this high quality. They look different. They taste different. At the end of the aisle, take a right turn, and I mentally prepare Phil for what he’s about to see…. for what I’ve been hyping up for months now, ever since the first time I got back (in the spring). Everyone thought I was crazy…. “sure… a market. Whoopdeedoo. We have those too.” I told them they just don’t even know, they can’t know unless they come…. and Phil came, and now we’re about to enter chef heaven. The ‘Time Out’ side of Mercado da Ribeira is lined with communal tables throughout the middle of the great hall, and lined with food vendors. Except they’re not food vendors. They are full on muthaf*&%# restaurants! Yeah, I’m passionate about it, because it’s that big. Each “stall” is not a stall as we know it. It’s a box. And in that box is a full kitchen setup, just as we have in regular brick & mortar professional restaurants. And the decor is done with just as much thought as we’d put into our regular restaurants. And each one is unique. Each one has it’s own character and style. And each one represents a famous chef or restaurant in Lisbon. Watching the staff in each one of these places work, is true beauty. It’s exciting, it’s non-stop, it’s action-packed. Being in a market makes absolutely no difference. They just don’t give a f*#%. They will school any kitchen staff of any regular trendy restaurant that we know. It’s amazing. Truly amazing. Phil is in total awe and confusion of how something like this can exist and he never knew about it before. I’m in total awe, just as much as I was the first time. I already know what to expect, yet I can’t help but just catch my breath and take it all in. Culinary wonderland.
Henrique Sá Pessoa, one of Lisbon’s top celebrity chefs has a place here at the market, and this is where I went on my on last week, and this is where we went this time as well. Leitão with pumpkin purée for me, and Bifé a Portuguesa for Phil. Both are perfect… crispy and juicy roast suckling pig, and a perfectly cooked steak with fried egg on top. Both traditional dishes, done to perfection at the hands of highly skilled chefs. Phil’s not done yet, so he jumps over to the stall for SeaMe to get his seafood fix. Cuttlefish fried in a black squid ink batter. We were thinking about drinks after lunch (yes, cocktails at noon, for two not-very-often drinkers), but we were so stuffed, we decided to skip that. I wasn’t about to let Phil getaway that easy though. This trip is supposed to be fun, but it’s all about learning, and it was ginja time! “What?! We’re getting ganja?” Phil exclaimed. No Phil… it’s not “ganja”, we’re not smoking weed. It’s ginger! A Portuguese cherry liqueur. This middle section of the market hall, in between all the tables, was a section of about 6 more vendors geared towards beverages. All high class, all professional. Yeah, had to be to go with the amazing restaurants that surrounded the hall. Along with the ginja bar was a gin & tonic bar, by Schwepps, a hand-crafted cocktail bar by Cinco Lounge (arguably the top cocktail bar in Lisbon), a beer station with regular and craft beers, a wine section with a vast selection, coffee bar, smoothie bar, and Jameson whisky bar with a sort of flare bartender.
The ginja bar had several different varieties, each with different characteristics, so with a couple ginja’s in our system, we jumped on a train to Belém since we still had more time until we could check-in to our apartment. A quick walk around Belém, a view a walk-by of the Mosteiros dos Jeronimos, and a quick visit to the Meuseu da Marinha (Maritime museum), we realized we were now running late and hustled back to the train station to get back into town. The train was also late, so we hit downtown Lisbon after we were supposed to meet our host and we both really hate being rude, so we HUSTLED up to the new spot. running through the crowds, up and down hills and stairs… it was definitely workout day. We made it. He was cool with it, no problem. The rest of the afternoon called for a good rest after that. We had a big night to look forward to.
Jantar…. dinner time. We’ve been waiting for this all day. Mini Bar, the most recent opening of José Avillez’s 5 places in Chiado, opens at 7pm, and we don’t have a reso, so we want to arrive right when it opens to try to get in. We already know we’re going to get their “Epic” tasting menu, as it’s only right to do this in such skilled hands. Allow yourself to go on a culinary adventure. Trust your meal and your experience to the chefs who are doing the cooking. If they’re cook, then why wouldn’t you? This, is actually a weak point in the food industry, in my opinion… the fact that so many people don’t trust the chefs, and try to recreate all the dishes through so many special requests…. but that’s another article. Although, this concept is more playful, trendy, and relaxed, we can’t forget that the it’s still run and overseen by the same Executive owner and the same CDC (chef de cuisine) that runs and oversees their 2 Michelin Star counterpart. So we manage to secure a spot at the bar, which turns out to the absolute best thing that could’ve happened to us that night.
