As fantastic as Belcanto was, it’s not the sort of thing you can, or would even want to, have for every meal. Lisbon’s reputation for impeccable seafood is one of its biggest draws, in tandem with the permanent sunshine and those little 20cl beers that make your morning drinking feel that little bit classier.
The extreme indulgence of a posh restaurant must sit on the other side of the scales to your serviceable hotspots, the places you keep going back to. In Belém there’s a little stretch of road, between the tram lines and the Jardim Vasco de Gama, which hosts six restaurants, all with large outdoor dining areas, and representatives imploring you to eat there, like jewellers in a souq.
You’re not asking for much here, somewhere to kid yourself into having a ‘light lunch’. You scan past the salads, well meaning, but your eye is on the buttery prawns, the grilled sardines, the cod cakes, the warm bread, the lager. It’s difficult to commit to a ‘light lunch’ at all, really: you’re on a timer in these beautiful places, and every meal is an edible countdown.
The prawns at O Carvoeir, while overcooked and slightly hard, were notable for their buttery lemon sauce, the buzz of citrus has me mopping up every last bead. We returned here in the middle of our trip and ordered poorly, me some tasteless chicken with chips and her some frozen calamari, but the lemony prawns fostered enough good will.
Next door at Bembelém however is a different story. The food, which was absolutely fine, was marred by terrible service. A surly, short-arse old man told us that his card machine ‘only takes Portuguese cards’ when we attempted to pay, something I’ve never heard before, likely because it’s a total load of horse shit. We had to go to a cashpoint to get a fiver out to complete the €55 bill. We should have done a runner.
Cervejaria Ramiro is, along with legendary bakery Pasteis de Belém, a must visit, according to everyone who’s ever visited Lisbon. Every food vlogger worth their salt goes there, Bourdain’s been there – it’s one of those places. A three-floored restaurant in a pretty drab neighbourhood, Ramiro is known internationally for its exceptional seafood, a Mecca for fans of the crustacean.
There are temperature and blood oxygen checks at the door, a rigour that was not present at either the airport on the way or the way back. It was a reassuring health checkpoint, with masks and sanitiser and assorted gadgets to make sure you don’t accidentally murder another diner. It’s also probably wholly necessary for the most popular restaurant in the city.
It’s hard to say anything about Ramiro other than ‘it just works.’ The prawns cooked in garlic and butter with a salty tang and hint of chilli were immaculate, as was the warm buttery bread used to soak it all up. A dour old woman sat next to us hand cracking a whole crab and enticing every last flake of meat from it, which looked very laborious. We opted for the pre-prepped dressed crab instead, another perfectly delicious, chilled toast topper.
The stars of the show were the tiger prawns. Again, slathered in butter, the juices from the head trickling down its bifurcated meaty torso. It makes you close your eyes and consider renting a flat next door. The little chilled 20cls of Sagres, dutifully and nonconsensually refilled by the army of attentive middle-aged waiters, are perfect partners for this.
As the trip neared its end we wanted one more semi-expensive blow out, and came across Tapisco in the search. A mesh of Portuguese and Spanish tapas, it’s a restaurant by Henrique Sá Pessoa, the mastermind behind Alma, the only other two star Michelin place in Lisbon. Both Belcanto’s José Avillez and Sá Pessoa have mini empires in the capital, as any self respecting celebrity chef must. Tapisco is the latter’s mid-range option.
Tapisco’s interior is like a tasteful diner, with bright red bench seating along one edge and marble counter seating on the other. The menu, even in English, is a little confusing, and the waiter’s suggestion of only getting three things even more so. I’m on holiday, for fuck’s sake, I want it all.
The meal ended up having a slightly low middle act – perhaps because of my own poor ordering – bookended by a spectacular opener and closer. Tuna tartare to start, soft and melty, with avocado, pickled radish and wasabi caviar pearls was radiant. A disappointing cuttlefish tempura was next, quite flavourless fish with very flavourless batter. The patatas bravas were good, criss-crossed with mayo and a smoky tomato sauce, a bit like an okonomiyaki, but not really enough of it to justify the amount of potato.
Just when things were looking down, along came the arroz de polvo, or octopus rice stew. Deep red, spicy, rich in tomato, with perfectly cooked octopus, the rice having just enough bite, steeped with delicious fresh coriander. It flooded my mind with images of centurions swilling it from wooden bowls in a recently pillaged village, or an explorer’s deckhand wearily heading home after years on a and evil colonial ship, plunging into a vat of it to soothe the soul. It tasted like history, and was my favourite thing, by some distance, from the entire trip. I’m fairly sure I creeped out the waiter with my pissed waxing about it. It’s all part of the fun.
Lisbon exposed huge gaps in my knowledge. I’ve rarely interacted with the food culture of the small Portuguese population in London, I had no preconceptions, no comparison points. Maybe it’s best to go in blind. What I found was so much simplicity, so much allowance for the produce to speak for itself. A bit of acid here, some butter there, but mainly just good cooking, with an emphasis on the best ingredients.
The problem with city breaks is you can never discover it all in one go. Lisbon is on my short list of hopeful return journeys, if only to have that stew just one more time.