Eat your way through Lisbon with a food tour
Portugal's capital has a wonderful mix of traditional regional specialties and modern cuisine of the highest quality
It's noon at Jose Avillez's popular new restaurant, Bairro do Avillez, and I'm lunching like a true Lisboner on perfectly chargrilled giant prawn and sipping a crisp vinho verde – the Michelin-starred chef's own label.
As one of the oldest cities in Europe, the Portuguese capital has its share of cultural and historic sites, but I'm here to eat. With a culinary scene ranging from traditional regional specialties to some of the most creative modern haute cuisine found anywhere, the dining options are overwhelming. So where to start?
Diogo Correia, the creator of Lisbon Foodie Walks, has the answers. He comes by his passion honestly, having worked at his mom's place, Buzio Café, in the nearby town of Sintra. "My interest in food is very personal. I love bringing new food experiences to people, and this was the way I found to start doing that."
Didi, as he's known to his friends, crafts gastro tours that range from traditional to bespoke, focusing on the newest restaurants of some of Lisbon's best-known chefs.
"Each tour is tailored to fit my customers' requests and I make sure my clients' needs are satisfied by having them fill out a questionnaire before the walk is booked," the busy local guide explains. "Since I do my homework as well as try all these new spots in town, my foodies always get the first bite of what's new in Lisbon."
Our first lunch is at O Watt, the latest venture from chef Kiko Martins, the man behind A Cevicheria, where locals happily line up for ultra-fresh seafood and creative cocktails. At this modern dining destination, located in a former energy plant in the riverside Cais do Sodre district, the emphasis is on healthy, light dishes free of butter, sugar and lard. Every course is raw, steamed or grilled, resulting in dishes that allow the ingredients to shine. The tuna poke appetizer is a delicate creation that melts in my mouth, while the grilled octopus is moist and tasty. A refined dish of finely minced cauliflower and mushrooms topped with a truffle egg yolk is so good that even a vegetable hater could not resist its charms.
From there we wander over to the busy neighbourhood of Chiado and the multiconcept Bairro do Avillez. With six restaurants – one with two Michelin stars – chef Avillez has put Lisbon firmly on the culinary map. This year-old venture is four venues in one, including Taberna, where we meet for lunch. It may have an informal vibe, with customers coming in to buy bread and cheese, but the food is anything but. Lunch begins with a plate of black and pink ham sliced paper-thin. It continues through several courses that include a delicate cod prepared with cornbread and chorizo crumbs, the aforementioned giant prawn and a spicy horse mackerel tartare cone that quickly disappears. To end: a dense, delicious orange and vanilla custard topped with a caramelized crumble.
Located on the chic shopping boulevard Principe de Real Tapisco, our third and final stop is the latest offering from chef Henrique Sa Pessoa, chef of the Michelin-starred Alma. A narrow, intimate space that was once a bakery, Tapisco focuses on a mix of Spanish and Portuguese dishes. The fresh tuna tartare with avocado is a perfect mix of fatty and lean chunks of fish, while the octopus with smoked paprika is superbly prepared. Squid ink paella is a must try. And dessert, a chocolate mousse with olive oil and a hint of fleur de sel, is one long, velvety smooth bite.
After a full day of eating my way through countless courses, sampling creative cocktails and tasting a variety of local wines, I am convinced that Portuguese cuisine, with its focus on simple, local ingredients, is one of the best in the world.