My first dinner was at Cervejaria Ramiro. This was recommended by my friend who spends a lot of time in Lisbon. I also saw that it's an Anthony Bourdain favorite-- I'm not sure if it's popular here on chowhound or no. It's a very casual type of place in a neighborhood that my semi-local friend advised that I not go to by myself after dark. I went with him, way before dark, and I couldn't tell at all that it was "sketchy", but fair warning to you. We got there early (630 ish?) to avoid the lines (no reservations). We had no wait, though by the time we left there was one.
We had beer, shrimp in garlic and butter, clams in garlic and butter, and I really wanted crab but the english menu is pretty vague so I picked on of the three crabs called "edible crab", which ended up being like this gigantic whole crab, cooked but cold in temperature, and in one shell all of the guts were made into this generous portion of, like, crab gut pate, that was to eaten with bread. Language barrier was an issue, the server was the brusque type who did not speak English. I would have preferred a hot crab, but considering it was cold, it was still very good. Tons of meat, actually the meatiest crab I have been served. My friend had warned me that I was alone in my crab-eating endeavor, and I could not finish this crab by myself. Which is definitely a first, I have never encountered a crab I couldn't devour and want more of. The only side we had was copious amounts of this garlic butter toast. The whole meal was extremely buttery, garlicky, but if you are into that type of seafood, it surely was delicious and satisfying. The entire bill for both of us with beer was like 65 Euros, and we couldn't finish the crab. Not bad! But that was a common theme in Portugal- great food is a steal here. I would certainly recommend.
The second night was my spluge meal at Assinatura. When I arrived, I found the restaurant to be a little small and the decor a little dated. For some reason I had imagined a sprawling restaurant on a hill with an ocean view (don't ask me why!), and this was certainly not that. So I pleasantly surprised when the meal turned out to utterly superb. Seriously, I eat at a lot of high caliber restaurants, many Michelin-stars etc, and this meal shone, quite expectedly, in way that I don't think I'll ever forget. Each course had not only the creative and interesting factor that I think so many high end restaurants seek to achieve with their food, but was also incredibly delicious. (I think pure deliciousness is sometimes sacrificed for expiration and prowess of technique in today's culinary scene, but I digress…)
I ordered the five course chef's tasting which is no choices, and you don't see a menu ahead of time. You just tell the server your preferences. In my case, that was no baby animals and no quail. As a result, my meal was predominantly seafood.The amuse was a smoked tuna on toast with bottarga and a creamy saffron sauce, and was actually about the size of a full tasting course. It was fantastic. The next course was a show stopper- Octopus with grilled pineapple, algae, and peanut butter. I have to tell you that when the server got the "peanut butter" part of the description, I was full of trepidation. I would NOT have ordered that, to me it just doesn't sound like it could possibly be a winning combination. Of course, I was wrong and somehow it was exquisitely delicious and my mind was utterly blown.
Next was a deconstructed gazpacho with white fish, poached quail egg, mangos, and tomato broth. Maybe the least impressive of the courses, but still excellent. Then a swordfish with prawn, onion jam, crispy shallots, on a pea puree. This was actually my favorite of the dishes- I've never been a big fan of swordfish on the basis of it usually being "boring" flavor and texture wise, but somehow the chef made this dish absolutely burst and sing with flavor. Literally one of the best plates of food I've ever been served. Thinking about it makes me want to make out with the chef (and I didn't see him, so I don't know if he was attractive or no). Next was a pork dish with melted cheese and a rich, meaty gravy-like sauce. Apparently their version of a popular Portugeese dish I'm not familiar with. Super tasty and decadent. Dessert was truly gorgeous to look at it and tasted just as good- Cheesecake with a chocolate hat paired with a parsnip cake with coconut ice cream and passion fruit sauce on the side. This dessert was not a throwaway, but as serious as any of their other courses. (Pet peeve is throwaway desserts in fine dining meals). This was followed by a small but perfect cheese plate. I hate to sound like I'm abusing superlatives, but the cheese plate was definitely a high light and superlative caliber! Unfortunately, I didn't learn much about Portugeese cheese during my time there other than I'm utterly crazy for it. But these cheeses were intensely flavorful and accompanied with a lovely fruit sauce and some herbs that married with them so beautifully. I drank red wine by the glass, at the recommendation of my server, and it was very good and I believe a whopping 7 Euros a glass! The entire meal was 62 Euros with two glasses of wine!! And my "five courses" felt more like 7 with the huge amuse and bonus cheese plate. I don''t rhapsodize in such flowery language in my meal reviews, but this one really deserved it. I feel very lucky that I chose this restaurant for my splurge meal in Portugal, and that I went for it though I was traveling alone.
The next day I went to Sintra (day trip, it's where the all the Castles are) and I had a nice lunch at a restaurant Rick Steves recommend there- Restaurante Regional de Sintra. The atmosphere was old fashioned, that nice european combination of white table cloth, yet relaxed. The food was decent, but nothing special. I had a steak and shrimp meat plate- the steak was enormous, though sadly not rare at all as I had ordered it. The cheese that was served with my bread was so good. (Again, no idea what these cheeses are called, but, boy are they good.) The meal was so large that I ended up not having a real dinner that night back in Lisbon, and ended up eating snack like fried things (particularly liked the shrimp-filled fried thing) at the famous Cafe A Brasileira. The cafe is some kind of institution and is always packed with both tourists and locals. It's more about ambiance and scene than food, but a good place for coffee or a snack of local flavors.
