Lisbon - one dish at a time

Portuguese people LOVE food - and make great dining companions. Try not to calculate the calories for my 3 day trip to Lisbon!

A Pizza the Action

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on August 25, 2012

My life at work has changed a lot this year, mostly for the better, especially in terms of culinary opportunities. In previous years I spent a lot of time in Germany and the Netherlands which can be bleak culinary landscapes but thanks to some changes in the composition of my team, I now get more excuses to go to places where the food is more interesting. This week I was more than happy to be going to visit my colleague in Lisbon, although a bit nervous after hearing that the temperatures were in the high 30s.

Portuguese people LOVE food and even in the middle of the hardest recession for years, it will take more than a ‘crisis’ to stop them eating out. I realise that ‘Portuguese people love food’ sounds like one of those generalisations that don’t always hold true – like saying the English are obsessed by weather or Germans are very organised (I know that’s absolutely not always true). However, all my observations based on several decades of people watching have failed to show me a single living example of a Portuguese person who didn’t love to eat or to talk about food. I know what happens in our Lisbon office whenever they hear that someone is coming to visit. People will gather by the coffee machine and plan for their visit. It won’t be a case of asking ‘What shall we talk about? Who needs to be there?’ It will be more simple. The question on everyone’s lips – and the subject of much debate will be a more important issue. Where will we take them to eat?

My first meal was at an Italian restaurant called ‘Di Casa’ on the top floor of the Vasco da Gama shopping Mall in the Expo area of the city. This is an area well worth a visit and was built for the 1998 Expo, a time which looking back seems to be so full of promise and so long before the troubles of the last few years. Fortunately, the financial crisis hasn’t hit the area too badly – it’s still thronging with visitors and locals and looks as good as it did when I first visited about 6 or 7 years ago.

Di Casa is a chain of Italian restaurants which has been present in Portugal since 1980 when they opened their first restaurant in Estoril. Today there are four or five outlets in Lisbon as well as branches in Estoril, Evora, Vila Nova de Gaia. My colleagues told me that if they want pizza, they generally hunt down a branch of Di Casa in preference to any other Italian restaurants, but if they have the chance and are in the area, they would always go for the Vasco da Gama mall branch because there’s lots of parking under the mall, and the views are beautiful.

Di Casa is one of several food outlets on the top floor of the mall. I noticed a noodle bar and an American burger restaurant, both of which were almost empty as consumers voted with their feet and filled up the Di Casa seats instead. The restaurant is in two parts – a large indoor restaurant and an even larger outdoor terrace. Not surprisingly on a sunny August day, the sun-seeking diners had all gone outside to take advantage of both the weather and the views. We were offered one table for three which we turned down since it wasn’t well protected from the sun – and my colleagues were looking at my milky-white English skin and wanting to protect me. They spotted another with better sun protection and asked if we could move.

The terrace was busy and if I’d realised how long our food would take to come, I might have been tempted by the gorgeous garlic bread which I saw being taken to other tables. However, with one colleague doing ‘no carbs’ in preparation for her holiday and the other ordering pizza and not wanting garlic bread on top, there was no way I was going to attempt to eat a whole portion. We ordered drinks – a Diet Coke, a Coke Zero and a freshly squeezed orange juice – and then made our choices from the long and very tempting menu. Carb-avoiding Isabel chose a ‘melanzane salad’, Ana asked for a pizza with Parma ham and I chose a dish called ‘Tonno Nizard’ which I assumed to be a tuna Nicoise.

My orange juice was very clearly freshly squeezed and was delicious. At €2.50 for a glass (just under £2) it was quite expensive by local standards and the cokes at €2.10 seemed quite pricey considering that the food was very reasonably priced. The salad was a mere €6.50, the pizza €7.90 and my tuna was €9.50. The menu has a large amount of dishes which would normally make me a little nervous as I always feel concerned that a kitchen can’t keep too many fresh ingredients without some of them going off or not being as fresh as they should be. The choices include a set of daily and seasonal specials as well as a standard year round menu which includes anti pasti, half a dozen different salads, nearly twenty risotto or pasta dishes, fifteen pizzas plus the option to design your own combination of ingredients, a few meat and two fish dishes, and ten desserts. There should be something for most people with such a long list. For vegetarians the choice is not too bad with eight of the pizzas being meat and fish free (although you might need to check the status of the cheese if you’re very strict, and five of the pasta dishes also apparently vegetarian. By local standards, that’s an impressive amount of choice in a land where vegetarians are rarer than hens’ teeth.

