Restaurants & Bars

Day 3 in Portugal

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Day 3 in Portugal

Tom Armitage | May 24, 2000 05:58 AM

Tuesday, March 23. Had lunch in Lisbon at Gambrinus on Rua das Portas de Santo Antao. This street is lined with seafood restaurants, and Gambrinus is, by most accounts, the best seafood restaurant not just on this street, but in all of Lisbon. I had intended to go to a much simpler place on Rua das Portas for charcoal grilled fresh sardines, hoping to get my fill of them several times during my stay. Jean Anderson’s cookbook, The Food of Portugal, describes the simple Portuguese preparation of fresh sardines as covering them with salt for a few hours, rinsing off the salt, brushing them with olive oil, and cooking them on a grill (grelhadas) or over charcoal (assadas nas brasas). She acknowledges an “unofficial” season in Portugal for fresh sardines between April and November (they are considered to be too skinny and bony to eat in the “off season”), so I had assumed they would be readily available. But I learned today that the fresh sardine season doesn’t begin until mid-June. Major disappointment! When I entered Gambrinus, my grief subsided when I saw on display a platter of perceves, or gooseneck barnacles, with which I had fallen in love with during my visit last fall to Barcelona. My wife and I ordered a plate of perceves that, unlike my experience in Barcelona, were served hot. They were very good, but not as remarkable as those I’d had in Barcelona. When I mentioned this to my waiter, he explained that this was the very start of the season for perceves, and that they get better-—and taste more of the sea—-as the season goes on. It was this “taste of the sea” that I remember so vividly about the perceves in Barcelona. After polishing off a substantial pile of perceves at Gambrinus, my wife and I had some local oysters that were scrupulously fresh and quite tasty, although I think that certain of the Pacific Northwest (USA) oysters are the best I’ve ever had anywhere. My wife ordered fried squid, which came in lightly battered rings around ¼” wide and 2” in diameter. For my entrée, I chose hake (“pescada”). The hake, which had been baked in a copper pan, was cooked perfectly and served with a tasty clam sauce. For desert my wife and I shared an almond tart. To date, the Portuguese deserts have all seemed too sweet for my taste, and lack intensity of flavor. The mid-day customers at Gambrinus seemed to be primarily wealthy local businessmen, which is understandable since the place is a wallet buster. The restaurant clearly deserves its reputation for quality, even though it won’t win any prizes for “value.” And I got to have my beloved perceves one more time, which, even if they weren’t at their peak, was well worth the premium.

In the evening, we decided to listen to fado, a type of music long nurtured and beloved by the people of Lisbon. Fado, the English translation of which is “fate,” owes much to the concept known as saudade, meaning a longing both for what has been lost and for what has never been attained. It consists of a vocalist, either female or male, accompanied by a guitarra and viola (acoustic guitar). Among the many fado houses in Lisbon, we took the advice of our hotel concierge and went to A Severa located in the Bairro Alto. Speaking of “fate,” every once in a while, I think I am fated to have an experience that reminds me, forcefully, of the existence of bad food. Such was the experience at A Severa. We started with an appetizer of prosciutto (presunto) with white asparagus. The ham was so-so, and the asparagus extremely tasty. The rest of the food was terrible. I ordered the traditional pork with clams. Suffice to say the dish was virtually inedible, with tough gristly meat and flavorless clams in a nondescript sauce. I took a bite or two and left the rest. I’m sure there are fado houses in Lisbon with at least passable food, but, in my experience at least, A Severa is not one of them. Food aside, we enjoyed the music, even though the place seemed to be something of a tourist trap. So it was that I left A Severa with a keen sense of longing for what had not been attained.

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