Oh, I also went to the famous bakery in Belem where you get the ubiquitous pastel de nata (there called Pastel de Belem). It was good and everything, but by the time I had it it just kind of tasted like all the other pastel de natas I had consumed, though at least at the factory they are warm and fresh. It's kind of a required tourist thing to do, go get these pastries at this "factory" that looks like a bakery….and it's cheap as hell and you're in Belem to see the other stuff anyway, so need to think too hard about whether or not to do it, just do it. But my better experience with portugeese pastry is when my semi-local friend took me to a secret bakery ("illegal bakery" at 186 Rua da Rosa) near the bars in Bairro Alto at 2 am and they were hot out of the oven- the place you get them isn't a real store front but some shady little building where you exchange money through an iron gate, and it feels like a drug deal but its hot pastries! Those pastries were actually tastier than the famous factory….though after a night of bar hopping, pastries right out of the oven at 2 am are invariably sublime. We also had cream filled donuts from this bakery which were so good.
First night in Porto, it was kind of late when I settled in and didn't want to venture by self too far from my hotel, so I took another tip from Rick Steves and went to Cafe Gaurany, where he promised live music. It's a large Art Deco restaurant that's always busy and is moderately priced, though the servers are all wearing white suits. I had the night's special which was (surprise!) baccalau (the ubiquitous cod of Portugal that they claim to serve 500 different ways) served with a cornbread stuffing on top and sauteed spinach. The fish itself was a little dry, and I had to pick out thin bones, but the cornbread on top of it was an interesting and tasty twist. I actually made note that I wanted to try white fish with cornbread topping when I got home. I drank super refreshing vinho verde for 3.5 Euros a glass, and lingered with my book there, soaking in the pretty ambiance and the excellent live pianist. This restaurant is near the Intercontenital and the big elegant plaza in the Uptown area. It was also a Sunday, when many restaurants are closed. It would be a great place to get drinks on a Fado night (Fado being the mandatory portugeese blues music). The atmosphere and music outshone the food.
Second day I had a disappointing lunch that I can barely bring myself to write about- I thought I was going into Pimm's (recommended by a friend), because there was a woman standing outside of Pimm's proffering a menu book. She led me to a little courtyard next to the restaurant, and it wasn't until I had already ordered that I realized I wasn't actually in Pimm's, I had been baited to a shady next door establishment. Disaster! I ordered the Franchesina (famous local dish) which is a sausage and carved ham sandwich covered in melted cheese and drowned in a spicy tomato broth). It wasn't that good, but of course, I meant to eat at Pimm's, so I'll never know. This whole lunch debacle almost ruined my day!
A Grade for the next dinner, which is popular rec here on chow (and Rick). Their signature dish is the whole roasted octopus leg. I didn't have a reservation (mistake) and was lucky to be allowed to eat at the counter. (They seemed shocked I was actually willing to sit there- I later saw a few parties without reservations snagging a table, but as I was alone I wasn't going to merit one.) The roasted octopus dish was worth sitting at a counter for- it was enormous-- a whole leg is brought to you in a large corningware straight from the oven. The thickness of the octopus leg allows you to really taste this meat, which is cooked expertly, and the potatoes and various veggies served alongside are quite yummy in their olive-oil-drenched goodness. I was given a free bacalou fried fritter as an appetizer, a free side of yellow rice (hits the spot with the octopus), and a free after dinner drink. I think was the perk of being a 'girl' eating alone at a counter… I had two glasses of vinho verde and this entire feast was 20 Euros. Oh, did I mention it was an enormous portion? I ate every bite, I just couldn't let it go to waste! Highly recommended, and better to reserve ahead.
The next day I had lunch at Ora Viva- another Rick Rec. I think I saw it double rec'd by a chow as well, but can't remember. I didn't have much time, so I ordered the plate of day as my server said that would be fast. It was whole fried sardines with olives, red and green peppers, and potatoes. I'm notbig on sardines, but as its a very typical dish of this area, I gave it a go. I enjoyed it, and the preparation was fun and novel to me. With a beer with the lunch was 10 Euros exactly. I'd give this restaurant a call back for dinner.
Random Portugal dining tip - it's common to bring out bread basket and olives and sometimes other appetizer-like items that feel complimentary, but aren't. If you don't want to pay for these random assortments, you can just tell the server you don't want them, and then you won't be charged for them. You have to be assertive, or you will pay for them even if you don't eat them.
Did I mention I love Portugeese cheese? I also bought a random round of cheese at a cultural fair in Lisbon. The signs didn't even say what kind of cheese it was, they only had markers for price. It might be their most prevalent cheese, which I can only describe as sort of a semi-soft texture similar to an Italian fontina (maybe a little softer), but which a sharper taste similar to a manchego. Do yourself a favor and try to find a cheese shop at some point in your Portugal stay and just buy some cheese! Vinho verde and other wine is also ridiculously cheap in the super markets. Why not by a bottle for the room that you can enjoy before or after dinner?
Bakeries are all over Lisbon and besides the famous Pastel Nata (which tastes like spawn between a donut and creme brulee!!), there are lots of little orange colored pastries which caught my eye. I bought several tiny ones in different shapes for my train ride. They turned out to taste like pure egg…. and as I don't like eggy desserts I couldn't eat them. Thought I'd share in you have the same curiosity about these orange pastries.