We had a pretty great trip to Lisbon and Madrid in late March/early April this year and while our hit-to-miss ratio on meals wasn't as high as usual I think that some of that was user error and less pre-planning than we usually do. For anyone familiar with some of my past trip reports they tend to be lengthy but I'll try to buck that trend here and go for more of a digest approach rather than a day-by-day, blow-by-blow, bite-by-bite account. (My wife will be posting tons of pics on her blog over time.) On to the report! Lison first!
Our favorite restaurant in Lisbon was without a doubt CERVEJARIA RAMIRO. While TV notoriety and lots of positive online buzz may make this an obvious destination, don't miss it. For the Lisbon novice like me it's a fabulous entry point. In fact, we went on our first night in town, then again a few days later (as an antidote to some disappointing dinners) and then a third time on the last night of our trip.
As empty and dark as the streets were on our first night, Ramiro was bright, lively, and full of energy. The hour-long wait for a table might have taxed our post-plane energy levels but the beers provided while we waited and the sights and smells passing us in the form of gorgeous plates of food made up for it. Over the course of our three visits we had grilled giant head-on tiger prawns with the sweetest, most tender meat garnished only with simple lemon, plates of tiny clams bathed in oil and herbs, shrimp delivered to the table in still-sizzling garlic butter (HEAVY on the garlic!), head-on scarlet shrimp with smokey sweet meat and brains, percebes (goose barnacles, salty and clean), and crab, with the shell filled with crab roe and innards. There wasn't a bum dish among them (with the possible exception of the non-roe parts of the crabs, which were more effort perhaps than they were worth) and some of the dishes (particularly the tiger and scarlet shrimp as well as that garlic butter) were among the best of the trip. Additionally, we finished off a couple of the visits with prego sandwiches, the medium rare beef sandwiches pressed with chunks of garlic and served on typically wonderful Portuguese bread. Ramiro has easily vaulted to the list of our favorite restaurants in the world.
The first of our universally excellent lunches was at PASTELARIA POMBALINA, a small cafe near the foot of the Alfama area. A plate of pies was dropped on the table and we decided to try them out: One was a fish-stuffed pastry and the other filled with creamy chicken. Delicious. Our lunches were grilled sardines and another grilled fish dish. Both were great, but the sardines were particularly fantastic. Salty, crispy, and just on the right side of charred, they were just as we imagined. I can't believe it was the only plate of grilled sardines we had on the trip! That seems crazy in retrospect!
For dinner we went to CHAFARIZ DO VINHO - ENOTECA to sample a variety of Portuguese wines and pair them with plates of lovely things. I highly recommend spending an evening here trying different wines and taking the time to discuss them. The food wasn't "big meal" food but most of it was still pretty lovely, especially a toast covered in melted cheese and lemon, a plate of duck mousse in a red port and onion compote and cheese and Iberian ham plates. A quick tour of the wine cellar in this unique stone space (located in an 18th Century aqueduct) made the visit all the more fun.
The next morning we had our first taste of Portuguese pastries at CASA CHINEZA, sampling Pastels de Nata and Quejada. The cheese pastry was good but the custard was phenomenal. Of course we tried them at several other places, and they seemed to just get better and better. The coffee was great, as it was everywhere in Lisbon.
We walked all over the place and eventually wound our way to BONJARDIM for their famous roast chicken. The restaurant (we chose the older of their two side-by-side locations) is steps away from tourist restaurant hawker hell but it's a sign of Bonjardim's confidence that they don't engage in the hucksterism of their neighbors (or at least they didn't when we were there.) We split a full roast chicken, which came straight from a spit over blazing charcoal and provided juicier meat and crispier skin than we even expected. The skin was salty and peppery and the chicken tasted amazing on its own, although we dabbed it with the little brush of piri piri sauce for a little extra fire. The fries that came with the chicken were perfectly crisp as well. We were aching to go back for another round later in the trip but never made it.
(I should also mention here that we hit all the Ginjinha joints that we could find at various times throughout the week. Gotta love that ginjinha!)
That night we headed to the PORT WINE INSTITUTE to familiarize ourselves with the famous drink. We worked our way through a pretty lengthy list of ports by the glass in the charmingly old-fashioned sipping room. A great way to spend some time.
By the time we left we were pretty we tipsy and decided to try CAFE BEIRA GARE, at the foot of LIberdade. This was our first mistake of the trip. The room was buzzing and the server dazzled us with his knowledge of countless languages. All signs pointed to a great cheap eat. I ordered a bifana (pork sandwich) and my wife ordered the steak with fried egg that she'd been eyeing in other places. The bifana was juicy and tasty, although not overly exciting, but the steak was tough as shoe leather. Like, not a little on the well-done side, but pretty much inedible. I know this is a cheap place and I loved the energy, but that rock-hard beef was tough to overlook.
