Seafood, not surprisingly, figures prominently in Portuguese cuisine, be it salt-preserved, freshly grilled, or in tins. The latter, conservas, used to be a staple for lower-income families, but now it’s had a revival as a gourmet foodstuff, with tins adorned with trendy vintage labels lining the shelves of many home kitchens, not to mention the cover of chef Henrique Vaz Pato’s award-winning cookbook Sol E Pesca. But those who’d rather not do the legwork of preparing his dishes can head to his restaurant of the same name in Cais do Sodré; Pato converted the former bait-and-tackle shop into a fish bar in the summer of 2010. On the menu are spicy Portuguese sardines with piri-piri, sardine eggs, smoked mussels, and Azorean tuna, served to small tables surrounded by sea-worn fishing paraphernalia.
Not far away, in Flores do Bairro, chef Vasco Lello is toying with fish and petiscos from his helm at the kitchen of the Bairro Alto Hotel. His tuna carpaccio is presented as beautifully as it tastes; the same goes for the salt-cod fritters. And when you’ve had your fill of fish, there’s duck salad, a cheese-and- sausage plate, or a 15-euro menu involving three petiscos, salad, and a glass of wine.
More traditional cuisine is to be found in Carmo, a restaurant set in one of the prettiest squares in Lisbon. Underlying the contemporary presentations is a deep respect for old recipes, from the garlic prawns with piri-piri to the cod cakes with tomato rice and bacalhau à bráz, a mash-up of flaked salted cod with eggs, onions, and thin slices of fried potatoes.
It was traditional dishes such as these that so seduced Malouf on her trip: “Deep bowls of garlicky clams; from the grill, crisp sardines and sweet, delicately charred langoustines; creamy salt-cod croquettes; ivory-fringed wafers of salty Iberian ham, sausages smoky with paprika and achingly tender suckling pig; amazing regional cheeses and impossible-to-forget, melt-in-the-mouth, cinnamon-flecked, oven-warm custard tarts … these are the things that have been haunting my dreams ever since.”
Established in 1956, Ramiro is a beloved old-school cervejaria (beerhouse) that remains one of the best places in town for tasting the Portuguese coast’s most beguiling offerings: colorful giant tiger shrimps, gorgeous fresh prawns, and sweet clams, all from the Algarve. Efficient service promptly lands plates of garlic buttery toasts and draft beers on tables before bringing out classic petiscos such as garlic prawns and goose barnacles. Pedro Gonçalves, the friendly manager, says their only concern is to have happy customers.
Upon finishing this amazing seafood parade, there’s the dessert to dispatch: a steak sandwich. Yes, the tradition in Ramiro is to finish any meal with a prego, and despite the many variations now available on the city’s dining circuit, it’s hard to top this classic—the tenderest of meat served in pillowy bread. It’s a reminder that some things are best left unchanged.
Where to Stay
A 1770s building recast with contemporary design, Bairro Alto Hotel (2 Praça Luís de Camões; 351-21/ 340-8288; doubles from US$300) is a posh launch pad for exploring the nearby neighborhoods Bairro Alto and Chiado. The extravagant suites at Palácio Belmonte (14 Páteo Dom Fradique; 351-21/881-6600; doubles from US$390), built atop the walls of Lisbon’s Castle São Jorge, are among the city’s most stunning.
Where to Eat
Jose Avillez’s Mini Bar (58 Rua António Maria Cardoso; 351-21/130-5393) adds a cozy den of inventive cocktails and small plates to his five-restaurant empire. Produce stalls and kiosk outposts of Lisbon’s top restaurants fill new gourmet food hall at Mercado da Ribeira (Ave. 24 de Julho); chef Alexandre Silva’s outlet is a must-stop. Tinned seafood is enjoying a gourmet revival thanks to places like Sol e Pesca (44 Rua Nova do Carvalho; 351-21/346-7203). Head to Restaurante Carmo (8 Largo do Carmo; 351-21/ 346-0088) to taste traditional Portuguese recipes and to Cervejaria Ramiro (1 Ave. Almirante Reis; 351-21/885-1024) for the best prego in town.
This article originally appeared in the October/November print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Small Wonders”)