The meal was epic, as promised. Several courses of small bites, so carefully planned and put together, and organized in a manner to play with our senses and represent different acts of a play (Mini Bar is located in a theatre). We realized afterwards that it was a pretty funny thing. We were eating at a pretty chill place, with small bites brought to us throughout the night…. but the style of those bites… the food we were eating was in fact fine dining food. It was Michelin star quality food! Something truly spectacular just happened at that dinner, at first, right under our noses. Complimenting the fantastic food was the equally fantastic service. Just like any of the Avillez restaurants, they are total pros here. Perfect balance of attention and giving us space. The staff was patient with the many questions we had, as curious visitng chefs often do, and they happily answered any and all of them. The bartender working in front of us was on fire. Watching him work at the bar, carefully and masterfully mixing the hand-crafted cocktails, was just as magical as watching a highly skilled and creative chef working on the line. And the plating… well, not even plating, the drink-making… it was like he was plating! He was putting those drinks together ever-so-carefully, and so intentionally, like he was artfully plating a beautiful dish. And his cocktails were beautiful. Of course, he was on point in recommending some for us to try, which we did… and throughout the night, the bar staff kept giving us shot-sized samples of drinks they were making for other customers, so we could taste them all. I’ve been a non-drinker for the entirety of my adult life until I started sampling last year, and I’ve never really cared much for anything with alcohol in it. But the way these guys put these drinks together… I gave these bartenders and their drinks just as much respect I would as any chef putting together intricate and complex dishes. Our bartender also gave us a recommendation for a place to go for drinks later in the night, to continue to experience the sophistication that the Lisbon cocktail scene can offer. This is the kind of shit that we love. A gem of a reco from a local, to go to a place only frequented by locals, that’s pretty much next to impossible to find otherwise. It’s only 9:30pm, and in Lisboa, that means the night is young…. “There’s no sign,” he said, “just look for a small red frog on the wall, hit a little buzzer, and they will let you in. It’s a secret place.” Oh shit. This is gonna be fun.
The Red Frog bar, is the official name of the speak-easy style place we’re about to go into. Just as our bartender at Mini Bar said, there’s no signage. Just a red frog on the wall beside a door, and a small buzzer. Closed-door service. This is awesome. Everyone likes a secret, and even better, likes to be let in on that secret! Going through the door, the stairs lead us down to a medium-sized room, with a small bar at the front. We’re greeted by a waitress at the bottom of the stairs who waits for customers to come down after buzzing in. It definitely is done in the old-style speak easy concept, but it’s not kitchy or cheesy. It’s not made to look like a theme bar. It’s both nostalgic and modern at the same time. We’re in a secret place! This is friggin’ awesome! Ok, so maybe we’re a bit too excited about this, but how could you not be? They recommend some cocktails for us to try to start off, and bring us some mint water to have on hand throughout… probably the only free water you’ll ever find in Portugal. On the menu, each cocktail is described in detail, and even given a flavour profile. This is some pro-level stuff right here. These guys know what they’re doing. They’re probably doing some of the best craft cocktail work in the world, and no one even knows about them. If this place was in Toronto, they wouldn’t be able to keep it a secret because there would be a massive lineup every night, and the quality of work here would stand up to any trendy cocktail joint in Toronto or New York. EASY. Phil and I both had 2 cocktails here each, and those added to the tally on top of the other cocktails and all the samples we had a Mini Bar, meant that it was officially time to retire for the night. An “I don’t drink much” guy, and an “I don’t drink at all” guy…. this was definitely a record.
We took the long way home… leaving Red Frog, climbing the STEEP steps and hills to get up to Bairro Alto. It was about 1am now, and nights in Bairro Alto and Chiado, was Lisbon nightlife at it’s busiest. Just something Phil needed to see to understand this place even more. Walking through Bairro Alto, we weave our way through the streets, every single one of them crowded with people outside, as if it was a giant parade or festival. But no, there was no festival, this was Saturday late night in Lisboa. It’s always like this. From BA, walking down through Chiado, it was much of the same, until we reached the road heading back down into the Baixa (downtown area) where it quickly died off and became quiet again. We reached back to our apartment, our heads a little heavy from the intense culinary and alchemic night we just had… no blogging until the morning (which is why this chapter is getting to you so late). Sleep time. Tomorrow’s another adventure.