The Best Bites of 2021 in Porto, Portugal - Culinary Backstreets | Culinary Backstreets
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Much like 2020, this year was marked by the shadow of the Covid-19 pandemic, which took over the city’s restaurant scene. While there were some glimpses of normalcy here and there, the fact remains that Portugal’s year started with a new lockdown that forced Porto restaurants to totally close their doors in February. It was deja vu almost a year on the dot.

Some of these eateries never reopened: The recently inaugurated Esporão no Porto was one of them. The first project outside Alentejo of the renowned winery Esporão (whose restaurant of the same name just received a Michelin star) didn’t even last a year in the city. The Astoria, a city landmark restaurant in the luxury Hotel InterContinental also announced its closure. With elite heavyweights like these tumbling, the arena for smaller businesses wasn’t easier. But the arrival of spring brought much-needed optimism to the city, with dozens of new openings on its tail. Many projects delayed by the pandemic were finally able to find firm footing. With vaccine rates on the rise – Portugal now ranks highest in the world – and tourism back, the buzz has returned to the city streets.

As expected, Porto is evolving with the challenging situation, and there are a number of new venues focused on casual dining. The restaurant scene has some new colors that will likely dominate the city’s landscape from now on: There are projects more open to the world (such as the rise of Brazilian cuisine at Gruta) and others betting on the all-day concept (like Real by Casa da Calçada capping its lunch and dinner service with breakfast and evening cocktails). If 2021 is any indication, this new year may have many folks putting Porto on their food destination bucket lists.

Chef Vasco Coelho Santos, Take I: Euskalduna Studio

Chef Vasco Coelho Santos is not new to our Best Bites list, but his projects keep proving to be some of the most interesting in Porto. Euskalduna Studio, an intimate omakase-style venue, is home for innovative dishes that contemplate the world without losing their roots in Portugal — all the ingredients are locally sourced and top quality.

I try to pay a visit at least once a year, and as soon as the government removed restrictions on the national restaurant industry in May, I booked my table. The menu was one of the best I have ever tasted there: tender chicken hearts with XO sauce, lamb brain with scrambled eggs, and matured fish of new and invigorating textures – a bonus that comes from the fishmongers’ venue the chef recently opened, selling the best products of the Portuguese coast.

It was during dessert that the Euskalduna team blew my mind all over again. A simple sweet rice, a very famous treat in Portugal, was one more course of the tasting menu. But the toasted notes (with glimpses of Valencian arrós a banda, rice in fish stock) and an umami-rich sweet vinegar curd made it one of the best dishes I sampled in the city. It’s thrilling to watch and taste a restaurant evolving in such a way.

Chef Vasco Coelho Santos, Take II: Semea and Ogi

This year was a significant one for Chef Santos. He moved his more casual restaurant, Semea, to a new venue overlooking the Douro River. The space is bigger, with a charming terrace and a bar where guests can order cocktails while waiting for a table.

The kitchen also gained a big addition with its new open-flame grilling area, where head chef João Figueirinhas cooks seafood rice, skate fish served with grapes and mushrooms, and shallot pie over embers (a bit hit in Porto). But if that was not enough, Coelho Santos turned the former Semea space into a bakery, Ogi. It has the best croissant in town, served in a cozy room perfect for a coffee and scones (or any of the other delectable sweets made by baker Gil Fortuna). For 2022, the chef has other cards up his sleeve: a cigar/cocktail bar and a Japanese restaurant — definitely an empire born out of a crisis.

Coming Home: Adega São Nicolau

Living in the city means having the chance to return often to the places that capture our hearts. Ribeira, Porto’s riverside area, has been my favorite neighborhood in town since I moved here three years ago.

The view of the Douro River and the architecture of the traditional houses blew me away when I first set foot in the area. And Adega São Nicolau, a cozy and familiar restaurant situated in a narrow alley just off the frenetic streets, won me over with its well done and hearty food.

In this touristy part of the city, it is always good to order a traditional breaded octopus filet served with octopus rice here – one of my favorite dishes in town. It is a ritual that not even the pandemic could stop.

A Well-Deserved Drink: Torto

Porto’s cocktail scene seems to be in full development. Egressing from The Royal Cocktail Bar – a Porto pioneer in showcasing that a good bar needs more than quality ingredients to make a good cocktail – João Mendes is the head bartender at Torto. It opened in November under the cheeky slogan: “This is not a bar. It’s just a place. And barely frequented.”

With the dingy walls of a Brooklyn alley, the bar is located in a Neo-Mudéjar style building from the early-20th century in one of the city’s busiest areas, both to attract locals and tourists. The atmosphere is cheerful and laid-back, a welcome pace after a frenetic year.

For conventional drinkers, there is a traditional cocktails list. But for those more adventurous, the bartender mixes unusual ingredients into his preparations: yellow beets, dates, walnuts, figs, roasted corn, peas, celery, even black garlic. Torto is proof that Porto is ready to raise the bar when it comes to cocktails.

Plant-based Porto: Seiva and TiaTia

As in many other places around the world right now, plant-based food is taking root in Porto, a city at the same time tied to tradition but continuously updating itself. After working with chefs like Dabiz Munõz (from DiverXO, in Madrid) and assuming the position of R&D chef in O Paparico, one of the most emblematic restaurants of Porto, David Jesus decided it was time to follow a new path.

At Seiva in Leça da Palmeira, he proposes a cuisine where vegetables sizzle on his inventive menu, which is divided into three parts: brunch, snacks (for ordering in or take out) and signature dishes. Come here for vegetable gyozas, potato churros or the root veggie paella (made with celery, sweet potato and roasted garlic mayonnaise).

The year ended with the much-anticipated opening of TiaTia, a gastro wine bar led by chef Tiago Feio, who landed in the city just before the pandemic to start his project. At TiaTia, which has a focus on natural wines, the couple Feio and Cátia Roldão propose a light and minimalist cuisine, where seasonal vegetables are once more the stars. The tasting menu changes every week based on the ingredients the restaurant gets from the region’s farmers. These are creatively transformed into dishes like puffed rice with pumpkin butter and kaffir lime yogurt, or roasted carrots with honey and coriander seeds accompanied by tahini sauce and crunchy kernels.

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Rafael TononRafael Tonon

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