Isabel’s salad was enormous. She glibly stated that with no carbs she obviously needs to eat a lot in order to get through the day and started ploughing through a mountain of beef tomato slices topped with slices of grilled aubergine and courgette with large ‘blobs’ of fresh mozzarella perched on top. Ana’s pizza was on the thinnest base I’ve ever seen – looking more like a giant poppadom than a pizza base. How they can get the dough that thin without breaking, is a mystery and a marvel. It was topped with lots of melted cheese and many slices of Parma ham. I regretted not having chosen a pizza when I saw how good it looked. My tuna Nicoise was also excellent with two mid-sized steaks of tuna and a mound of salad. The tuna was cooked perfectly, seared on the outside but still slightly pink in the middle. My only slight complaint would be that one of the two pieces had been cut in such a way that there were still a lot of bones in it and I had to chew very carefully to avoid swallowing them. The salad was a mix of rocket, halved cherry tomatoes, lots of thinly sliced cucumber and pieces of red onion. These were dressed with what for me was a bit too much balsamic vinegar and I’m not a fan in general of pre-dressed salads. No salt was provided and I didn’t want to draw attention to my bad habit but I couldn’t help thinking the fish needed a bit of seasoning.

With the service quite slow, we decided to skip coffees and head back to the office. I picked up the bill for the three of us at just under €33 (currently around £26) which I felt was very good value. The only problem we had was getting back to the car park as the lift to the top floor seemed to have got out of sync and after five minutes of waiting we took the stairs instead. For anyone with mobility issues, there should be no problems other than the dodgy lift. For families, children are accepted and welcomed in most Portuguese restaurants although oddly I don’t recall seeing any families over lunch time.
Di Casa
Vasco Da Gama Shopping Mall
Lisbon, Portugal

In praise of octopus

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on August 25, 2012

I’m not sure if it’s possible to eat badly in Lisbon – certainly even more sure that applies if you’re dining with locals. When the sales director of our Portuguese business asked me to visit he included an invitation for dinner. When the head of the Iberian business decided he’d also fly over from Barcelona because he’d like to come along, I knew that dinner was going to be good. No sales guy would ever take his boss somewhere that wasn’t excellent.

The chosen restaurant was a place called Populi, a hot new cafe-restaurant which opened in June this year and which is located on one the city’s most beautiful squares, the Palace Square or Terreiro do Paço. Apparently this square has only recently undergone a major restoration project and was previously used as a rather unattractive car park. If you search for the restaurant and the square on Google maps you’ll find an old satellite image that must predate the restoration as it shows a rather ugly car park and a few market stalls. The work has restored the square to former glory, kicked out all the cars and creating a large open space with colonnades around the perimeter. There’s a big monument in the centre of the square to the king (I think it was Joseph the first) who was lucky to escape the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755 which flattened this area and much of the city. The king never again slept in a building, taking to the high ground and using a tent for fear of another earth quake. My Portuguese colleagues, Josep and Isabel, were both really excited about the work that had been done to restore the square. Whilst it’s divided from the water front by a road, the Av. Infante Dom Henrique, there are great views out across the river.

Isabel picked up me and Luis, the visitor from Spain, and drove us into the city. We found Josep waiting for us at a table for four on the terrace under large white sun shades. A waiter came to take drink orders and in a slightly suck-up way, I asked Josep what he was drinking, fascinated by the sprig of rosemary in his glass, and was surprised to find it was a gin and tonic. I said I’d have the same. Isabel had a mineral water, and Luis took a beer.

Looking at the menus my eyes were caught by a couple of favourites – gazpacho and octopus. You don’t get to eat octopus every day and there’s no better place to have it than on the Portuguese coast. It took me very little time to choose. The orders for the four of us comprised two gazpachos, a codfish cake and asparagus with cheese as our starters and for main courses, two portions of octopus for me and Isabel and two different bacalhao (salted cod fish) dishes for the boys.

The restaurant has a lot of staff and I soon lost count of them. It seemed like every few minutes someone else was dropping by to bring something or ask how we were doing. One guy who seemed – dare I say it? – a bit the worse for wear and with a distinct wine-breath – came to explain various dishes. With our orders placed and our wine – a nice strong white – poured, we settled to our wait and a further discussion about the Lisbon earthquake.

