Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Loving Lisbon

Museu do Nacional Azulejo Cafe

Three nights in Lisbon was not quite long enough to explore all the sights, cafes and restaurants that had been recommended to me, but it was long enough to realise I need to return.  I have to say at the outset that Lisbon was not the food hotspot of my year so far.    You won't find the wondrous markets of, say, Paris, Barcelona, Valencia or Venice - but at least that means you don't feel compelled to get up at an ungodly hour to check them out.

In a 1980 edition of Quentin Crewe's International Pocket Food Book - "an essential companion for the traveller" - the writer does not mince his words.  Describing Portuguese food as "rather dull stuff", he at least finds merit in the simplicity and honesty of their "peasant cuisine".  His advice to look for "simply cooked plain things" may be a little out of date, but essentially it still holds true.  They claim to have 365 ways of preparing Bacalhau (salt cod) so you will find this hard to miss.  Iscas or Figado (liver) and Caldeirada (fish stew) pop up on almost every menu.  You can also expect plenty of Sardinhas (sardines) and Porco (pork), particularly in the form of Salpicão (smoked spiced pork sausage). 

Gaspacho at Taberna das Flores, Lisbon
You can eat perfectly well with a little forward thinking.  So, where to go?  Taberna das Flores is an honest, simple and friendly family run lunch spot on Rua das Flores.  A bowl of Gaspacho cooled by ice-cubes was the perfect start on a day when temperatures were in the low 30's.  A dish of Iscas to follow was hearty and the other main course choice of Caldeirada was tasty if a little boney.  A couple of large glasses of decent house white and some bread and olives brought the bill in at Euros 22.50 for two (add a little something for service).

Lisbon is built on hills which means there are some spectacular viewing points, Miradouro, dotted around the city.  A ten minute walk from Rua das Flores is the Miradouro do Adamastor where you can sit on the terrace of the Noobai Cafe and enjoy a view of the river Tagus.  They serve simple salads here too.  Another Miradouro not to miss is in the Principe Real district on Pedro d'Alcantara.  There is a welcome cafe, Quiosque de S. Pedro where you can enjoy a glass of Sumo Laranja (orange juice), a cooling breeze and a fine panoramic view taking in the spectacular Castelo de S. Jorge.

With appetites taken away by the unaccustomed heat (London's summer had not prepared us) we were looking for a light dinner.  Sacramento on Calҫada do Sacramento was a bit more formal but welcoming, with a cosy bar off to the left and a high ceilinged dining room at the back.  An admittedly rather safe order of Risotto do Dia was a dish of rice topped with raw sliced vegetables - it was no looker but tasted rather good.  A pot of Arroz Polvo was even better - tender octopus with the distinctive slightly piquant rice, tasting of the sea.  A plate of juicy strawberries dipped in white chocolate was perfect to follow.  With a very good bottle of Herdade dos Grous from the Alentejo and a coffee the bill was Euros 58 for two before service.

Another restaurant which proved worth the effort to find - climb up the steep Calҫada do Duque off the Praҫa Dom João da Cãmara - was Restaurante Paladar.  though we weren't as bowled over as the Wallpaper* City Guide which describes it as "the complete experience".  This was however the one place where a tomato spread tasted just of good tomatoes and not tomatoes flavoured with dried herbs.  We ate starters of tender Salade de Polvo (octopus), the star dish, and Calamares (squid fried in rather heavy batter) with Picanha (rump) beef and a Black Angus beef burger to follow.  A bottle of delicious red Alentejo Cartuxa wine and water brought the bill to Euros 64.50.

Another viewing point well worth the climb is Praca do Principe Real, more for what it has to offer than the view.  A small organic market takes place here on Sundays.  Overlooking the Praҫa is Orpheu Caffé, a friendly place with a small courtyard out back.  It makes a good pit-stop for a quick and filling lunch.  They also do breakfast and brunch, or you can just pop in for a glass of wine. 

