Detour: Lisbon – Part I

I’m sure the 17 people signed up to the mailout for this blog are absolutely champing at the bit to hear me tear into a Streatham restaurant again. Some poor local Italian, begging on its knees for me to like their arancini balls, staff baptising themselves in hand sanitiser while chefs craft bamboo traps at the door to keep the landlords at bay. I’m still uh-ming and ah-ing about it. I feel like it’s unfair to potentially have to give a bad review to a place that’s almost certainly in financial dire straits due to the virus, as the High Road is hardly a somewhere people are desperate to return to. We’ll see how the next few weeks go. I could Eat Out to Help Out (monetarily), and then Write Blog to Shaft Them (spiritually).

Until then though, here’s a placeholder. In June my dad showed me an article in the Times of a powerfully smug woman who was imploring everyone to go to the now seemingly empty nation of Portugal. She and her Portuguese husband had ‘business’ to take care of (murder?), and so turned it into a small holiday, albeit with the mental caveat that an unenforceable quarantine awaits when they return. Bars and restaurants are open, but there are no tourists, just locals creeping back outside, as if emerging from the basement after a hurricane to assess the damage and clear the rubble.

‘No tourists’ (read: Brits) was enough for me to instantly book a flight and a flat in Belém, a district of Lisbon that serves as a kind of giant riverside museum. Its main attractions, including the Tower of Belém and the Jerónimos Monastery, are beautiful Manueline structures, joyfully busy in their design, bubbled and aquatic, as if they’ve emerged from the bottom of the sea, covered in coral and limpets.

The first night my partner and I had dinner at the end of our street at O Frade (The Friar), a small and clean place with bar seating serving Portuguese tapas with a couple of showstoppers. O Frade was the name of an old taberna that the co-owner Sérgio Frade’s family owned in the Alentejo region, and that his gifted grandmother cooked at. With his cousin and head chef, the annoyingly handsome Carlos Afonso, they opened up a refined dedication here.

We weren’t allowed inside, as it was fully booked, but made do with an incredibly rickety couple of stools outside, which was at times like eating on the chair of a horah at a Jewish wedding.  

Vertigo aside, the food was immaculate. Roasted peppers stuffed with bacalhau and topped with crispy onions, melt-in-your-mouth Iberico ham, cubed chorizo with creamy eggs all bring a tear of joy to the eye, but none more than the octopus ceviche. The tentacles are soft, the oil has a perfect tartness and the meaty tomatoes are a depressing reminder of home, and how our tomatoes are incomprehensible bullshit in comparison. The evening was capped with a ridiculous chocolate mousse, covered in walnuts, vanilla foam and wild mint. The Tagus was just visible down the hill.

Before arriving I knew I wanted to have a kind of ‘Hollywood’ dinner somewhere expensive and silly, commit a bit of wallet seppuku. After some research on posh websites I landed on Belcanto, the two star Michelin child of Portuguese celebrity chef José Avillez. It was the first restaurant in the country to earn two stars.

While I had dipped my toes in one star places in London, with mostly excellent but intermittently disappointing results, something about a two star restaurant struck the fear of god into me slightly. Much has been written about the relevance of stars, the biases, the effect they have on restaurants and the psychotic chefs who work in them, endlessly striving for the approval of Some French Guy, so they may have the honour of a plaque with an asterisk or three on their front door. If you want to write about food in 2020, to be in the thrall of stars and rosettes is extremely passé. Still, I was scared.

We went for the Merry-Go-Round tasting menu, after the best negroni and kir royale either of us had ever had. The Merry-Go-Round is 14 dishes of the chefs newer creations, amuse-bouches, little tiny things, slightly bigger things, fried things, puréed things, and (mercifully few) items served on things that aren’t plates. They were almost all completely sublime.

The first thing cementing Belcanto as truly a cut above was, ironically, on a menu and in a restaurant with its laser-focus on traditional seafood, a carrot dish. ‘Carrot done three ways’ is usually what you see some sweaty beardo on Masterchef attempt, only to elicit a look of confusion and disappointment on the face of Monica Galetti. This, though, was beautiful. Smooth carrot pureé and baby carrots in a light cashew milk with a hint of curry running through it, and a crisp tempura carrot branch.

Nut milk features again with coastal prawn and caviar, this time pine nut. The first half of the meal features a few of these incongruous little soups, none more startling and intimidating than goose barnacles in a cherry gazpacho, slices of cherry and tomato snow, a bizarre mindfuck of a dish that should really be style over substance, but works on strange levels that remain an exciting mystery to me.

The only real letdown of the meal was the giant red shrimp, which was served in an unappealing black maize porridge slop, and did nothing at all for me. It was a regular plate of fancy food that I feel is slightly beneath the kitchen that was producing all this alchemy. Immediately after we were back on track with seabass and squash purée ‘scales’, with razor clams in a clam dashi.

By the time the last main course of squab with pak choy mille-fuille came, we were both absolutely stuffed and extremely pissed, and so only managed a few mouthfuls. “Not your favourite?” the maître d sadly whispered. We protested, it was our fault! We’re just greedy booze pigs, honest!

I imagine it’s the service in places like this that tips the scales from one to two stars and beyond. Our waiter was softly spoken, attentive, knowledgeable, smiley, and faultless. I will say, though, that the only time the service became cloying was with the wine refills. You have a sip or two and someone is there to dribble it back up to where it was. But I’m an alcoholic, I don’t want a demure little drip, I want you to plonk the bottle upside down and watch it slosh around the brim of the glass, like an Orc in a meadery. Maybe I’m not meant to be here after all.

The evening closes with typically delicious and not-what-it-first-seems desserts; cherries that aren’t cherries but nutella, a peach pit that isn’t a peach pit but an almond praline. The fun silliness almost turns to unnecessary mawkishness when we’re served a child’s sleeve to wipe our mouths with, to evoke the chefs memory of chocolatey cuffs as a youth. It’s a little odd, and is more the sort of thing you’d find at the site of an exploded school than a restaurant table, but we chose to see the funny side. Besides, a bit of whimsy is acceptable when you’re this exuberantly satisfied.

Belcanto offers up a bit of a philosophical question; how much better can it really get? What in God’s name does a three star restaurant look like? Is it just an unachievable goal reserved only for Parisian institutions, an ascension to the culinary House of Lords after years of playing the right cards? Part of me thinks the only real distinction is the extra £200 on the bill at the end of the night. Whatever nebulous requirements get you this accolade, I sense Belcanto have them in spades.


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