One of the waitresses brought us some bread rolls served in a little fabric drawstring bag like a tiny potato sack. As well as the rolls there was unsalted butter and olive oil with balsamic vinegar as well as a dish of juicy green olives served on ice and olive oil.

When my starter gazpacho arrived I was a little confused. I’d only grasped a small amount of the complex description from the man with the wine-breath and I’d not understood exactly what was coming. My bowl contained a tiny round mound of chopped tomato, cucumber and onions and nothing else. It looked like a rather pitiful tomato tartar. My initial disappointment was quickly quashed by the arrival of a jug of iced gazpacho which was poured around the tomato mound. Hoorah, this was more what I’d expected. The contrast of textures and the intense tomatoey-garlic flavours were absolutely delicious. Isabel had the asparagus with cheese which was apparently delicious and cooked on the grill. I didn’t get too much feedback on the codfish cake but it was polished off fully.

Ever since he’d ordered his dish, Luis had started to kick himself that he’d not gone for the octopus. And when it arrived, Isabel and I were really pleased that we had. Josep had a codfish dish that was apparently delicious but looked a bit beige to me. I will eat bacalhao (salted cod) when I have to and I will sometimes even almost enjoy it, but if there’s something else on the menu, I’m unlikely to choose it. Luis’s cod fish dish was an interesting mix with a scrambled egg type texture and, I think but I’m not sure, rice. I can’t be entirely sure about their dishes as the online menu is only a partial list of the available dishes. I had a small forkful of Luis’s cod and it was pleasant but not on a par with my octopus.

The octopus dish comprised about six or seven meaty tentacles, cooked on the grill and perched on top of a bed of pureed sweet potato and greens. I found the greens rather hard to cut and a bit too chewy, but the sweet potato was so smooth that it looked like apple sauce. I sacrificed one of my tentacles (read that carefully!) to Luis who declared it the best dish of the entire meal. It was outstanding and I was feeling a bit smug. The texture was possibly ever so slightly softer than perfect but not so much as to reduce the enjoyment.

Whilst resting before pudding, we decided to go and explore inside the restaurant. A large banner outside proclaims ‘the sexiest WC in the world’ and we went off to see if it was true. Whilst the toilets were very nice, there was nothing to suggest they were really special so we decided to interrogate one of the staff. We then learned that it was actually the business next door which had the super sexy loos and that they close at 8 pm.

I normally avoid restaurant puddings but our first two courses had not been too heavy and had been delivered at a pace that meant I wasn’t uncomfortably full. I wasn’t overly impressed by the pudding choices and I didn’t see anything that I felt I couldn’t live without. As the others were keen to have something I ordered crème brulee, Isabel ordered a passion fruit panna cotta and Luis went for the ‘best chocolate ice cream in the world’. We’d already been intrigued by ‘the best chocolate cake in the world’ which seemed an unlikely claim at about €4.50. Unfortunately, the ‘best’ claim turned out to be as much of a disappointment as the unsexy toilet.

My crème brulee was pretty good and I finished it all. The custard, in true Portuguese style, was very yellow and very sweet. The top was not too thick and was easily broken with a tap of the spoon. Isabel didn’t like her panna cotta and declared it to be ‘un cotta’ – i.e. uncooked. The waiter was so distraught that he insisted on bringing her something else so she also had a crème brulee. The chocolate ice-cream was controversial. To put it simply, it wasn’t chocolate ice-cream. Luis was as disappointed as a kid on Christmas morning who hasn’t got a bicycle. He even called over Mr Wine-breath to ask how this was the best chocolate ice-cream in the world. It was explained that it’s a vanilla ice-cream that contains ‘bits’ of ‘the best chocolate cake in the world’ and we all agreed that someone should send the trades descriptions people round to sue them for such a misleading name.

