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While the pandemic has forced many restaurants in Lisbon to shutter their doors, even if only temporarily, and fight for their survival, it left chef Marlene Vieira with a related yet slightly different dilemma: Her latest venture, Zunzum Gastrobar, was scheduled to open in March, before being postponed indefinitely due to the Covid-19 lockdown.

The delay worried Vieira – so much work had already gone into the project. As the city started coming back to life, the chef assessed the situation and felt it was better to open in the beginning of August rather than waiting for September, when the reopening of schools and other measures might bring new challenges to everyday life. “Now it’s a relaxed time, people are on holidays or feeling less stressed,” she says. Zunzum, which means something along the lines of “buzz” or “rumor,” finally welcomed clients for the first time in early August.

Vieira admits that opening a restaurant during the pandemic is one of the biggest challenges of her career (the biggest being parenthood; she has a five-year-old daughter with her husband, João Sá, who is also a chef). “It’s [a load] I’m carrying on my shoulders, the responsibility is mine for better or worse,” she explains. She’s not used to ceding control and letting the chips fall where they may, but she also says she doesn’t have much choice.

“Everyone is saying we’re brave to open now but the truth is that we don’t have many options, we had everything set up, all the material was here, the team was hired, so we had to do it,” Vieira explains. They have opened Zunzum with 80 percent of the staff, and hopefully the rest of the project will open, too: a dessert bar, and a fine-dining restaurant called Marlene, where the chef will be the maestro in a kitchen located in the center of a room, surrounded by tables.

Zunzum began with an invitation from the new cruise terminal, near the Santa Apolónia train station, to make a bid for the restaurant concession. Vieira won. The spot, which has indoor and outdoor seating, is gorgeous – light floods the tables in the restaurant, which has a large bank of windows, while the terrace tables are idea for an evening petisco, with the river Tejo reflecting a beautiful golden light.

Normally the riverfront is packed with tourists. These days there are no cruise ships, and you’ll see mainly locals hanging out in the area, which has lots of parking and is easily accessible by public transportation. But who knows how that might change in the future.

Vieira admits that opening a restaurant during the pandemic is one of the biggest challenges of her career

Her comeback is long awaited, as Vieira hasn’t helmed a restaurant in Lisbon since the birth of her daughter. She did, however, oversee a kiosk at the Time Out Market, where she developed some delicious dishes and desserts and gave more people the chance to taste her work, burnishing her reputation in the process. Being one of the few female chefs in Lisbon, where restaurants are still very male dominated, is not always easy. But she is living proof that, as she puts it, “professional cooking is also a world of women where they can do, know, lead and create, as well or better than men!”

Vieira started young in the kitchen, earlier than most chefs. When she was around 12 years old, she asked to work in a restaurant where her father delivered meat, for the summer holidays; later she would return whenever possible to that kitchen, which focused on French cuisine. At 16, she enrolled in the Hospitality School of Santa Maria da Feira, outside of Porto (she’s originally from Maia) and, after graduating, worked as a pastry chef at a hotel in the resort town of Vila do Conde. But her first professional experience with traditional Portuguese food happened, surprisingly enough, far from home: She flew to New York to work in a restaurant called Alfama, in Manhattan, for two years, between 2001 and 2003, when she was just 20.

The time she spent in New York inspired her later creations, including at Avenue, her first restaurant in Lisbon. We can also see this inspiration at work in her menu for Zunzum, which includes a cuttlefish and shrimp corndog. “I loved to eat corndogs when I was there so I thought of making one here with seafood,” Vieira explains.

On the menu, Vieira likes to build dishes around Portuguese flavors while incorporating fine dining techniques. In fact, all the ingredients for the new restaurant are Portuguese, with some companies even making unique products, like sea salt with dried octopus eggs, just for her (a shop on the premises sells some of these ingredients as well as others selected by Vieira).

She also likes to get creative with Portuguese classics. For instance, she offers filhós de berbigão à Bulhão Pato, a kind of cockle doughnut inspired by filhós, fried-dough desserts normally consumed at Christmastime, and Bulhão Pato sauce, made with cilantro, olive oil and garlic and named after a 19th-century Portuguese poet. She loves both of these traditional items and wanted to combine them in a fun dish. Equally fun and delicious are the swordfish with passion fruit and popcorn; the crab, avocado and trout roe mini-pizza; and the celeriac and vegetable carbonara.

One of the most charming dishes was the arroz doce (rice pudding) sphere. The dessert is built using several layers of mousse, which results in an incredible flavor and unique twist on one of the most ubiquitous traditional desserts in Portugal. It left us eagerly anticipating the dessert bar – let’s hope the doors keep opening for Zunzum.

Célia Pedroso and Zunzum Gastrobar

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