(BBG) The culinary vanguard is shifting to the Iberian peninsula’s long-overlooked western side.
For years, Portugal’s most talented chefs were willing to cook anywhere but Portugal.
“I left in 2007, because there was a very limited number of fine dining restaurants here,” says Manel Lino, a Portuguese chef who spent years sharpening his skills on the other side of the Iberian peninsula. “Spain represented the vanguard of fine cuisine, and I wanted to be there.”
Promising young chefs Antonio Galapito and Bruno Caseiro left for London as soon as they finished their culinary training. “I felt that a more competitive environment would make me progress faster and learn more,” explains Caseiro.
But as tourism has flourished in their home country, so has the appetite for ambitious dining. All three chefs have returned—and developed concepts yet to be popularized in their homeland.
Lino unveiled a 10-seat chef’s table experience in the posh Lisbon neighborhood of Principe Real last year; meanwhile, Galapito opened a farm-to-table restaurant inside the Lisboans, a hotel made up of stylish apartments in the city center. A third, Miguel Vieira, who had gained renown in Budapest, came back in 2015 to turn one of the country’s premier French restaurants into a bastion of Portuguese cuisine—retaining the kitchen’s Michelin star in the process.
It’s not just that tourists and pensioners are coming with the disposable income for elaborate tasting menus, although it’s true that there are more bodies to fill restaurants in Portugal than ever. Locals have developed a keener appreciation for food, giving chefs room to pursue more adventurous projects that put their international experience to use.
“Portuguese food has always been great,” Vieira adds. “But if we [chefs] can add our know-how. We can take it to another level—and thankfully, that’s what’s happening at the moment.”
Here are the need-to-know restaurants for any trip to Portugal—all by chefs that have recently returned home to create a bright future for Portuguese cuisine.
“I wanted to be closer to the ingredients I was cooking with,” says 27-year-old chef Antonio Galapito after years of cooking Portuguese food at Taberna do Mercado in London’s Old Spitalfields Market. Now, in a bright, plant-filled dining room on the first floor of the Lisboans hotel, he makes a twist on beef tartare, using Portuguese cows that have been grazing the land for years to develop deep, intensely flavored meat. Rather than present it purely raw, he grills the beef and cold-smokes it with red eucalyptus for three hours, and then stuffs it into grilled cabbage leaves sourced from one of the country’s oldest organic farms. Another signature that hasn’t left the menu since day one is a plate of buttery, garlicky cockles with chard and crispy bread crumbs.
“This is what Prado really is,” he says, “simple Portuguese products cooked well.”
Fortaleza do Guincho, Cascais
After 15 years abroad, chef Miguel Rocha Vieira returned to Portugal in 2015 with Hungary’s very first Michelin star on his resume. The opportunity to become head chef at Fortaleza do Guincho, a historic fortress transformed into an elegant Relais & Chateaux beach resort in his hometown of Cascais, seemed like the perfect full-circle narrative. “I’m the first Portuguese chef here,” he says. “I felt that I had to leave my mark.”
What used to be one of the country’s best French kitchens now has a fully Portuguese menu, largely focusing on the area’s excellent seafood. The national dish of feijoada, for instance, is reinvented to feature monkfish and langoustine, rather than bacon or sausage. But meat is at the heart of a signature creation called Head to Toe, which uses every part of the black pig: There’s tenderloin, a delicate neck terrine, crunchy cracklings, and a pig’s feet stew that’s cleverly plated to resemble an acorn, the main source of the animal’s diet.
During his time in Spain, Manel Lino worked at such global dining destinations as Mugaritz and El Celler de Can Roca, rated No.1 restaurant in the world in 2015. He’s back in Lisbon now as the head chef at Local, a year-old, 194-square-foot chef’s table concept in the fashionable neighborhood of Principe Real. Only 10 diners fit around a communal table in a minimally decorated dining room, where Lino serves a five-course tasting menu, or a tightly curated nine-dish á la carte menu of reinterpreted Portuguese comfort foods.
One example: Iscas, a traditional preparation of liver cooked in white wine, garlic, and vinegar, is beloved for the sauce that’s left behind in the bottom of the bowl. Lino refocuses the dish around that sauce, made with smooth veal liver puree and then topped with crisped potatoes and tart slivers of pickled purple onion.
Prior to opening Almeja with his wife last year, João Cura had never cooked in Portugal. He instead cut his teeth in some of Spain’s Michelin-starred kitchens, including Cinc Sentis and Dos Cielos, in Barcelona. Back in Porto, he’s not afraid to aim big. “We want to be recognized as a culinary reference nationally,” he tells Bloomberg.
At Almeja, an old grocery with bare stone walls and beautiful, hand-painted, tile floors, he transforms traditional recipes (or as he calls them, “grandma’s memories”) to meet fine-dining standards. His twist on the Alentejo region’s Cabeça de Xara, or pig’s head terrine, for instance, is lightened up with slender Granny Smith apple slices and garnished with saffron aioli, carrot escabeche, and foraged flowers.
Cave 23, Lisbon
In 2008, Bernardo Agrela set off on a world tour, cooking in London, Luxembourg, the Seychelles, and the Maldives. After tiring of life abroad, he returned to Portugal in 2016. Now at Cave 23, a quaint, basement-level 20-seater, he blends local and international flavors into two whimsical tasting menus that reflect his life story.
Try his Bolas de Berlim, inspired by his grandmother’s riff on Portugal’s quintessential beach-time snack. Agrela creates a savory slider stuffed with tender, slow cooked beef tongue that’s slightly sweetened with a creamy toffee sauce. Less personal but equally popular is a bowl of ramen with house-smoked swordfish and camarinhas—tiny shrimp from the nearby Tagus River.
Bruno Caseiro always knew his career abroad was going to be temporary; last year, he returned from London to helm the kitchen of a new restaurant in Comporta, one of the country’s toniest beach destinations. The resulting spot, Cavalariça, is located in an old stable that’s been outfitted with rustic, white-washed booths and chic nautical stripes.
On the menu are pan-fried dumplings stuffed with slow-braised pork, finished with a drizzle of sweet chili and pine oil. Also worthwhile is the cured catch-of-the-day crudo, paired with a green molé sauce of avocado, coriander, and jalapeño peppers—all garnished with fresh and pickled halophytes, a briny and herbaceous sea plant that’s abundant along Portugal’s coast.