Coffees and mint teas were drunk to finish off the evening and we all agreed it had been an excellent meal although the puddings had been a bit of a let down. I can’t tell you what the bill came to as I was too polite to lean over and have a look, but the dishes I ordered were all very reasonably priced, especially considering the location and the reputation of the restaurant. From memory my gazpacho was less than €5 and the octopus was €16.50. I think the crème brulee was around €6-7.
Populi Caffé & Restaurant
Terreiro do Paco
Lisbon, Portugal
218 877 395

The Cult of the Cod

Member Rating 3 out of 5 by koshkha on August 25, 2012

One of the biggest mysteries about Portugal is the national passion for bacalhau or dried salt cod. You could understand it if the country was a long way from the sea and the only way to get fish was to buy it from a long way away and preserve it with salt and drying, but Portugal is not a long way from the sea – it's surrounded by it. All year round the nation's fishermen are out on the water bringing back fresh fish for a country whose per capita fish consumption is the highest in Europe and in the top four worldwide. With so much good fresh food, it's a bit of a mystery that Portuguese are so attached to dried fish. I did wonder if it was a throwback to the days when Portuguese sailors went off to discover the new world. Maybe dried cod was a way to ensure they had food on long journeys – but that's a daft idea. If you wanted fish in the middle of a long journey, you'd only need to throw a line over the side. Apparently, the secret is that cod is mostly fished in the north Atlantic and salting was the technique used in the days before boats had refrigeration.

On my recent visit to Portugal, I was taken round most of the supermarkets by our sales director. We were there to look at the bakery sections in the stores and I was baffled to find that even in quite small supermarkets, a much larger area of the store was given over to bacalhau than to the entire bakery section. I don't think I've ever seen a Portuguese menu that doesn't have bacalhau dishes and it's said that this is the type of fish that's most eaten in Portugal. The trouble is, unless you're Portuguese or Spanish, it's really quite hard to understand the fascination with this unpleasant, smelly ingredient.

If it's cooked well, bacalhau shouldn't taste salty. You should barely be aware that the fish didn't hop out of the sea the day before. If it's cooked badly, you'd better order a lot of drinks and put the salt cellar to one side.

We were travelling back to the office after running round 8 different supermarkets in the Lisbon area in the morning and our driver, Josep, decided to take us to a nice little restaurant he knows. My other colleagues all thought they knew where we were going and seemed almost relieved when it turned out that our intended restaurant was closed for the summer holidays. Both asked him immediately if we could go to 'O Fuso' instead, and with general agreement, they phoned ahead to book a table. It was clear to me that in the eyes of my Portuguese and Spanish colleagues, this restaurant was really something very special.

We drove to the small town of Arruda dos Vinhos to the north of Lisbon and parked up in the square. O Fuso is a big restaurant and is located in an old olive oil mill, a building with a high ceiling and various oil mill artefacts. Near the entrance is a fridge containing enormous steaks and a scorching hot barbecue with a fridge of cod sitting next to it. We passed these and entered the enormous dining area, filled with small tables lined up and close to each other. I would estimate that when full it could seat several hundred diners. I didn't see a menu and I'm not sure if there is one. This is the type of place where everyone knows what to expect and what they want and most likely it's going to be bacalhau.

Some discussion with the waiter took place and plates of food started to arrive. The first plate was cheese in little plastic pots. Apparently this is fresh cheese that's not been dried or matured. It tastes of very little and has a texture a bit like compressed cottage cheese or Indian paneer. Two plates of bread – one fresh, the other toasted and buttered appeared next followed by a plate of air dried ham. The final dishes to arrive were a small dish of not very nice green olives and a plate of pieces of spicy sausage. I don't eat meat so I skipped most of what was on offer.

We drank red wine from a jug and water from a bottle which seemed to be somehow the wrong way round. I tend to get very thirsty so I had to take care to not drink much wine and to ask for a second bottle of water.

Our main course was a giant slab of salt cod from the grill. It was about two feet long and about a foot wide. As the guest I was offered the first pick of the fish which was a bit intimidating. How much do you take and is there a best bit that a polite person should avoid taking? I have no idea. I took quite a small portion – about half or one third as much as the others. It was a good decision because I really struggled to get through even that piece. Even though the bacalhau is soaked for a long time in water or milk to remove the salt and to rehydrate the fish, it isn't always completely de-salted. I can manage bacalhau when it's an ingredient in a dish but a large slab of the stuff is a bit too much for me to deal with. The waiter brought a big dish of large boiled potatoes and a smaller dish of beans and I used my vegetables to try to disguise that I wasn't eating much of the fish. My colleagues all went back for more whilst I ate slowly and listened to them chatting about how wonderful it was. I can only conclude that you really do need to grow up with bacalhau in order to develop a proper passion for it.

