This is the first post in a series of five.
World travel is among life’s great joys. In early June, Christina, my son Noah and I spent five wonderful days in Lisbon. I visited Lisbon some forty plus years ago with vague fond memories deep in the recesses of my mind. Christina had been there far more recently and identified it as an “under-rated,” friendly and accessible city that provided relative travel value despite its Euro-based currency.
I consider myself a “good enough” traveler. I like to cover a fair amount of ground, but am not obsessive about it. I am more interested in getting a walking sense of place and people than in site-hopping. I prefer doing too little to too much. I understand that there is always one more site to see, neighborhood to visit, meal to enjoy. And naturally, my primary way to understand a place and people is through food. Eating is central to my travels.
My early interest in cooking was kindled by the remarkable Time-Life Foods of the World series published in the late 1960′s. Far more than just cookbooks, this series placed a people’s food in the context of place and culture. The books were carefully curated including recipes developed by some of the world’s great chef-journalists. You subscribed to the series and every now and then a new volume would arrive and with it, a ticket to another country. Well, not an actual ticket but you get my point. Before I ever got on to a plane, this is how I traveled. Though long out of print, the series can be found in used book stores and online. I strongly recommend these books.
In advance of our Lisbon trip I bought four Lisbon guidebooks and began internet research. My information goal was to just get a general lay of the land… and identify where to eat. The problem with guidebooks is that they tend to be too comprehensive for me. Though they compensate for this with “Top 10′s” and “Best of’s,” I still find them overwhelming. Trip Advisor leads the internet and is useful in separating the wheat from the chaff. However, the internet’s “the wisdom of crowds” can become mob rule. Who is it that writes these individual reviews? And as you peel deeper into the opinion-laden internet you often find contradictory “reviews.” The New York Times travel section includes a recent 36 Hours in Lisbon and we found that useful…though 36 hours represented just 30% of our total trip. What I ideally want are well-curated choices from a friend whose taste I trust who has been there and done that. That’s what I hope the these posts about visiting Lisbon accomplishes.
Naturally, this series will be most interesting to folks planning a Lisbon trip. If that’s not you, I hope you pass it along to others you know who may be planning a trip. The posts will be a series of five, one for each day.
Overview: Settling into our apartment in Bairro Alto, walking through our “home neighborhood” and an unexpectedly great dinner at 100 Maneiras.
An overnight flight from Philadelphia landed us at Lisbon’s Portela Airport in the morning. The airport is fairly close to central Lisbon and after a customs crawl, a 15 minute cab ride delivered us near our apartment in Bairro Alto. I say near our apartment because Bairro Alto is an old neighborhood of narrow streets — many of which provide only limited access to vehicles including our cab. Because there were three of us, a hotel would have required two rooms with the associated cost. An apartment was less expensive, more comfortable and much more “family-friendly” with its living room and kitchen.
This is the front door of our building. There are a number of internet-based apartment rental sites. My guidebook research helped me identify our “ideal neighborhood” and the sites provide search by neighborhood as well as cost, number of bedrooms and amenities. We booked online through www.rent4days.com/Lisbon-apartments.
By the time we got through customs, collected our bags, arrived at our apartment and got settled, it was late morning. After a long flight though five time zones, first days can be a challenge. I got only a few hours sleep on the plane so the temptation is to sleep first. Seasoned travel advisors suggest this is a mistake and set as the goal switching to life on local time as quickly as possible…when in Lisbon, sleep when the Lisboetas sleep! Fortunately, the excitement of arrival offsets the fatigue of travel. I was the first of our group to venture out to a nearby produce shop for some fruit for breakfast — pictured above in our spacious and comfortable living room.
Walk — Day One
On our first day’s walk prudence and fatigue lead us to stay close to home. Fortunately, home was the lively neighborhood of Bairro Alto. Bairro is the Portuguese word for neighborhood and alto refers to high. Lisbon is built on a series of serious hills.
Here is the panorama from from a small park at the edge of Bairro Alto — essentially a cliff overlooking Baixa with a view of hills across the way and “The Castle” perched on the distant hill. Baixa — Lower — refers to the neighborhood that sits at the center of central Lisbon — a sort of flat basin between hills that leads down to the River Tejo. Lisbon’s hills and valleys serve to create a series of distinctive neighborhoods and provide central Lisbon its particular urban street character. The primary areas we encountered over our five days included Bairro Alto, Chaido, Baixa and Alfama. We also took a day trip to seaside town of Cascais and hilltop town of Sintra.
