Oficina dos Rissóis: Upgrading a Portuguese Popular Food Staple | Culinary Backstreets
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More than a food staple, the rissol is also a symbol of the popular culture in Portugal, where locals eat it standing at counters, always paired with a cup of coffee – or a glass of tap beer from eleven o’clock onwards. Rissóis (plural) are half-moon-shaped savory pastries of peasant origins, and from grandmothers’ houses to bakeries to the classic tascas, they are as ubiquitous in Portugal as cod fritters. However, the rissol is less popular than its contender, even though it is the perfect appetizer for any occasion, with a variety of different fillings which range from minced beef to shrimp.

This lack of notoriety is a thing of the past in Porto, ever since couple Alexandra and Louis Druesne opened their small space with an art nouveau atmosphere and a red neon sign, on a mission to upgrade this beloved Portuguese delicacy using haute cuisine techniques. Since 2017, Oficina dos Rissóis has had its outdoor tables – which overlook the charming Jardim de São Lázaro – filled with customers. All thanks to the rissóis that come fresh out of the oven.

(Wait, oven? Before we get deep into Alexandra and Louis’s story, we need some context here. Traditionally, rissóis are deep fried, as are many Portuguese snacks. But when the couple decided to create a venue focused on rissóis, they faced a problem: how to make the patty healthier. Their solution was to take the fat out of the equation and make a rissol in the oven that could be crusty outside and tender and moist inside. It worked!)

French cook Louis and Portuguese-French pastry chef Alexandra met in Paris while they both worked in the demanding kitchens of the city’s fine-dining restaurants. They even shared the enormous spaces (albeit at different times) of the renowned Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme when they started to date. Between periods of hard work in Parisian restaurants (such as Michelin-starred Le Maurice), they took advantage of their breaks and vacations to travel, a shared passion.

First, they crossed the interior of France. Then Canada, Brazil, and, finally, Portugal. The initial idea was a field study to meet as many local farmers and producers as possible. “We returned from our trips and made complete reports with what we had seen, contacts, observations, and notes. A real job,” says Louis, who had previously lived in countries like Scotland, Thailand, and Syria. But it was Portugal which aroused the most genuine interest in both of them: Louis was drawn in by the culture and the richness of the ingredients; Alexandra was able to discover more about her origins (her mother was born in the West region).

When they decided it was time to open their own business, they headed to Porto. “The city’s gastronomic scene was starting to boom,” Alexandra explains. It was also a way to get closer to her parents, who produce wine in the Bairrada region (20 kilometers away). Before that, however, she dedicated herself to learning a little more about Portuguese sweets while Louis looked for jobs in the kitchen to learn about Portuguese gastronomy – and language.

One of Louis’s first jobs was at the famous Cervejaria Brasão, where he soon became the chef. “In the interview, they asked me if I knew how to make a rissol. At that time, I didn’t even know what it was,” he laughs. He was so impressed with the delicacy that he told his wife they should open a rissol venue. “He said it in jest, but then it seemed like an interesting way to explore a popular recipe which, in many cases, was not up to par,” she says.

The couple tasted as many patties as they could before opening the doors of Oficina dos Rissóis. “[Rissóis are] an incredible product: super popular, very cheap, but in most venues, there was no concern with the raw material,” Louis says. Their goal was to make rissóis with the same philosophy they learned from haute cuisine, using homemade broths and carefully selected ingredients. Everything is home made with the utmost attention, from the fillings to the dough, using organic flour and top-quality products the couple chooses from producers they meet in person.

Initially, the eatery offered eight options, which included shiitake, braised veal, shrimp, and curry – one of Louis’s specialties from when he lived in Southeast Asia. Today, the menu relies on 14 different rissóis, such as mussels, hake, spicy chicken, and chorizo. The shrimp filling has a bisque made with the crustaceans’ heads; the veal one uses a jus which takes hours to prepare. The chicken is roasted in the oven and then shredded by hand. “We still use bones to make the broth. We have an exhausting job,” says Louis. “I say every rissol is a proper restaurant dish,” he adds.

But this hard work is a reflection of the objectives they had from the very beginning. “Our goal was always to show that everything can be of high quality, even popular food,” says the chef. The menu also features other dishes, such as tomato rice, perfect fries and, more recently, a refreshing octopus salad. “Sometimes I’m up to create new dishes and I try it out,” Louis adds. “Our diners also ask for novelties.” Alexandra is in charge of the desserts, such as the chocolate mousse, a version of the crème caramel, and a panna cotta with red fruits.

But their stars are still the rissóis, which helped the couple gain more prominence in the city among the locals – and to expand the business, little by little – in these two last years. In the beginning, they were alone, taking turns on every little process. Now, they rely on two employees, “And we already need more,” says Alexandra, looking at the 800-square-foot neighboring building, which is now part of the couple’s plans. “We want to have more tables, but other ideas come to mind. As we are very detail-oriented, we take time to get things done. It’s better this way,” she adds.

Until the Oficina dos Rissóis expands, guests must be lucky (or arrive early) to have a seat at the stainless steel counter. “We have a lot of regulars. The biggest compliment we can get is that people visit us once and come back several times,” says Alexandra. “Or, even better, when we hear from Portuguese people that say they have never tasted a rissol like the ones we do,” Louis points out. “I couldn’t be more proud.”

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Rafael TononRafael Tonon

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