This will be the last “installment” of London to Lisbon, a trip with so many more culinary highlights than ever expected.
(If you are clicking in from Merrimack Valley Magazine, welcome!)
A few days after returning home to Lowell, I ran into a women who asked how our trip was. With a quick read of her face, I tailored my half-minute version of “fabulous”—emphasizing that which I felt would speak to this woman’s seemingly, skeptical mojo.
“Nice people, friendly, safe, old beautiful churches, great shopping, very safe…”. She smiled. She then asked about the food, and maybe I imagine some recoil, but…
You know how you can tell a lot about people in the way they pose a question—the positive: Those with high eyebrows, mouth and eyes open in excited expectation, that screams a love of adventure and curiosity. Well, that wasn’t Lori’s face.
I amused her suspicious, squinty eyed expression again, with tales of hotels keeping things “European”, “light on spice,” “lots of cheese and pastries.” She loosened up just a tad, her fear of the unknown passing for the moment.
I can tell you for certain, she certainly did NOT want to hear about many a restaurant’s whole fish grilled outside in the street (or adjacent alleyways) over charcoal —served head on and sometimes fileted table side, “be careful of bones,” and other times, not.
Or the “seafood rice” …a giant clay flower-like-pot with whole crabs and giant head on shrimp emerging from below the surface of the broth as we stirred with a giant spoon, seeking the rice at the bottom.
I can only imagine her facial contortions had I reveled in stories of the Morcilla, aka Blood sausage—an Iberian Peninsula delicacy that tastes so much more innocuous, and delicious, than it sounds—and the second best thing I had in the entire week—served in the form of a rich, black, meaty side-rice to accompany my grilled octopus. (She most surely did not want to hear me say “octopus!”)
I absolutely love, beyond what words can reveal, the adventure of travel: Of flying and viewing the landscape from above, negotiating foreign traffic patters and signage and custom, the uncommon–prolific clotheslines, bidets and half=shower doors, French presses, indigenous wares and fabric patters and colors and such, and the sometime unnerving grace or lack of stringent oversight, in Portugal particularly where I felt the vibe of trust and community so richly.
It is always the food, for me, that holds the greatest fascination, the most fun and most clear window into a place’s cultural self—as I summon memories of Anthony Bourdain—embracing foreign customs, brave enough to go all in, be it eating eels in China or goat or dog or seated in a dessert tent breaking camel with his hosts… his celebration and all-out respect for the ways of other’s as an inspiration for me for so long now.
In fact, and in much less exotic fashion, we followed in the late icon’s footsteps early on, while in Porto. We visited his TV recommended restaurant/lunch counter for the incredible hotdog he chronicled on a show years ago. People in Porto told us about it as well—and it just so happened to be a 2 minute walk from our B ‘n B. I won’t try to describe the bustle or excitement of the many surrounding details in this tiny counter-only hot-spot but suffice to say that the combination of two hand-pressed sausages, cheese, hot sauce and tiny French bread baguettes (delivered in giant tubs stacked a foot taller than the delivery man!), accompanied by a local pilsner, made my hotdog-loving wife exclaim: “This is the best hotdog I have ever had in my life.” And she’s had some hot dogs in her day! It was that good.
Just a day before, in search of a local delicacy: Small tube-like “goose barnacles”, we were directed to a small seafood taverna on the Douro River, where we discovered a Portuguese dining custom that would present time and again throughout our trip. In Portugal, like The States, bread is often delivered at the moment you sit down, and often accompanied by other complementary items such as olives, and/or fish spread. No butter though, or olive oil. In fact, we found Portugal mostly devoid of condiments like mayonnaise, mustard, etc. The food’s the food. Sometimes the bread would “include” small, chilled, peel and eat shrimp, or seafood fritters, or cheese, or any combination of such items to snack upon. What you are not told is, none of the bread complements are actually, well, complimentary! If you eat any, they will be charged on the bill.
The good news was, everything is hella-cheap. Half a euro (.50), a euro, two euro each, at most—for an array of immediate tastiness, and no thought or translation necessary. A platter of tasty treats and rustic, homemade bread, for what amounted to two or four dollars. (FYI, we found repeatedly that dinner out in Portugal, including a bottle of wine, or two, almost always costed around $20 per person! Looove Portugal!)
The barnacles by the way, proved to be…meh, but fun nonetheless—a one-time never before experience, with no harm done! Salty, briny, better than icky French snails, not quite as good as, say, sucking on lobster legs. But, kind of like that. Only chilled. If you like sea water, they’re for you.
Of all the interesting and delicious, unique, hearty and native foods that we enjoyed during our adventure, the single best meal, and the single best item was found in a restaurant that was recommended by two different American friends who had previously traveled to Portugal: “While in Lisbon you must dine at Mini Bar Theater.”
This celebrity-chef owned small plates restaurant that boasts a “varied dining experience full of surprise and fun…” and where not “everything is as it seems” was difficult to snag a reservation (9:30pm), packed when we got there and also when we left two hours later, was nothing short of incredible in every aspect from hospitality to it’s retro-smoky atmosphere, to the great service and funky, memorable food.
(Picture briny shrimp ceviche, packed onto the top of the most green, rip and juicy lime and being instructed to eat the shrimp at once, while squeezing the lime into your mouth–great stuff!)
But most memorable was the “Ferrer Roche”—a single bite that I will remember forever. It arrived as a small round ball (croquette) painted in sparkly in it’s edible gold leaf (masquerading as the foil), covered completely in crushed hazelnut-panko crumbs, and…when I popped it in my mouth it’s crispy exterior gave way to a melted-chocolate like consistency of pure, incredible, umami-rich and warm foie gras! Ohh shit amazing!
I would go back to Lisbon in a minute for the people, the customes, the laid-back vibe, the Time-Out Market. And for the strolling street musicians throughout the city, for the outdoor markets bursting with cheese and sausages and breads, and surely for the amazing value and ridiculously delicious wine. And when I do… I will go back to Mini Bar, for many things on that menu that we could not try in just one night despite enjoying the tasting menu—and then, a “double order of Ferret Roche please.” Meu Deus!