Colourful plates, fresh seafood, indulgent flavours… Portuguese cuisine is having a moment on the world stage. And where better to try it than in Lisbon, where a diverse culinary scene proves there’s more to Portuguese food than piri piri chicken. In the first of our Where Chefs Eat series, we recruit the help of Chef José Avillez, the man behind six restaurants in Lisbon – Belcanto, Barrio do Avillez, Mini Bar, Cantinho do Avillez, Café Lisboa and Pizzaria Lisboa – to give us some insider tips on his favourite epicurean locations in the city, and what to try when you visit.
How does your life in Lisbon, and your upbringing in Cascais, inspire you as a chef?
I grew up in Cascais, near the sea and surrounded by pinewoods. The strong memory of being close to the sea is a part of me. It defines me. Pine nuts and codium (a seaweed) are some of the flavours that remind me of my childhood. I remember eating salicornia, a plant that grows on the beach, as a child. Today, I often use it in my recipes. When I grew up, I fell in love with Lisbon, a magical city that once was a capital of the world. The inspiration I get from the history, the energy, the artists, the landscapes, the people and the river is incredible.
What do you think makes the local food scene so exciting?
Lisbon is a great destination for food lovers. Portuguese cuisine is tremendously rich and varied, and we have very high quality products. For me, the top ingredients are fresh fish and shellfish from the Portuguese coast – I think our fish is the world’s best. Talented local chefs are creating restaurants with delicious and diverse food, which is making Portuguese cuisine more visible.
If a visitor wants to sample traditional Portuguese cuisine in Lisbon, where would you recommend they visit, and what should they order?
Cheeses and cured sausages at traditional grocery store Manteigaria Silva; ‘Dip in the Sea’ (a sea bass dish with seaweed and shellfish) at Belcanto; giant red shrimps at Bairro do Avillez; and Pastel Lisboa (one of the most wonderful minced beef pastries you will ever taste) or Pastel de Nata at Café Lisboa. For an unforgettable dessert, try the citrus and egg sweets at Belcanto.
Are there any secret dining spots in Lisbon that people should know about?
The restaurants I would recommend aren’t exactly hidden but they are my favourites. Taberna da Rua das Flores is a small and informal restaurant that serves traditional Portuguese food and recreates the spirit of an old Portuguese tavern. The menu is written on a chalkboard because it changes so frequently. Gambrinus is great for a late night snack – I love to stop and sit at the counter after going to the theatre.
Lisbon is home to many fine dining restaurants. If you have friends or family visiting, where do you take them if you really want to impress?
Belcanto, the only restaurant in Lisbon with two Michelin stars, where you can find the best Portuguese cuisine. I’d also take them to Páteo at Bairro do Avillez so they can try the best fish and the best seafood in the world; or Mini Bar, a restaurant with a unique concept in Lisbon where you can have varied gastronomic experiences full of flavour, wonder and fun.
Portugal is known for its pastelarias. Where do you go when in need of a sweet treat?
I love a good Pastel de Nata, but not too sweet. I like to eat Pastel de Nata from Café Lisboa and from Taberna at Bairro do Avillez (always served warm). I also sometimes go to pastelaria Bénard in Chiado in the morning.
Where do you buy your ingredients in Lisbon?
I visit Mercado da Ribeira for fresh fruit, vegetables and fish; Manteigaria Silva for cheese, charcuterie, salted cod, dried fruits and such like; or A Vida Portuguesa, one of the most beautiful and original shops in Lisbon. Vida Portuguesa was born from an investigation by journalist Catarina Portas into old Portuguese products that are still made locally. I come here a lot. I buy gifts and a lot of things for my restaurants, for example I bought several pudding tins that we use at Cantinho do Avillez as bread baskets.