This posting, which describes what my wife Jan and I agreed at the time was the best meal we’d ever eaten, has been a long time coming. To blame were, in part, technical problems (my camera); in part other commitments (paid writing assignments); and in part the desire to do the subject justice, without writing a novella. In any case, here you go.
Earlier this year, as Jan and I were planning our trip to Lisbon for the end of February, we did what every cost-conscious couple does these days: That is, we looked up the various Michelin-starred restaurants in the city, and, naturally, selected the one with the most stars (two, out of a maximum of three). That is to, say, Belcanto.
Reservation made by telephone. Any special occasion? Yes, Mr. Chudy’s birthday. Ah … great. Any special requirements? Yes, Madame requires a gluten-free meal. Ah … no problem.
And so it was that on my birthday, Friday, February 24, Jan and I entered a taxi at the front door of the lovely Sofitel Lisbon Liberdade and headed off to Belcanto, for what we agreed may well have been the single best meal we’d ever had. Any time, anywhere. Seriously.
Before getting into the details, let me point out that over the years we have eaten in countless Michelin-starred restaurants, including such triple-starred gastronomic temples as the restaurant of Paul Bocuse, just north of Lyon, known as l’Auberge du Pont de Collonges (posting of February 27, 2016) and Epicure, at Le Bristol Paris (posting of August 31, 2014).
I can only compare our meal in Lisbon to the lunch we enjoyed with good friends in Girona, Spain in September 2015, at El Celler de Can Roca, which at the time had been rated the No. 1 restaurant in the world. (And in case you missed it, I’ve just posted a piece on the ranking of the world’s greatest restaurants, called “Food, glorious food [the best restaurants]”, April 7, 2017.)
And where does Lisbon’s Belcanto stack up? Well, No. 85 in the world, according to the most recent ranking. Here’s how it’s described in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants, 51 – 100:
Open since 1958, Belcanto had a complete transformation in 2012 when it relaunched under chef José Avillez. Since then, it has been one of the most-awarded restaurants in Portugal, recognition for the talented chef’s creative, ‘revisited’ Portuguese cooking. Two tasting menus and an à la carte explore elements of the nation’s cuisine, including suckling pig and seabass with seaweed.
That’s enough background. Now, what did Jan and I like so much about the lunch we were served at Belcanto? Well, all of the following:
The welcome. When we rang the bell at the front door, we were greeted by the maitre d’, who welcomed us and then said: “And Happy Birthday, Mr. Chudy.” As he led us to our corner table, we passed three servers, each of whom nodded politely and said: “Happy Birthday, sir.” Good grief!
The décor. The restaurant is quiet, nicely furnished, subtle, easy on the eyes. Here’s the view from our table to the front window just after we were seated (at this point, the restaurant was largely empty, although it filled up quite rapidly as service went on):
The service. We’ve eaten in restaurants where the service seemed over-the-top formal (Epicure), or too informal (countless examples), or too rushed (a notable Chicago restaurant where the servers spoke so quickly that we had almost no idea what they were saying). At Belcanto, every single one of our servers spoke clearly (in excellent English), took time to answer any questions, and were friendly without once saying: “So, guys, how’s it going?” Truly professional.
The cuisine. Obviously the food was delicious — but there was more to it than that. For once, a chef seemed to be delivering what the menu promised, which in this case was a modern cuisine that truly reflected the traditions and underlying nature of the country’s food.
We had chosen the multi-course tasting menu (menu descobertas, or discovery menu), priced at 145 euros each. Then we added the accompanying selection of wines, at 90 euros per person, plus additional Champagne. So, all in, our bill came to 514 euros, which we both felt was good value for a fabulous experience. So, what was the food like?
Our meal began with some traditional, humble elements of Portuguese cuisine — a clove of garlic, a single bean, two olives, and a slice of carrot, like this:
Of course, it was all a surprise — each piece was actually made of a gel that dissolved instantly when you popped it into your mouth, and each piece held a liquid that was intensely flavoured like the vegetable it was mimicking.
Even the butter on the table was surprising. There was a rich “plain” butter; another that was flavoured with a red Portuguese sausage; and a black butter that was flavoured with rosemary ashes. (I could have eaten the rosemary-ash butter all day.) Here’s the butter dish:
Lisbon, and indeed all of Portugal, is known for its fish and other seafood, and it was seafood that dominated our meal. For example, here is a serving of a giant red shrimp:
Probably our favourite single dish of the meal was this plate of a perfectly cooked white fish, topped with the meat of king crab, in a delicious broth:
In the interests of restraint, I won’t show all our dishes — suffice to say that we enjoyed a wide range of small dishes based on seafood. They included a plate of five slices of sashimi; and a cold gelled soup featuring (among other things) thin slices of pickled wild strawberries (hello!) and gooseneck barnacles (hello!). Along the way, there were clever examples of molecular gastronomy, such as edible “egg shells” and “pebbles.”
As for meats, there were two dishes in our lunch. One was a traditional Portuguese meat soup that includes cabbage, turnip and carrots; but in this case, there were no actual pieces of meat in the broth. Our server explained that the idea was to cook the meat so thoroughly that all its flavour was in the soup. Delicious!
More substantial was this serving of oxtail, with foie gras in the centre and slices of black truffle on top:
As our lunch moved along to the end, we were treated to two desserts, including a wonderful “tangerine” with an edible peel, filled with ice cream. Here it is:
The wine pairings. The selected wines — one glass with each dish — were excellent, in several ways. They were all Portuguese, from different parts of the country, including one selection from the Azores; they were all well chosen to accompany the dish; they were all delicious; they were all generously poured; and each selection was explained clearly to us by our server.
The extras. Jan’s gluten allergy presented absolutely no problem to the restaurant; all our servers were aware of her allergy, provided delicious gluten-free bread, and ensured that none of the dishes served to her contained the offending ingredient. And at the very end, after the two wonderful desserts, we were presented with a light and creamy cheesecake, covered with silvered hazelnuts, and topped with a birthday candle for you-know-who:
Probably the experience that was closest to our lunch at Belcanto was the meal at El Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain, in 2015. But Jan and I both feel that there was less “show” at Belcanto, and more emphasis on the food itself. In any case, for us, the Belcanto experience was just about perfect.