The Algarve, one of the most visited regions in Portugal, also has some of the country’s most distinctive and delicious cooking. Integrating layers of different historical influences, from the Romans to the Moors, along with fishing traditions and countryside rusticity powered by its fertile land, the Algarve has made a deep impression on Portugal. But until Taberna Albricoque came on the scene, the region hadn’t been making much of an impact on Lisbon menus.
Bringing the Algarve’s history to the forefront of Lisbon dining was one of the goals of chef Bertílio Gomes in opening his new restaurant. Albricoque, in fact, is the word for apricot in the Algarve, notable because the south has preserved its Arab etymology, as elsewhere in the country damasco is used (instead associating the fruit with the city of Damascus).
The taberna sits in Santa Apolónia, right next to the neighorhood’s blue-colored train station. It’s an area already familiar to Bertílio, who has worked at Bica do Sapato and Faz Figura, two iconic restaurants in Santa Apolónia. Albricoque is a place to share food, and the menu shines its spotlight on fish and vegetables in the form of simple and unpretentious dishes. The decision to cook with less meat has its roots, of course, in the Algarve’s food tradition. Bertílio, who co-authored “Algarve Mediterrânico” – which won the Gourmand Book of the Year award – discusses why that’s a challenge for many locals. “Consuming more protein was something promoted by the food industry some 45 years ago, after the end of the dictatorship,” he says. “People wanted to consume, and regional cuisines were not cool. They associated dishes like migas [a traditional dish made with stale bread, garlic and olive oil, usually with a bit of sausage] or chickpea stews to the poverty and difficult times of the dictatorship.”
Bertílio is aware of how difficult it is for people to change their eating habits and sees a long and winding road ahead. “People are not prepared for this,” he says. “It’s going to take some time, people want to see steak occupying the whole plate.”
Although the 43-year-old Bertílio was born south of Lisbon in the town of Pinhal Novo, he’s mostly inspired by the Algarve because his parents both hail from there – his father from a small town called Paderne and his mother from Boliqueime. “I love the simplicity of the cuisine in the south. Few ingredients, poorman’s ingredients. The Algarve people were clever at creating really good dishes without much technique,” he says.
“The Algarve people were clever at creating really good dishes without much technique.”
In fact, Bertílio’s first job was at a hotel in the Algarve, though he eventually moved on to Lisbon’s Hotel da Lapa and then Bica do Sapato when it was the most trendy restaurant in the city. In 1998, he studied at the Culinary Institute of America after being awarded a scholarship when he was named Portugal’s Young Chef of the Year.
It was during his current post as chef at Chapitô restaurant – which has one of the best views in the city – that he realized he wanted to open Taberna Albricoque. While scouting out locations for his nascent gelato business, Ice Gourmet, Bertílio happened upon a building that used to house a taberna back in 1905, as an old plaque made of blue tiles announces in one of the dining rooms. (Albricoque and Ice Gourmet are now neighbors, in case you’re wondering.)
The old taberna has been renovated, but the floor, tilework and cabinets are all original. One dining room is generously lit by sunlight while a second has a cozy, intimate atmosphere, like being in a brick-lined tunnel. Together, they form one of the most welcoming restaurants in the city. It’s in this space that Bertílio organizes dinner parties with live fado on Wednesdays, led by young singers in a show called “Noites das Mariquinhas.” It’s different from the usual fado format, with three women playing guitar and singing. The price of the tasting menu and performance is 45 euros and includes wine.
Other good excuses to visit Taberna Albricoque are not hard to find and, in fact, take center stage: canja de lingueirão (razor clam soup), rissol de bergigão (a fried snack of cockles and seaweed), choco com ervilhas e batata doce (cuttle fish with peas and sweet potato) or the galinha cerejada com figo e amêndoa (chicken pan fried with fig and almond) are all worthy bets.
Dessert-wise, Bertílio is always able to surprise, here incorporating even more flavors from the Algarve. Make sure to leave room for a sweet finish, whether it’s the splendid citrinos (orange biscuit and tangerine sorbet) or the trilogia (a trio of sweets made from fig, almond and carob). The only curiosity, for now: no apricots in sight.