I think they could tell that it wasn't really my kind of thing. I didn't lie when they asked if I liked it – I merely told them that I think it's very difficult for anyone who isn't Portuguese or Spanish – especially one brought up in the land of 'cod and chips' to really fully appreciate a good piece of bacalhau.
O Fuso
Rua Cândido Dos Reis 94
Arrudo dos Vinhos, Portugal
263 975 121

175 years of custard tart heaven

Member Rating 5 out of 5 by koshkha on August 26, 2012

What’s the best way to prepare for a six course dinner? Perhaps you should starve yourself all day to ensure you’ve got plenty of space. Perhaps you should take a light salad at lunch and eat frugally. Or maybe – just maybe – when you’re in Lisbon, you should have a mountain of codfish for lunch and then prepare for dinner by going out for a custard tart at the fabulous Antiga Casa de Pasteis de Belem, next door to the city’s famous Jeronimos Monastery.

I first discovered the ‘Old Tart House’ during a weekend in the city six years ago when my Portuguese friend took my husband and me to buy tarts after a visit to the monastery. On that occasion the place was so busy that we bought from the counter at the front of the building and then went to eat them on a park bench. This time my colleague Isabel was determined that I should actually eat my tart ‘in situ’.

We arrived at about seven in the evening with a booking for dinner a few miles away at eight. Isabel led me through the rabbit warren of rooms, all filled with small tables and chairs and happy tart-eaters. We passed the bakery area where we could see the hot tarts being taken out of the over, and into a large room with a queuing system. By nature, most of the Portuguese colleagues I have are pretty rubbish about standing in line and love to push ahead if they can, but they soon seem to learn that Brits are deeply disturbed and discomforted by not waiting patiently and fairly for a table to become available.

We must have waited fifteen or twenty minutes. One large room that Isabel said would normally be open had been closed off so things were busier than normal. A man with a tummy that suggested that too many years indulging in tarts at the Antiga Casa had left him unable to squeeze between the tables any more so he now had the unenviable responsibility of controlling the line. Other men – all of them easily in their late fifties or sixties, scurried around taking orders and delivering the pastries to hungry diners.

All of the rooms in the Antiga Casa look quite similar although the one we were in was much newer than many of them. All the rooms have the same minimalist furniture and the walls are tiled to about three or four feet high with traditional blue and white Portuguese tiles. The room was very warm and we couldn’t see much sign of any kind of ventilation so by the time we finally got a table we were happy to grab it even though it hadn’t been cleared and we were left to sit with the debris of the previous diners.

There’s a menu on the wall to look at whilst you wait but this isn’t a place where you need a menu because you’re not going to sit down and then think "Why am I here? What did I want to eat?" The only relevant questions will be "How many tarts do I want and what do I want to drink with them?" We ordered six – two each to take away (Isabel sent her husband a photo of a tart whilst we were there and he was already getting excited about the thought of them being taken home for him) and one each to eat immediately. I ordered a Coke Max and Isabel an iced tea. The waiter carefully cleared our table and returned a few minutes later with the Pasteis.

It would be hard in Portugal to find a place that doesn’t sell ‘Pasteis de Nata’ – or cream pastries but only the Antiga Casa in Belem sells the authentic ‘Pasteis de Belem’ which are said to be made to a special secret recipe. No other place is allowed to use the name. Pasteis de Nata are ubiquitous; every supermarket and small bakery has them. Even McDonalds and Starbucks have them in their selection. I did a bit of a survey that day whilst driving around supermarkets and cafes and discovered that the standard price in a supermarket is 39 cents. In McDonalds McCafe outlets it’s about 85c. Starbucks was a fairly shocking €1.25 whilst the Antiga Casa charges a very reasonable €1.05 for each tart. Take a few but don’t keep them too long as they’re best eaten whilst they’re still warm.

I’m a great lover of Pasteis de Nata, so much so that when I used to visit our factory in the North of Portugal, my colleagues would go out and get them for me or even warm up some from the company who supplies us. We actually sell the margarine which the Antiga Casa use for their pastry and I’m told it’s part of the secret to why the pastry is so crisp and hard compared to every other place. It’s also apparently something to do with the hand forming of the pastry shells. Don’t worry – neither tip will actually help anyone to recreate these little beauties.

So what is a Pasteis de Belem (or de Nata)? It’s a small shallow pastry shell, filled with a very sweet, very deep yellow custard that’s been baked to create a deep brown, almost burnt-looking skin on the top. The tarts are about two to two and a half inches in diameter and when you bit into one, you get the exquisite combination of soft, warm, sweet custard and the snap of firm crisp pastry. Although they’re quite small, don’t get too carried away as they’re very filling.