The next day we headed out to Belem, which was maybe not the best day to go since the Lisbon marathon was ending there, which meant it was a total madhouse. Actually, that made it kind of fun. The best part of Belem was almost certainly the famous PASTEIS DE BELEM, which reminded us of New Orleans' Cafe du Monde in that it was huge and was packed with people who came for one thing: The Pastels de Belem. We split a plate of three (others were downing them by the bucketload) and found that their fresh-baked warmth added an extra lusciousness to the custard that Pastels de Nata don't have. The coffee, of course, was amazing.
Back in downtown Lisbon from Belem we hit that dead-zone when everything is closed but luckily we stumbled on PASTELARIA PEROLA DE SAO PAULO where we had a couple of totally satisfying lunch plates. My wife ordered grilled sausages and I had roast squid filled with squid ink. The sausages were great and the squid was perfectly tender with the ink adding an umami element. A totally solid lunch entry.
For dinner every place that we planned to hit was closed (we weren't having great luck at this point) so we ended up at RESTAURANTE REVIRAVOLTA which had a nice buzz about it. Turned out, however, to be a big mistake. The place was obviously capitalizing on being the only place open and really didn't care about serving customers great food or experiences. They pushed the special (five random pieces of fish on one plate, 17 Euros on the Portuguese menu, 19.5 on the English one) but we declined. I ordered a sausage dish and my wife ordered some sort of ham dish. The group next to us ordered the fish special and it definitely looked like an attempt to get rid of whatever fish was on the verge of going bad. My dish came out (fridge-cold fries, over-cooked egg) and then we waited for my wife's… and waited… and waited… Maybe 25 minutes, with repeated requests that the server see what was taking so long. We were about to just get up to leave when it finally came out. I asked for a fresh plate at that point but the damage was done. The food was thoughtless and sloppy and the service a mess. When we asked for the check the server disappeared, reappeared, looked right at us, and then pulled out a pack of cigarettes to go for a smoke. We just paid at the cash register and left. Do not ever waste a meal there. I blame myself for lack of research. I wish it would have been the last bad meal.
The next day we had our coffee and pastries at the bar at the ornate CAFE BRASILIERA. Their Pastels de Nata were the best non-Belem ones that we tried, with particularly creamy custard. We came back on our last day for another shot at their fine coffee and pastries.
For lunch we went to CHURRASCERIA GAUCHA. The tables were filled with local business folks having delicious looking stews and piles of roast meat. We ordered a plate of ribs and one of Aletejana, a stew of pork and clams. The ribs were charred to perfection but the pork and clam dish was spectacular, topped generously with cilantro and bathed in white wine. It was a surprise dish that really turned out to be one of our favorites and has already been recreated at home.
That night we planned dinner in Alta Barrio, possibly followed by Fado and drinks elsewhere. We had walked through the windy streets of Alta Barrio a number of times and took note of a couple of places that looked interesting. After researching the places we settled on HÁ PITÉU because of some pretty positive reviews online. Unfortunately this was dud number three.
The space is endearing, the server (possibly the owner?) friendly and the menu full of lovely sounding things. They even have some cute details down, like putting a cooling wine sleeve on a bottle of white. But they have completely lost the plot on food. I wish I had spotted the microwave through the kitchen window before we sat down, alas I would soon learn all about it. We started with a couple of small plates, planning to order more. We got scrambled eggs with sausage, which were the high point. Then head-on shrimp which were microwaved into mush. Willing to give them one more round but bypassing any fresh seafood, we ordered "fried chicken" (totally thoughtless and completely unadorned chunks) and "bacalau pasties" (completely limp microwaved frozen patties of mealy mush.) When the server asked if our almost completely uneaten pasties were not to our liking we politely pointed out that they were completely floppy and rubbery from being microwaved. She then asked if we wanted her to pack up the leftovers to take with us. Communication wasn't working for us. We cut our losses and headed out.
Feeling dejected we skipped Fado (since we were no longer confident in our ability to choose a worthwhile venue) and went to SOL E PESCA for a drink. I had some cured tuna to satisfy my hunger but the place was completely dead and we didn't linger for long.
