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Japanese Portuguese restaurant Lisbon

The innovative chef Filipe Rodrigues, known for marrying Asian inspiration with Portuguese flavors, has finally opened his long-awaited restaurant, A Taberna do Mar (Sea Tavern), on a corner in the Graça neighborhood.

Considering that 41-year-old Rodrigues has already ascended to a position of prominence thanks to his sardine nigiri, still one of the most iconic and innovative dishes in contemporary Lisbon, it’s no surprise that his new restaurant, the first that he will own outright, is focused on the fruits of the sea (as the name would suggest).

Cooking and eating fish is in his veins: he was born in the Algarve and started working as a young teen in the popular sardine restaurants in the seaside town of Portimão.

When we meet Rodrigues, he is behind the counter of A Taberna do Mar with his friend and fellow chef Hugo Gouveia, 34 years old, making last-minute tweaks to the menu before the official opening on October 2.

While scanning the offerings, we become a bit giddy when we see the legendary sardine nigiri. Also on the menu are new creations such as dim sum with cow’s tongue, seaweed and mushrooms, and a carob and dried horse mackerel steamed bun with a sweet potato pickle. The inspiration and technique is Asian but the ingredients are pure Portuguese.

Japanese Portuguese restaurant Lisbon

Both Rodrigues and Gouveia did all the renovation work and decoration of this small restaurant (there are only 18 seats). The two chefs even applied the tiles on the walls, replacing the white ones that gave the room “the ambiance of a giant bathroom,” jokes Rodrigues. The stools and tables are mostly made from recycled materials and a majority of the cutlery was sourced from their families and grandmothers.

Work began back in December 2017 and went slowly. Around two weeks ago they started serving dinners on the weekends. The soft opening period was used to test and practice the dishes, and adjusting as need be.

One of the most striking design elements in the new restaurant is the big tuna skeleton that hangs from the ceiling (and features in the logo created by illustrator Ana Gil). It sets the tone for their approach – nothing is wasted in this restaurant.

Rodrigues kept the bones after using all the flesh while working as a chef at the restaurant Sea Me, where he stayed until 2014. The 2.4-meter-long skeleton hangs over our heads while we taste the homemade tuna muxama (cured tuna loin), a petisco served with the bread that Rodrigues and Gouveia bake from scratch at the restaurant using an organic sourdough starter.

The two chefs source their fish from the nearby markets, including the one in Costa da Caparica (the beach area south of Lisbon), and are concerned about sustainability. “We want to get as much local fish as possible,” says Rodrigues.

“It’s coming to the end of the sardine season – they will be fat until November but the quota will be over soon. The tuna quota from the Azores has already been reached but we have mackerel and horse mackerel, cuttlefish and soon other fish such as the John Dory,” he continues.

“His technique was so different, he was almost like a surgeon working the fish.”

Rodrigues was 14 when he left high school and started to work in restaurants. When he was 19, he moved to Lisbon, where he worked and began to study culinary arts. He graduated from the Cooking and Pastry Course at the Estoril Higher Institute for Tourism and Hotel Studies and soon after received offers to work Midori (Penha Longa) in Lisbon, one of the first Japanese restaurants in Portugal, as well as at a restaurant in Milan. He ultimately chose Midori because of his fascination with Japanese gastronomy. (We count our lucky stars that he didn’t go to Italy.)

After his experience in Midori, where he worked with the renowned chef Paulo Morais, he was invited to Sushi Café and then to Origami (now Arigato) in Parque das Nações, the first restaurant perhaps anywhere serving a fusion of Portuguese and Japanese food.

It was there that he created the emblematic sardine nigiri: a fresh sardine flamed with a torch, served over rice and topped with flor de sal. Three distinct textures and sublime flavors come together, eaten in two, three bites of freshness.

Rodrigues and Gouveia only met later, at the restaurant of the Fontana Park Hotel in 2007. Rodrigues moved to Sea Me in 2010 and asked Gouveia to join him. They have been together since then. “Every time he goes to some new place I follow him, like when he went to Rabo d’Pêxe in 2015,” explains Gouveia.

At Sea Me, still one of the best fish restaurants in Lisbon, Rodrigues developed his innovative concept of Portuguese-Japanese fusion. The sardine nigiri, the cuttlefish in ink tempura and many other dishes created a legion of fans. In fact, the restaurant’s menu still reflects his vision and legacy.

Japanese Portuguese restaurant Lisbon

The love for fish runs in Rodrigues’s family. “My grandparents on my father’s side were working in the canneries in Portimão and one of my grandparents also had a taberna. And everyday friends of my parents would bring fish from the fish auction, and we would have fresh grilled fish on a daily basis. My other grandmother was also connected with a cannery,” he explains.

Gouveia, however, only really started to love fish after meeting Filipe. “His technique was so different, he was almost like a surgeon working the fish,” he says.

For now A Taberna do Mar will be open for dinner only, but in the future they may open their doors all day long for people to come and have a petisco or a meal if they feel like, in true taberna spirit.

Rodrigues and Gouveia have put in a lot of blood and sweat to open this tiny restaurant, struggling with bureaucracy and the difficulty of sourcing sustainable products. But they’d rather start out small and build from there. “We think it’s easier to start like this, with less seats and less meals. We will be both chefs and waiters, and we will have just one other member of the staff,” Rodrigues says.

As we’re talking, Gouveia prepares in front of us a cuttlefish stew with xarém (a dish similar to polenta, usually cooked with clams in the Algarve). Like the steamed carob buns stuffed with horse mackerel it is fresh and intense. But undoubtedly the cabidela made with cod head will be a favorite. Cooked in a reduction of red wine (instead of blood as in the traditional chicken dish) and vinegar, the dish promises to thrill taste buds.

For dessert, we recommend the bread pudding with blackberries. It’s the only part of the menu that we’re happy to report is fish free.

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