There’s nothing elegant or sophisticated about the Antiga Casa but there doesn’t need to be. People are there to worship at the shrine of the ultimate custard tart, any frills or fancies are just not needed. For 175 years they’ve been making them and selling them at this place and it’s fair to say that there’s nothing left for them to prove.

If you prefer not to eat inside or if the queues are just too much to bear, there’s a small shop at the front of the store with beautiful old cabinets and a gorgeous old counter. Again, you should expect a queue but it will move quickly. The only possible reason not to go to the Antiga Casa de Pasteis de Belem is if you hate custard tarts or if you’re medically banned from indulging in such delights. Those who fit the former category are unnatural and those in the latter are much to be pitied.
Pasteis de Belem
Rua De Belem N 84 A 92
Belem, Lisbon, Portugal, 1300
+351 (21) 363 7423

Just what the doctor ordered

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on August 26, 2012

My colleague Isabel chose this quirky restaurant located within the building of the Museum of Pharmacy and booked a table for eight o’clock which is unfashionably early by Portuguese standards. We turned up 20 minutes late and were still the first diners in the restaurant. This place is extraordinary and the best example I’ve seen of a ‘high concept’ restaurant. The owners have completely put themselves into the mind-set of a pharmacy, surrounding diners with old pharma and hospital furniture, serving food and drink with pharmaceutically inspired names, and presenting your food with pharma bottles and even specimen jars on the table. I’m told in the colder months all the waiting staff wear white coats but with the thermometers edging close to 40C last week, they’d been relieved of the extra layer.

Looking around the room we were fascinated by the attention to detail that’s gone into the design of the restaurant. There wee old display cupboards filled with odd medical implements mounted on the walls and the wall paper is a gorgeously retro pharmacy inspired. A shelf on one wall had big old medicine bottles and an old set of baby weighing scales and there is an old folding screen in one corner which screens the entrance to the kitchen from view. The tables and chairs are mostly mismatched items from the 1950s or 1960s and each table has a small pharmacy stand next to it which contains a brown glass medicine bottle marked ‘H2O’ filled with water. If you order wine, the bottle goes in the other half of the stand. I don’t recall these from my childhood but Isabel said every doctor and every school matron had such a stand filled with antiseptic and bandages and all the other first aid paraphernalia.

We were taken to a small table by the window and Isabel offered me the choice of the small chair or the window seat. Whilst the window seat would have been good for some people watching, I opted for the more comfortable option. Many of the smallest two people tables were so narrow that the diners were offset from each other because the tables weren’t wide enough for two plates in the same line. .

The waitress came over with the cocktail and drinks menu and explained the system with the food. You can either order just a few dishes, in which case they may encourage you to eat outside on the terrace, or there’s a 6 course ‘taster’ menu which costs the very reasonable sum of just €28 and includes pudding and coffee. That was what we wanted so we asked if she could do it for us in a meat-free version. Isabel does eat meat but not very often and prefers fish so when the waitress offered that I could have different food than her (which I thought was a lot of extra trouble for the kitchen) she said she was more than happy to have the same.

Most of the cocktails are named after pharmaceuticals so there were drinks called ‘aspirin’ and ‘placebo’ but I opted for one called ‘morphina’ – a blend of pineapple juice and sparkling white wine. It was a toss up between that and the ‘placebo’ which was ‘ginga’ and sparkling rose. We couldn’t work out if ‘ginga’ was ginger or ginseng so I opted for the one I could understand. It was surprisingly strong and I couldn’t work out how it could taste that way if it was only white wine – perhaps a shot of spirit snuck in there when I wasn’t paying attention.

Once service started it moved very quickly. The first mini-course was a cold melon soup which came to the table in a small plastic measuring cylinder with a hunk of bacon on the top which wasn’t what we expected. The waitress headed back to the kitchen and came back with a bacon free version. The melon soup was cool, smooth and deeply flavoured. It’s not something I’d ever consider doing to a melon but it was certainly a nice little palate cleaner before we moved on to the next course.