The next day we went to Sintra where the constant rain prevented us from seeing too much. But we did have a pretty fabulous lunch at RESTAURANTE O APEADEIRO. We started off with a glorious roasted link of chorizo and followed with a plate of grilled fish (the waiter's recommendation of the freshest fish of the day) and pork in a creamy cause. They were both totally satisfying. True to the waiter's promise the fish was achingly fresh with the taste of the sea in the pillowy flesh, and the pork was bathed in the most beautiful sauce. They also started us with a couple of little courvets, this time a bacaloa croquette (so infinitely better than the night before) and a curry samosa(!) Lovely little spot situated on a street between the train station and downtown Sintra (i.e. not in the bustling tourist center but still easily accessible.)
That evening we didn't want to risk a fourth consecutive dinner disaster so we headed back to Ramiro, this time wise to the system and feeling confident in our ordering. I already described what we had there, but it's worth repeating: If you're in Lisbon, go to Ramiro. It definitely lifted our dinner spirits on the last night of the first leg of our trip.
We landed in Madrid ready to switch it up. We weren't sure if we would indulge in any fine dining but suspected we'd probably focus on tapas. We arrived at our Sol-area hotel during the dead time between meals (which would be a recurring theme) but MERCADO SAN MIGUEL was open and full of vibrant life. I know that San Miguel was refurbished specifically for an upmarket "yuppie" and tourist trade but don't let that scare you off. It's a fun place and some of the food is really nice. We started off with a cheese plate topped off with some beautiful jam, herb and nut combinations. We then had some gulas (fake baby eels; we never found angulas, i.e. the real eel deal), duck salad and foie tapas. All very tasty and fun. We got some fresh burata as well, which was lovely. (Later in the week we returned to San Miguel with less spectacular results: Some seafood tapas from the seafood counter at the eastern entrance were completely flavorless and an iberico sausage from the sausage guy was nothing special.) A few glasses of wine as well and we were ready to wander around town.
After wandering up an appetite we grabbed a seat in LOS 3 CERDITOS IBERICOS for a snack of some wine and a plate of thinly sliced ham and cheese. Meltingly good.
For dinner that night we walked to Huertas for a mini-crawl. We started at CASA ALBERTO, which has real old world elegance and atmosphere but serves plates that are thoughtful, bold and delicious. We started with a righteous plate of chicharrones and ordered an ox tail-stuffed fried pepper and a "brownie" of morcilla topped with a goat-cheese croquet. We were starting to see a pattern where tapas tend to be much larger than we expected, but still these dishes were superb. Standing at the bar, trying out our pitiful Spanish on the bartender we decided we love Casa Alberto. Later in the week we returned for albondegas and a plate of ham.
Next up we crawled to LOS GATOS where a weird thing happened: When we walked in a waitress pounced on us and was like "Tapas?" My wife said that, yes, we were going to have some tapas. The waitress then said "Tapas Mixtas?" and she was like "yeah, we're going to try a few… Tapas… Yes, Tapas!" We bellied up to the bar and looked at each other like "what's going on?" Fast-forward about 10 minutes and the waitress delivered our "Tapas Mixtas" which was a plate with about 25 giant tapas on it. I don't know if she thought we were catering a wedding or what but we had to say "errr… no we didn't order that."
Anyway, in the midst of all this confusion we managed to order a couple of nibbles at the tapas bar: Pulpo canapés (tender, juicy perfection) and a plate of some of the best, briniest olives I've ever had. We also made what felt like a big discovery that I don't remember reading: When entering a tapas bar look for a big toaster oven. Spanish bread, in our experience, is nowhere near as good as Portuguese and the tapas places that nuke their canapés are killing them. The ones with toaster ovens will invariably be better. Pro tip!
The next day we started with coffee outside in one of the tourist restaurants that line th Plaza Mayor. The coffee wasn't special (coffee and bread, advantage: Lisbon) but the setting certainly was. We then wandered the streets of Chueca, Malasana and Salamanca, during hours when everything was closed (frankly, everything was closed almost all the time while we were in Madrid.) We stopped for a lovely coffee in the beautiful CAFE COMMERCIAL, where the older patrons read newspapers and played chess, and intended to do a lunchtime Salamanca tapas crawl. Unfortunately we started at BIOTZA, where we thought we would get basque pinchos. Instead we got thoughtless, artless belly bombs. A roquefort tapa had far more of the pungent cheese than anyone should eat in one sitting. A foie, caramelized apple and puff pastry tapa was just a sugary mess with no subtlety. And some vietnamese-influenced tapas were no different from frozen grocery store spring rolls but greasier.
