Monday, May 22. We drove south from Lisbon, across the Tagus River, to the seaside town of Sesimbra, where we had lunch at Ribamar. Like many seafood restaurants in Sesimbra, Ribamar is located right on the waterfront, across the street from the sandy beach. The catch of the day is displayed on ice. My wife and I shared a soup, Crema de Mariscos, with deep intense flavors of lobster and shrimp shells and assorted shellfish. Outstanding. Next, we had Almejas Bulhao Pato, the incomparable tiny, buttery, thin-shelled clams for which Ive not found an American equivalent. Baby littlenecks are both less sweet and chewier. It will not be possible for me to eat too many almejas during my stay in Portugal. Next we had Gambus all Ajillo, tender, firm, perfectly cooked shrimp served sizzling in a garlic sauce. Among the fish displayed on ice, I picked a red mullet that was so fresh it was still twitching. The fish was grilled on charcoal and served with melted butter and lemonSalmonetes Assado en la Brasa. Another bullseye. In one of my reference books, Ribamar was said to offer a cream of sea urchin soup, which I did not find on the menu. After my attempt to draw a sea urchin, the friendly staff at Ribamar informed me that its Portuguese name is ouricos and, at Ribamar, it is used to make a sauce for a fish known at abrotea. For desert, we chose a delicious local cheese, azeitao, a golden round of tangy, creamy, not quite runny sheep cheese. We ate our azeitao plain, although I understand a favorite combination is azeitao and marmelada, a stiff amber paste made from quince. We washed all this down with a lovely bottle of 1997 Esparao Reserva.
A couple Chowhounds and other food writers had recommended Coventual, and thats where we ate dinner. Coventual is an upscale place in Lisbon, with a lovely ambience created by a wood paneled ceiling and walls displaying a mixture of old tiles, antique religious woodcarvings, and modern art. My wife, still somewhat full from our lunch, ordered three appetizers, smoked swordfish (espadarte fumado), fried horse mackerel with vinegar and onions (carapaus de escabeche), and baby eels fried in oil, garlic, and chilies (angulas Cruzadoes de Compostela). I started with coriander cream soup (crème de coentros), followed by a poached egg on a bed of veal brains cooked with small shreds of ham, cream, and coriander (claustrais D. Branca de Lorvao). For my entree, I chose the stewed partridge (perdiz estufada). The moist, lightly smoked swordfish was served carpacchio style, sliced razor thin and served with parsley, egg, capers, chopped onion, and toast wedges. I found most of the accompaniments too overwhelming for the delicate taste and texture of the fish, and ate the fish without them. The vibrantly green soup had a wonderful concentrated flavor of fresh coriander, enhanced by just the right, light touch of other seasonings. Carapau, or horse mackerel, is a small oily fish abundant and much loved in the Algarve. It was served en escabeche with vinegar and onions in a light bath of good olive oil. The poached egg over brains was delicious, though not what I had expected. The brains were finely chopped and mixed with ham and coriander in a thick custardy cream sauce, on top of which sat the poached egg. Though I missed experiencing the delicate taste and texture of the brains, which I adore when properly prepared, the dish was absolutely delicious. The baby eels were served in a small earthenware vessel, fresh from the oven, in which the baby eels were still sizzling. This was the surprise of the evening, for when they say baby eels, they mean baby. The eels were about an inch long and no bigger than pencil lead. The taste of the baby eels was more delicate than the mature eels we had eaten on Sunday, and the flavors of the garlic, chili, and olive oil were a strong supporting cast. My only fault with this dish was that some of the garlic had turned brown in the hot oven, with the usual bitter taste as a result. By picking out the offending burnt garlic, however, its effect was greatly diminished. Although one of the most expensive items on the menu at almost $20, this is a dish not to be missed. (After listening to the waiters explanation of the difficulty of harvesting these tiny creatures, I can understand the high price.) My stewed partridge came with a wonderful sauce, baby onions, chestnuts, spinach, and amazing fried finely shredded potatoes (shredded even more finely than, say, shredded wheat cereal). It was a wonderful plate of food, with the exception that the breast of the partridge was dry. By this point in the meal, I was full enough that I satisfied myself with the more juicy and tender legs, which I swabbed in the delicious sauce before eating. For desert, my wife and I shared the specialty of the house, which bore the restaurants name, Conventual. It was made with a white pumpkin, called xila, mixed with eggs and almonds. It was overly sweet for my taste, but interesting. The wine steward recommended a Quinta dos Carvalhais, made entirely with the Encruzado grape, as a white wine, and a half-bottle of a 1989 Quinta das Cerejeiras Reserva for the red wine. Both turned out to be good choices. For a quiet, leisurely evening at an upscale Lisbon restaurant, with good, although not consistently perfect, food and interesting décor, Coventual remains a good choice.