The second course was a combination of three small dishes. The first was a type of fried cornmeal – a bit like a polenta cake – served in chunks on a tomato cream base. The second was a small pastry basket filled with cod fish, finely chopped salsad vegetables and raisins. The third was a meat rissole which we had to send back and which was replaced five minutes later by two small heaps of salmon on cream perched on top of sweet potato. The cornmeal was the sort of thing that I can eat in a small portion but would reject if there was too much and the sauce helped to give it more taste and help to distract me from polenta prejudices. The pastry baskets were delicious, the delicate fish contrasting with the sweet juicy raisins. But the surprise was the third dish. Isabel had assumed – not too surprisingly – that the white mass between the sweet potato slice and the smoked salmon on top would be cream cheese. It wasn’t. I refused to tell her what it was because I’d been so surprised and I didn’t want to spoil it for her. It was sweetened whipped cream. All logic says that it ought to be an ugly combination but it worked.

The fish course came next and comprised a couple of large meaty chunks of a fish called ‘corvina’. Googling has not given me any understandable translation of this fish but has taught me that it’s a big sea fish. The flesh is white and firm and Isabel said it’s one of the most expensive fish you can buy. It was served on a bed of finely chopped veg with a lemon and lime sauce and the whole lot had been baked in the oven. The fish was delicious and the vegetables were cooked to perfection with the individual tastes still distinguishable.
Our meat course was substituted with a rice dish which I didn’t really like very much. It consisted of a risotto like base (but with longer grain rice than you’d expect in a risotto) with razor shell clams. For me this dish was too salty and the stock the rice was cooked in was a bit bitter. I didn’t hate it, but over half of it was left in the dish and it was a bit of a disappointment. Isabel explained that a ‘rice’ is not supposed to be the same as a risotto. The sad thing was that ‘not the same as’ was really more of a ‘not as nice as’.

Puddings were stunning and plentiful with three to taste. One was a pear crumble with lots of cinnamon which I loved despite much preferring apple to pear. Next was a cocoa cake, so crumbly and so bitter that it felt like it would suck all the moisture out of your body if you didn’t combine it with a little bit of the sour cream and berries that came with it. The final looked and tasted like a meringue-free Eton Mess – so whipped cream and red berries. I don’t like to mix up the flavours so I ate the crumble, then the mess and finally the cocoa cake although I found the last of these more manageable with a bit of the mess on top.

Coffee or tea was included as our sixth course but we both chose to pass on that. After the initial slightly rushed service, things slowed down a lot as the meal progressed and the restaurant started to fill. We were served by a lot of different staff which I found a bit distracting and lacking in continuity but everyone was pretty efficient (with the exception of the meaty mix-ups early on). The restaurant either had no air con or had a big ventilation problem as the room was becoming overwhelmingly hot towards the end of our meal and we skipped the coffee because we needed some air.

The bill came to €68 for the two of us which I thought was really very good value. The menus had been €28 each with a cocktail and a glass of wine on top so drinks were not such good value as the food.
If you are looking for ‘experience’ dining that doesn’t sacrifice too much quality at the expense of the theme, then this is a great choice. If you are the sort of people who hates to not be able to choose every dish, then it might not be your kind of place. If you just want drinks and snacks, the lawn and the terrace are lovely and will be cheaper than a full meal.
Restaurante Pharmacia
Rua Marechal Saldanha 1
Coimbra, Beiras
213 462 146

Raw fish in the sunshine

Member Rating 4 out of 5 by koshkha on August 27, 2012

My last meal in Lisbon was to be lunch and my colleagues had chosen wisely. The logical, rational justification was that the restaurant would not be far from the airport so we could eat and then they’d drop me off for my flight. The emotional – and therefore much more important – reason was simpler – FISH! Portuguese people adore fish and the restaurant proposed was a sushi bar called Arigato. Not just a sushi bar but an extraordinarily unusual concept – an all you can eat Japanese buffet. And believe me, when it comes to raw fish, your average Portuguese can eat a LOT, even two dainty little ladies like Isabel and Ana.

Arigato is located on the Expo site, the area of Lisbon which was developed for the 1998 Expo. It lies beside the river Tagus and despite the passing of 14 years since the world flocked to the city, everything still looks beautifully clean and shiny. I thoroughly recommend a visit to the Expo site, not just to see the world-class Oceanarium or to ride on the waterfront cable car, but also to just enjoy the bars and restaurants and soak up the view. There’s also some pretty fine shopping opportunities to be found at the Vasco da Gama shopping centre. Arigato is close to the Oceanarium – I advise not to dwell on the fact that you’re eating raw fish in the shadow of a world-class aquarium.