Chaido is a modestly chic shopping district adjacent to Bairro Alto. Chaido starts high up on a hill and leads down to Baixa and the river. Baixa is the broad expanse of “downtown” Lisbon. Alfama is the old neighborhood of narrow streets that sits at the base of the ancient Moorish castle. While it takes some serious endurance, you can stroll from Barrio Alto, down to Baixa and up to Alfama in a few hours.
These hills are so steep that neighborhoods are connected by elevators and trams though the intrepid walk.
We mostly were intrepid. We walked for hours each day and though we ate very well, I actually lost a pound during our trip.
Lisbon, the capital of Portugal is a city of about a half million people within Lisbon proper. The streets and neighborhoods of Lisbon are incredibly vibrant. It has an old world, low-rise character with only the rare building more than four or five stories.
For a short time in my life I spoke Portuguese. In the late 60′s I trained for a Peace Corps assignment to Brazil in Brattleboro, Vermont and in Brazil. I learned to speak in three months of training through total immersion in Brattleboro at Peace Corps “camp” and with my Brazilian “family” in Fierra de Santana, a small city not far from Salvador, the capital of Bahia. Deciding to pass on the Peace Corps at the end of training in favor of returning to the U.S. and working in the anti-war movement, I forgot my Portuguese nearly as quickly as I learned it. What’s more, Portuguese as it is spoken in Brazil sounds quite different than Portuguese in Portugal. The few phases of Portuguese that I retained was just enough to get me in trouble when I uttered them as people assumed that I actually could speak Portuguese. Fortunately, many Portuguese speak English and getting around was not a problem.
Lisbon is a decidedly unpretentious place and has a very lived-in character.
I walk with camera in hand. I find that “looking for photographs” helps me to focus on what’s around me. My camera is a pocket-friendly point-and-shoot Canon.
Frequently building’s are festooned with tiles.
Graffiti is also ubiquitous. Throughout our five days my camera sought out wall surfaces — traditional tiles and very modern graffiti.
Heading home after a few hours stroll, we passed the restaurant 100 Maneiras a few blocks from our apartment. I recalled that it was on our list of possibilities. By now it was 6:30 PM which meant it was 11:30 PM for our tired selves. We checked out the posted menu and decided this was a good place for our first dinner. But it seemed closed. We opened the door into the small restaurant and encountered a friendly and English-speaking fellow in the empty dining room who turned out to be the chef. We confirmed that the restaurant was indeed open, but not until later as no one eats at 6:30. We made a reservation to return at 8:30 and returned home for a well deserved rest.
Eat — Day One.
100 Maneiras offers one very reasonably-priced 10 course tasting menu each night for about 35 Euros — about $50 US. That’s it. No a la carte dining. I know 10 courses sound like a lot of food, but the course are all small and well-paced. We had among our best and most memorable dining experiences here, not just in Lisbon, but anywhere.
On our initial walk we had become familiar with the clothes lines that hang from apartments throughout the streets and alleys of Bairro Alto. Our first course — Estendal do Bairro or Cod fish clothesline was an homage to Lisbon. It featured crisp dehydrated salted cod – aka bacalao, stretched along wires secured with tiny clothes pins and served with a spicy mayonnaise seasoned with Piri Piri, a traditional Lisbon condiment. It provided a perfect welcome to 100 Maneiras’s.
Before getting into the balance of the dining experience at 100 Maneiras, I want to be clear that as wonderfully artful as the food was, the restaurant was utterly devoid of pretense. The food and wine was served with a professional enthusiasm and warmth in a comfortable setting conducive to conversation – the hallmarks of great hospitality. The lighting was subdued, but adequate to clearly see the food.
Small warm rolls were presented in a burlap pouch accompanied by a shallow bowl of olive oil with a few leaves of thyme. The bread was good enough to be enjoyed without being so good that you felt compelled to consume vast quantities.
Rather than order a bottle of wine, we opted to let the wine waiter select wines by the glass for us that flowed with the courses — at total of six wines including a late-harvest dessert wine and a port. In recent years Portugal’s Vinho Verde has found its way to world wine shelves — housed with other inexpensive white imports. But the best of these notoriously “light and refreshing” wines are excellent white wines that are light and refreshing but contain a richness and complexity that makes them distinctive of the genre. The best are made from the local Alvarihno grape. Ours was produced by Soalheiro — a bottle of which we brought home.
