on March 6, 2013
I suspect I might have been Portuguese in a previous life. I like the simple things in life – sunshine, fresh air and fish. Yep, fish. There’s little the average Portuguese loves more than fish, except of course MORE fish. Since I am a fishitarian, a visit to Lisbon always means I’m going to find lots of places to indulge my love of fish and seafood. Added to the sheer abundance of fishy restaurants I have a secret weapon in Isabel, my local colleague and fishy-foodie. Here’s a woman who voraciously reads every magazine in the city that highlights exciting new restaurants – and then happily uses my visits as an excuse to go and try them out. When I announced my most recent visit she forgot to book me a hotel but remembered to send me half a dozen possible restaurants to choose from. Here’s a woman who gets her priorities just about right.After polishing off an enormous quantity of raw fish at the Arigato sushi restaurant near the Oceanarium (no inmates sacrificed, honest!) we were in the mood for cooked fish in the evening. I looked at her list, rejected all the places she’d already been to on the grounds that we should both experience something new, and then told her I’d go along with either of the remaining two and suggested that she "surprise me". She picked ‘Aqui Ha Peixe’ in the Chiado district of central Lisbon.Anyone familiar with French or Spanish will probably be able to have a crack at guessing what the name means. ‘Aqui Ha Peixe’ (prounounced roughly ‘ackee ha paysh’) is literally ‘Here have Fish’ or ‘We’ve got Fish Here’ and if you’re looking for a name that tells you exactly what the restaurant is all about, this pretty much sums it up.The chef goes to the fish market nearly every morning to pick up his supplies. There’s no fresh fish sold on Mondays so the restaurant is only open Tuesday to Sunday with both lunch and dinner served on all days except Sunday when only dinner is available. As someone who always recalls the advice of the great chef Anthony Bourdain who directs diners to never order the fish special on a Monday (because it’s using up Saturday’s leftovers), I appreciated their reluctance to serve old fish.Arriving at around 7.30 pm we were unfashionably early and were the first diners of the evening. Isabel has a drive of about an hour to get home and so we tend to be the first in and first out for most of the restaurants we visit. In Lisbon people don’t eat as late as in many parts of Spain where the chef won’t turn the stove on before 9 or 9.30pm but 7.30 is still very early and we had the whole place to ourselves and a complete freedom to choose where we wanted to sit. We chose a table in the corner of a set of L-shaped benches with mounds of cushions piled on top. Looking around the building has fabulous thick stone walls, high ceilings, a giant stone archway and some very arty lights. There were a couple of thick coloured glass shades attached to the ceiling as well as a number of large Moroccan-style light fittings. Table cloths are thick white linen, glasses glimmer and cutlery shines whilst the furniture is in cozy shades green and blue. We ordered wine by the glass – white for me, red for Isabel – and the waiter asked what I’d like. I told him I’d take whatever he had that was dry and white and he said he’d see if they already had anything open that I could try to see what I preferred. Nothing was open so I asked him to choose for me. We also ordered sparkling water to avoid the temptation to guzzle the wine. The table was laid with a variety of little treats – bread rolls, fresh soft cheese, fish paste etc. but we resisted the temptation to fill up on such things and stuck to checking the menu. These would have been quite inexpensive little nibbles but I’m far too prone to not being able to do justice to my food if I go for the bread.Starters range from just a few euros for soups up to 20 or more euros for some of the seafood starters. There were several soups, a tempting octopus salad, oysters, scrambled eggs with prawns and asparagus, garlic prawns and a variety of other things I couldn’t easily translate. I wasn’t trying to be a cheapskate but I really did fancy the fish soup and, after being reassured that Portuguese fish soup has lumps in it and tempted with the news that it contains what Isabel called ‘elbow pasta’, I ordered the soup and she followed suit. At €4.50 each it was an amazing bargain and the most intensely fishy fish soup I’ve ever tasted, rich and juicy with flaky pieces of fish, lots of narrow macaroni tubes and a lot of fresh coriander. I’d never have thought of putting coriander in fish soup but it worked beautifully.For main courses the emphasis is very fishy and seafoody. You ‘could’ have meat but you’d be crazy to do so. They offer a pork dish and a steak but that would rather missing the whole point of going to a fish restaurant. Some fish are easily recognisable whilst others are not the type you’d easily find in the UK. I remain unsure what ‘corvina’ is but I know it’s a highly rated Portuguese white fish. Sea bass, squid, cuttlefish, and something called ‘carabineros’ were available along with lobsters at 75 or 95 Euros per kg depending on where they came from. That’s seriously pricey lobster for Lisbon but even if I had money to burn, I feel to guilty about eating something so intelligent that might have been crawling around the sea floor for up to 50 years.Isabel chose fresh tuna steak sautéed in olive oil whilst I went for Garoupa a Marinherio (or seaman’s grouper). As a diver I’m rather familiar with grouper in the sea and I know it’s a fabulously firm white fleshed fish that isn’t on offer very often. Isabel asked for her tuna very pink and I suspect it barely touched the frying pan. It was a massive thick chunk of tuna that looked a lot like a big fat steak. It would have been too much for me and there were some rather stringy white bits inside that were hard for her to tackle. However she very kindly gave me quite a big slice of the end of the steak which was not quite so raw as the centre.My grouper was served as a large slice cut through the fish and it stretched the width of the plate. It was served with two small baked potatoes not much bigger than baked potatoes and an excellent assortment of fresh veg including green beans, carrots and broccoli. It’s not unusual to get a big piece of fish and a tiny veg ‘garnish’ which I find rather unbalanced but this restaurant gave a really good, big portion of veg. The fish was very tasty, firm, juicy and not needing the sauce which they brought to go with it. To be honest it was probably a bit too big for me and I was really glad I’d gone for a light starter and skipped the bread.The service throughout was professional without being snooty, helpful without being pushy and very understated. The staff all spoke English even though they didn’t need to and when the chef popped out to make his beauty parade with the sea bream, he was happy to introduce all the diners to he gorgeous fishy. We were at Aqui Ha Peixe for about an hour and a half and by the time we left about a third of the tables were full. Admittedly it was a Wednesday night and Lisbon is hit hard by the recession but it’s a long time since I’ve been in a place of that quality which had so many free tables. Our meal – two soups, two massive fish mains, a couple of glasses of wine, lots of water and two peppermint teas – came to €65 which I found surprisingly good value for the quality of the food. It could have been a lot more expensive if we’d pushed the boat out, gone for expensive starters and a pudding or polished off a bottle of good wine, but I didn’t feel we’d missed out on anything major. Admittedly the euro seems to be turning against us at the moment but I’d happily pay that again for food of such good quality in such pleasant surroundings.
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