Lisbon in 2021 shared in much of the upheaval of our other Culinary Backstreets cities. Long lockdowns kept us apart from our favorite restaurants and tascas as well as our loved ones. But with the onset of summer, those restaurants that made it through that rough period saw the return of crowds. Lisboetas flocked to the city’s terraces and by October – when Portugal had made it to the top of the world’s list of most-vaccinated populations – folks were thronging indoors, too.
After two very difficult years, many beloved places didn’t survive. But in their place, new businesses are opening and opportunities for creativity are blossoming across the city tables. Even more, a handful of venues that had the ill fortune of opening just before the pandemic were finally able to showcase their incredible performances, like Tati and Patuá. These and a few others have made it onto our Lisbon Best Bites list for 2021, below.
My first meal at Fat Rice, the now-closed Chicago restaurant inspired by the former Portuguese colony of Macau, was a revelation. How a meal could so cleverly conjure 500 years of Portuguese colonial globetrotting was mystifying. As a resident of Lisbon, I felt cheated that Chicago had such a restaurant when Portugal’s capital did not. Perhaps Fat Rice becoming embroiled in controversy and eventually closing was the result of my evil eye. But since that meal, I’d been venting all over town about our city’s deficiency to anyone who would listen until, finally, a colleague pointed me toward Patuá, a newly opened Macanese restaurant over in the Bairro das Colónias. I wasted no time in following the lead.
Though lighter on the conceptual flare that made Fat Rice so much fun, Patuá satisfies the same desire to marvel at the unlikely fusion of Portuguese and Chinese cuisine, along with other international influences. You’ll find that in the minchi – a dish of deeply spiced wok-fried pork and potatoes, with the telltale egg on top – a Macanese bitoque. The Goan bebinca is a fine example of how this convent layer cake should be done (though it is no match for that of Jesus e Goes). The best bite here at Patuá, however, is a thick, coconut curry packed okra, more at home in Mozambique than mainland China. How it ended up on the menu of a Macanese restaurant in Lisbon is likely quite obvious to all of you Portuguese history buffs and Fat Rice fans. Not to worry though, there is no PhD needed to find bliss in this meal. (Read our full review of Patuá here.)
Tienda da Marta
When the ultra-hipster taqueria, Pistola y Corazon shut its doors this year, much of central Lisbon went into a state of taco withdrawal. It seemed like everyone was out looking to score some tortillas, but nobody was holding. Then, we were tipped by a former employee of Pistola to their hookup, Marta. We’d heard whispers about Marta for a while – tales of her tamale parties at the Mexican embassy. It was also said that she could get you tortillas, the real thing. And now we had her number.
At a desperate moment of Lisbon lockdown, we called Marta. A couple of WhatsApp messages later, we were up in Penha da Franca on a busy road. In a building with an auto-repair shop on the ground floor, up two flights of stairs and through the unmarked front door of Marta’s apartment, there we found Tienda da Marta. In a space no larger than a walk-in closet, lined with tall shelves, Marta has built an impressive collection of Mexican flavors. On the wall hangs a framed certificate of appreciation from the Mexican government.
“The one good thing about confinement is that the tienda is always open!” Marta said, giggling as she tallied our purchases on a tiny ledger. One jar of Xiqueno mole black as burnt rubber, two packs of corn tortillas (one blue, one white), a pack of amaranth wafers, four bottles of tamarind cola, a bag of dried guajillo peppers, and some chile pepper candy for the kids (compliments of the tienda).
“Mexicans are so crazy for chiles!” She cackled, passing a sucker to the perplexed 7-year-old accompanying us on this mission. “And here, take this. A lady sent it to me. You try it and tell me how it is,” Marta said, slipping a tiny sack of amaranth granola in my bag.
Since that visit, we keep in close contact with Marta. When she’s making tamales, she lets us know. Over the past year, thanks to the Marta connection, we’re frequently eating tacos stuffed with carnitas and chicken mole is no big deal. Now, with a post-holiday lockdown looming, what we really need to find is a Turkish Marta. Our salça stash is running low.
The Millstone Sourdough
I’ll be the first to admit, I was the butt of those endless jokes about coping with lockdown life by baking sourdough bread. Then I realized, there are many much-more talented bakers we could be supporting. “During the lockdown, we had plenty of time, so we started experimenting with sourdough and slow fermentation. We gave loaves to some family, colleagues and friends, and the feedback was so good that it made us think twice,” Sandra Freitas, one half of The Millstone Sourdough told us last year. She and her partner David Jesus started delivering fresh loaves they would bake in a garage they were renting.
During the long winter lockdown that bled into the start of 2021, their loaves became the highlight of my week. Breaking into the fresh crust and breathing deep was my new high. My particular favorites are the wheat bread, corn and rye bread, brioche and chouriço roll. In this pandemic-afflicted world, we’ve gone from no carbs to all carbs all the time.
This past summer, it was truly wonderful to watch Sandra and David finally open their own bakery in the Parque das Nações neighborhood after feeding the city and the suburbs with their delicious bread delivered to our homes.
Lisbon is a city full of pastelarias and cake shops – but there’s still plenty of room for more, I say. Especially ones like Barü.Ba Pastry. This confectionary opened recently, crafting beautiful and delicious cakes and pastries. Tasting several wonders of pastry chef Juliana Penteado on our Culinary Backstreets trip was a moment of great joy. Her expertise in assembling small masterpieces with fruit, custard, chocolates and caramel – plus essential oils – is just mind-blowing. After leaving Brazil, where she was born, and training and working in London and Paris, Lisbon is lucky to have her in the São Bento neighborhood.
O Velho Eurico
I have been to and love O Velho Eurico, always going for the lovely duck rice, the crunchy bacalhau à Brás or the grilled squid. It took me some time to try something new when my favorites were already so spectacular. But had I not branched out, I never would have understood the call of the addictive sandes de chambão (beef shank sandwich). The addition of homemade flat bread from the Azores called bolo lêvedo added a sweet touch (and made taking bites of this sandwich even easier). More fuel for the addicts is chef Zé Paulo’s inclusion of a generous bowl of bitoque sauce.
This year, I wrote about Café Tati’s move to Penha de França. Founded in 2011 by Ramón Ibáñez, a transplant from Barcelona, it was a breath of fresh air, offering relaxed meals, organic and natural wines, and live music, too – we have fond memories of jazz nights and jam sessions as well as quiet moments savored with a wineglass in hand. The beloved spot had to close at the end of 2018, but luckily for us, Tati (in the transition the café was dropped) resurfaced in 2020, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic. Situated between traditional tascas and pastelarias, Tati, which Ramón now runs with Romina Bartolini, has managed to maintain the welcoming atmosphere, lovely food and excellent natural wine list that made it so popular in the first place.
The sardine toast – with sardines marinated in Jerez vinegar – and comté cheese was just one of the clever creations from Romina. And to soak up all the pours of vibrant, natural wines, there are many small plates to choose from. What better way is there to celebrate being back to the restaurant life?
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