Terrace at Poison d'Amour
Just off the Praca you'll find Poison d'Amour, a stylish French cafe and patisserie.   The cakes are good but its biggest selling point is the courtyard separated from the city's Jardim Botanico by no more than a low wall.  A fabulous spot to take coffee and a fancy cake.

Nearby, too. is the Pastelaria Sao Roque.  The plain exterior gives no hint of its ornate interior of marble and Art Deco tiling.  Probably the best place we found in cenral Lisbon for coffee and Pasteis de Nata. 

But if it's the best Nata in town you're looking for then you'll have to head for the Belém district, which means taking advantage of Lisbon's great transport system.  You need to take a No 15 tram to Belém from Praҫa do Comercio to Mosteiro dos Jeronimos.  The stop is practically right outside Antiga Confeitaria de Belém.  It's the home of the original 'Nata' and it's still the best place to buy one.  Order at the till, turn your back on the groups of tourists passing through and wait at the bar for your order.  The pastry is perfect and the custard filling, I would swear, is free of cornflour - excceptionally good and not too sweet (a dusting of sugar or cinnamon is optional).  Behind the bar is a warren of rooms where you can sit if you prefer.  It's worth wandering through to see the kitchen where the Natas are made. 

Next door is a spectacular monastery,  Mosteiro dos Jeronimos, and across the road the Museo Coleccao Berardo Belém has a great collection of modern art housed in a modern castle-like building with a beautiful roof garden.  By the river you'll find the Padrão dos Descobrimentos (Monument to the Discoveries) honouring Portuguese explorers.

Museu de Design e Moda
Returning to downtown Lisbon, seek out Conservaria de Lisboa on Rua dos Bacalheiros in the Alfama district for Tricana tinned fish. It's a bit touristy but the products are good and beautifully packaged. The service is how it has been for 80 years, down to employing someone solely to wrap your purchases in brown paper and tying with string. Close by is the Museu de Design e Moda. Worth seeing for the space itself (a former bank with its sweeping counter retained) but it has an extensive permanent collection supplemented by permanent exhibitions.

Head for the river and the Av. Infante Dom Henrique.  The old Ferry Ports still stand, forgotten, alongside newer versions.  A stretch of buildings right by the river houses DeliDelux.  Architect owned and designed it's a sytlish spot for picking up a mix of European deli products.  There's a small cafe serving Mediterranean food and a deck outside with views across the Tagus.  A few metres further on is John Malkovich's restaurant, Bica do Sapato.  A favourite of the glitterati, you need to negotiate the rather forbidding fascade to gain entry.  Not exactly welcoming.

Grande Vista de Lisboa
Museu do Nacional Azulejo
From here take the 759 bus to Museu do Azulejo, Lisbon's fantastic tile museum.  Get off when you see the LIDL sign, just before the bus starts to head inland.  The Museum is housed in a 16th Century convent behind the supermarket.  The Museum has a stunning collection of Portuguese tiles dating from 1580, including a 23m long panel illustrating the city before the 1755 earthquake.  There's also a simple cafe with a cool plant-filled courtyard.

Take a glass of Ginginha from one of the tiny kiosks off the Rossio before you leave.  All this and still so, so many places I didn't get to.  Like, I said, next time...

Taberna das Flores
103 Rua das Flores

Noobai Cafe
Miradouro do Adamastor

Quiosque de S. Pedro
R. San Pedro d'Alcantara

40-46 Calҫada do Sacramento

43a Calҫada do Duque

Orpheu Cafe
5a Praҫa do Principe Real

Poison d'Amour
32 Rua da Escola Poletecnica

Pastelaria Sao Roque
57 Rua Dom Pedro V

Antiga Confeitaria de Belém
84 Rua de Belém

Conservaria de Lisboa
Rua dos Bacalheiros

Museo Coleccao Berardo Belém
Praҫa d Império, Belém

Museu de Design e Moda
24 Rua Augusta

Av. Infante Dom Henrique

Museu Nacional do Azulejo
4 Rua Madre de Deus