Thoroughly unimpressed we wandered through the Parque del Retiro and back to the Huertas area where we checked out the modest LOS MADRONOS TABERNA. A simple plate of traditional tostas and tapas (tortilla Espanola, sardines, pimientos, etc…) was a lovely snack before heading back to Alberto.
For dinner we went to VI COOL on Huertas to try some modern tapas. The first three things we ordered we absolutely incredible: First up, a plate of paper thing morcilla topped with herbs, pine nuts and a tomato puree. This highly-flavorful dish was a great start. Next up we couldn't help but order one of their pizzas. The whole pizza menu was ingenious and inviting and even though ordering pizza in Madrid seemed crazy we couldn't help but try one topped with house-made potato chips, garlic aioli, truffle oil and poached quail eggs. I mean, come on! It was as amazing as it sounds. Up third was Vi Cool's take on patatas bravas, which were little pillars of potatoes, scooped out on the top and covered with dollops of slightly spicy bravas sauce and aioli. These little bites were absolutely fabulous! Feeling like we could do no wrong we ordered two more items but discovered that even such an inventive place has its limits: Albondegas with a goat cheese fondue where both elements were completely bland, and decent fried shrimp with mint, were nowhere near as memorable as the earlier dishes. Still we left Vi Cool feeling like it's a place of great potential, but not every item is a home run.
The next day we were at the Prado right when they opened and got Goya's black paintings all to ourselves for a good 20 minutes. For lunch we headed across the street to ESTADO PURO where we had some more highly-refined tapas at the sleek bar. We started with "Ali-oli" potatoes (another fantastic little row of potato cubes, this time topped with a dollop of garlic mayo as well as chives and caviar) and their "21st Century" Tortilla, which is liquified and served in a glass. This molecular treat isn't just a gimmick: It is pure lusciousness, with the creamy egg rich and buttery. So great. One of our favorite bites. A basket of crispy fried anchovies was salty, lemony and could make a great snack any time. Foie on spiced bread was less exciting and the cubed grilled pig ear was not quite the texture that we wanted it to be. Overall, however, we were really happy with Estado Puro and its location makes it an amazing accompaniment to the museums.
After lunch we went to Reina Sofia and then grabbed some take-out tapas at LLARHDY on the way back to the hotel. They weren't the most exciting we'd had but it was fun to shop at such a venerable institution.
For dinner we walked up to Chueca and visited GASTROMAQUIA for yet another semi-modernist take on traditional Spanish flavors. This was probably our most fulfilling "real" restaurant experience of the trip. We started with a bowl of salmorejo, a gazpacho-like soup with a creamier make-up. Topped with bits of hardboiled egg and ham it was highly comforting for a cold soup. We had their touted guacamole next, served with fried plantain chips and spiked with chives and bacon. Delicious. We followed with a bowl of mussels bathed in a madras curry broth, which added a fun twist to the dish while still keeping it really simple. My favorite dish was probably the octopus in a cream sauce and topped with a generous sprinkling of sweet paprika. The octopus was incredibly tender and the dish overall was unlike anything I've had before. We also shared a skewer of some sort (don't remember) and a dessert of what I believe was mojito sorbet, for which we were glad to have broken our usual no-dessert rule. We also lingered and talked food with the server who I believe is also one of the partners in the restaurant. An all around terrific place. Highly recommended.
The next morning we started with coffee and chocolate and churros at SAN GINES, which is a must, especially when the weather is great and you can sit outside. We were hitting the point in holy week where everything was closed so we wandered pretty far until we worked up an appetite and headed back to Huertas, where we stopped in at CERVECERIA LA FABRICA for a couple of plates of tapas and media raciones. Our favorite was potato chips topped with pleasingly salty tuna salad, topped with hardboiled eggs, mayo, olives and peppers. So great!
We then popped into COCIDA DE LA SENA DANIELA and belied up to yet another tapas bar where we had a mini-feast: Morcilla on toast with a roasted pepper, tortilla on bread topped with what seemed like a piece of schnitzel, and bread slathered with sobrassada, a spread of spicy sausage. We also had a lengthy pronunciation lesson from the bartender who chuckled at our attempts. (MorTHIdja!) He also gave us a small plate of cocida, the chick pea stew that we were unlikely to order on our own since it's usually served in such large volume as a family meal. We had hoped to taste it and were glad to have gotten a chance. I'd like to have a full serving of it some time.