In most European cities, an area as stylish and fashionable as the Expo site would be outrageously expensive but not in Lisbon. The Euro is being kind to the British traveller once again and prices in Lisbon are now, and always have been, considerably lower than over the border in Spain. I ate in the Expo area twice in just a two and a half day visit and each time was stunned by the value for money. Arigato was a bit of a treat and I learned that they don’t go there very often for lunch because it’s expensive. With the lunch buffet costing just under €15 (or less than £12 at current exchange rates) it’s not something you could do every day, but the value for money was extraordinary.

Our visit didn’t start too well with the three of us clearly wearing special invisibility cloaks which meant the waiter ignored us for a good five minutes. Once we’d been spotted, we were offered a pleasant outdoor table on the terrace with a sun umbrella to protect us from the worst of the mid-day sun. We ordered our drinks – an ice tea, a juice and a Coke Zero – and without further ado, we headed inside to the buffet.

The characteristics of most ‘all you can eat’ places are lots of cheap, rather unpleasant, often over-salted and generally unhealthy food. They want you to drink a lot and fill up on the minimum volume of the cheapest possible dishes. That’s why I said earlier that ‘all you can eat’ and sushi don’t really go together. Sushi – and even more so sashimi – tends to be offered in small portions at high prices. I did once go to an all you can eat sushi place in Munich which was absolutely diabolical but Arigato is rather special – good quality and good prices are not a typical combination you associate with Japanese food.

We headed inside to get our food, joining a short but slow moving queue. We took square white china plates from a pile at the start of the row of dishes and I thought that they were certainly not discouraging us from taking a lot by offering such big plates. The display of dishes started with some Japanese salads and I helped myself to a small spoonful of a couple of these. Next were some rather untempting rice balls, unlikely to appeal to anyone other than a strict vegetarian or parents of small children trying to avoid giving them too much raw fish. I can’t imagine too many in either group would be keen on Arigato.

Sushi purists will have to forgive me for not being conversant with all the technical names of different types of sushi, but my guess is that if I’ve been eating it for 15 years or more without learning the names, other sushi fans will be equally ignorant. The first display was of plates of the ‘fish perched on top of rice’ type sushi – some pretty obvious such as salmon, prawn and tuna, others less typical such as octopus, eel and clam. Next came more of the sushi rolls – with the fish and vegetables inside a sleeve of rice. I’m less keen on this type but I did pick up a couple which Isabel particularly recommended which surprisingly turned out to contain cheese and fruit. Given the local love of fish, the sashimi was taking a heck of a bashing and multiple slices seemed to be going onto most of the plates around me. I was quite taken with the tuna which was served with the outside slightly seared rather than just totally raw.

There was a section of tempura or breaded fish – some juicy prawns and fish goujons – as well as a few other cooked dishes including an absolutely gorgeous aubergine bake. This seemed like a wise choice to include on the buffet as the place was quite popular with well to do families whose children weren’t necessarily quite so taken with raw fish as their parents. At the end of the buffet was a side table with two vats of soup – one miso, one curry flavoured – and another table with desserts which were neither particularly exciting nor particulary Japanese.

I thought I’d been a bit greedy with the amount of food I’d taken until I saw that Ana and Isabel easily had as much or more than me and both went back for seconds. I worked on the theory that I wasn’t REALLY having seconds if I didn’t actually go back to the buffet and Isabel brought me a bowl of the curry soup when she went back for more, and Ana snaffled a few of the prawns in breadcrumbs for me. I went back for some fruit more as a gesture of killing time before I had to go to the airport than actually really needing any pudding.

The quality of everything I tried from the buffet was excellent. The sashimi in particular was so fresh it was practically still swimming. The terrace where we ate was warm and sunny without putting us in direct sunshine and we were set back a little from passers by so didn’t have loads of people gawping at our dishes. The small downside is that you can’t actually see the surroundings from the terrace which is a shame, but if you’re anything like the three of us, you’ll be too busy enjoying the food to notice. The bill for three of us, each with a soft drink or tea came to a few cents over €50 which was excellent value for what we’d had.

The restaurant is also open during the evening but the buffet is only offered at lunch time. I believe during the evening you’ll need to order individual dishes off the menu or take the so called ‘tasting menu’ which is just under €. For a perfect summer lunch, I don’t know much that’s better than sunshine, good company and a mountain of raw fish – Heaven!
Arigato Sushi House
Alameda Dos Oceanos 4
Lisbon, Portugal
218 967 132

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