The nightly menu is printed in both Portuguese and English. With each course the staff further explains in English what they have brought. Our next course was a Potato foam with corn bread crumble and herb oil, skewered bread, Nisa cheese and smoked ham. The warm earthy thick-thin potato was perfectly set-off by the sweet crunchy crumble of “bruleed” cornbread. But it was the skwered bread that turned out the be the best “grilled cheese” I ever had. So good, in fact, that I re-created and served it at a small Frog Commissary event two days after returning home.
This was followed by Sauteed and marinated scallop, pea puree and ham crunch. The scallop was sauced with a honey-bacon reduction and the strip of bacon to the right was crisp by virtue of dehydration. This “course” — as with several others — actually included a medley of small, distinct flavor vignettes.
With this course we switch to an Aneto white wine from the Douro region made with a variety of local grapes. It was appropriately drier and more complex that our first white wine.
This next course — Tuna with foie gras caramelized apple in molasses and wakame salad — combined an extraordinary set of flavors and textures that had us wetting the tips of our fingers so that we could pick-up the wasabi sesame seeds that dotted the black slate “plate.” The restaurant is small — maybe fifty seats. White table linen and a mix of modernist white china, black slate keep the focus firmly on the food.
In preparation for our next course, our wine waiter poured a white Palpite from Alentejo.
Tartar with quail egg — finely chopped beef seasoned with Dijon mustard — was topped with a quail egg yolk that we blended into the tartar along with the hazelnut “dust” that sat on the wide rim of the plate. As I have eating pretty carefully lately, I rarely have red meat. The beef had a deep, rich flavor and was fantastic.
The pace of the courses was leisurely with time between treats to sip wine, talk and savor the lingering taste of the course gone by. Above is Sauteed pamplo with lime rice and salmon roe topped with a wisp of kaffir-lime foam. Pamplo is a cousin of snapper. Luscious, tart, salty and ethereal — all at once.
A palette cleanser followed: Coriander and ginger sorbet with champagne foam.This is coriander as in cilantro and not the spice coriander.
Our next wine was Palpite Alentejo 2006 — another fine and fruity red with 70% cabernet sauvignon. This was served with a Black pork entrecote with carrot puree, crispy Parmesan and mackerel mousse. The entrecote was actually a pork belly. It was a unexpected combination of flavors that worked perfectly on heir own and also as companions. The mackerel mousse was smoked mackerel nestled in a boat-shaped Parmesan tuille. Regretfully we all finished this dish before I remembered to stop for a photo. Likewise the Foie-gras ice cream with roasted almonds and chocolate. You read that correctly — fois-gras ice cream. Who would have thought? One word: great. Somewhere in here we began sipping a Late Harvest Aneto made from semillion grapes. Luscious.
Our final offering was a Fake framboise cheesecake And since we were in Portugal, it seemed only right to finish this culinary tour de force with a port — a Nieport 2007 Vintage. It was an unexpected and incredibly fine dinner – a gastronomic tour de force.
Here is Noah talking to the chef after dinner. Noah is currently manning the tempura station at Morimoto. He wears the burns that line his forearm proudly. The bar counter is used by the restaurants staff to turn out each course as it is relayed to the counter from the adjoining kitchen. Everyone in the dining room is served each course more or less at the same time. We were so enthralled with our opening night’s dinner that after checking that the menu would change by Saturday, we reserved to return on our closing night. We also resolved to more or less pass on “traditional Portuguese food” in favor of seeking out each night Lisbon’s most interesting contemporary dining experiences.
Rua do Teixeira, 35
21 099 04 75
A post-dinner walk of a few short blocks returned us home to our apartment. An apartment feels like home in a way that a hotel never does. Our Bairro Alto neighborhood, while pleasantly sleepy by day, is lined with restaurants, bars and clubs and bursts with activity into the night.
Coming on Day Two. Walk: Baixa, Alfama and St. George’s Caste. Eat: Mercado de Peixe and Largo.
Thank you for visiting,
Your Home Entertaining Coach
On June 30th, to celebrate my 70th pound of weight loss, I walked from my home on Rittenhouse Square to Citizens Bank Park to watch the Phillies. When I began this weight-loss journey around Thanksgiving, I had to think twice about walking to my local CVS at 19th & Chestnut — two blocks from my home.