The next day we did our hotly anticipated stroll of the Rastro flea market, where we planned to see pick-pockets operate with abandon, unique items for sale and Madrid street life at its finest. What we found instead were some half-hearted sunglasses and t-shirt stands. What gives? How is this even a thing to do? The items for sale were a little more interesting on the back streets but we weren't overly excited by this stroll. Instead, we ended it early and headed towards Calle Cava Braja for the tapas crawl, which was what we were really excited about anyway. We were a little early so we sat outside and had a coffee (don't remember the place) before starting the crawl at TXIRIMIRI. Clever looking little fried pepper tapas were undone by the microwave but the mushroom croquettes came straight out of the kitchen and were funky and creamy.
Next up was TABERNA TXAKOLI, another microwave enthusiast. A tortilla tapa and another one were both tasty but were mushy from the nuker. I think the microwaving of tapas is taking a bite out of the quality of a lot of Madrid's tapas, I have to say.
Our next stop, however, was a trip highlight: CASA LUCAS. Their tapas are huge but the level of cooking is elevated above many of their neighbors. We had the Madrid (onion blood sausage mixed in with moist scrambled eggs) and Alella (tender chicken with a corn mousse) which were both out of this world. The corn mousse in particular was airy and sweet and very memorable. We returned to Casa Lucas on our last day in Madrid and got a couple more (Pork loin with caramelized onion and ratatouille topped with a fried quail egg) that were equally wonderful. Probably the best of the more traditional tapas places we visited.
We finished up this Sunday afternoon crawl at TABERNA ALMENDRO 13 for their famous huevos rotos (fried eggs and ham on a pile of potato chips). The atmosphere in the upstairs seating area was super lively and the food was simple and damn delicious. I eyed their giant round sandwiches enviously but at this point we couldn't eat any more.
We didn't do much in the way of dinner (a repeat visit to San Miguel that yielded unexciting results, although some lovely wine) and ended up at EL IMPERFECTO for lots of mojitos and other booze that dragged late into the night. A great bar.
The next day we went to MERCADO ANTON MARTIN intending to have lunch but didn't see anything that we wanted so we strolled on and dropped back in on Los Gatos for a couple of simple little tapas, then into LAS BRAVAS because, really, if someone is going to go to the trouble of patenting their sauce we need to try it. We had it on potatoes and on a tortilla and I can say that the sauce is spicy and rich and delicious. Worth patenting. Plus it comes out of a spigot. I mean, if you could have a spigot in your kitchen that poured out bravas sauce wouldn't you???
We meandered up to MERCADO DE SAN ANTON thinking we'd graze there but actually we were uninspired so we elected to have a drink in the bar on the roof, where we suddenly got caught in a freak hale storm. The dour servers made it clear that they didn't intend to pay us any mind whatsoever so we didn't linger.
That night we went back to Cava Braja, knowing that a lot of the places would be closed and the crowds would be thinner, making it easier to navigate. We discovered ORIXE, which uses a toaster oven instead of a microwave to heat up their little tapas, delivering crisp bread instead of soggy. We had a wide variety (morcilla, pork, sobrassada, hamburguesa) and found them to be perfect little bar bites. We also headed back to San Lucas for the second time. We were feeling pretty stuffed at this point and decided to keep it simple on our last night in Madrid.
RETURN TO LISBON
Back in Lisbon for the last day of the trip we decided to focus on places that we knew would deliver and not risk any more disappointments. For lunch we went to RESTAURANTE SUPER MARIO where we let the friendly owner recommend whatever was freshest. We had a couple of plates of the most beautifully grilled fish we've ever eaten: Salmon and perch, I believe. The space is total casualness, the clientele classic regulars, and the staff honest and concerned with quality above all. This was exactly what we wanted and we loved it. And, as others have said about Super Mario, the total bill ends up being whatever random round number he happens to pull off the top of his head, seemingly rounded down dramatically. I hope lots of people visit this wonderful little spot and keep it going forever.
We had some coffees and one last pastel de nata outside at Cafe Brasiliera and did the free wine tasting on the Praca Comercio (where the inane questions of the other tasters almost caused our eyes to roll out the backs of our heads) and ended the night, where else, at Ramiro, where we were feeling like real regulars. On our third visit there we knew the drill: Get some beers, stand out of the street, and just relax, knowing that eventually the harried (yet somehow eerily calm) staff will locate the perfect table for you and start delivering stunning food like there's no tomorrow. After dinner we climbed the hills of Lisbon one last time to close out the night with a couple of glasses of port at the Port Wine Institute. So it was a trip of highs and lows, but more than anything else I think about Ramiro and the energy, the noise, and the exuberance of a room full of people sharing the joy of eating great food. I can't wait to go back some day!