Portugal Trip Report
Apologies in advance that this is not as detailed as I'd hoped it would be, but I hope it nevertheless will be useful. What follows is, in chronological order, a brief summary of the various establishment we hit during out trip to Portugal last week.
Pedro dos Leitoes (Mealhada) - A good first stop on the drive from Lisbon to Porto. The suckling pig wasn't quite revelatory as I'd hoped, but it was very good. The skin was crispy and the meat was incredibly juicy and flavorful. I haven't a clue how they imparted so much flavor into the non-skin pieces. Rest of the food is serviceable. Good prices and very nice service (despite the fact that no one there spoke a word of english).
Pedro Lemos (Porto) - Best meal of the trip. Truly revelatory. Appetizer of scallop, lobster, caviar and white truffle foam was decadent and delicious. I thought it was just using fancy ingredients just for the sake of using fancy ingrediants, but everything came together beautifully. The suckling pig entree was almost as good, sitting atop an amazing array of mushrooms (chanterelle, black truffle, trompet, etc) that were the perfect compliment to the earthy saltiness of the pork. Service was excellent and wines were well chosen. (Sad that our best meal of the trip happened on the second day.)
The Yeatman (Porto) (lunch) - Second best meal of the trip. Had the lunch special, which was 37e for amuse, appetizer, entree, dessert, a glass of sparkling wine, a glass of regular wine, water and mignardises. A ridiculous steal. The quality of the food was worthy of its michelin star and the dining room and view were incredible. There is absolutely no reason to ever miss this lunch opportunity. I cannot wait to plan my trip back. (Also, the Yeatman is a gorgeous hotel and I plan to stay there next year.) For me, the app/entree did not come together quite as well as Pedro Lemos, though the dessert was the best banana dessert I have ever had. Certainly the best meal for the money...
Don Tonho (Porto) - Mediocre service and mediocre food. There was nothing wrong with the food per se, but it was boring. It was one of those places that installed nice decor to distinguish itself from the myriad of other restaurant options, but didn't upgrade the food as well. It wasn't expensive though, so no big loss.
Majestic Cafe (Porto) - We had heard good things about the Francesinhas here, but were sorely let down. Awful; just awful. Complete tourist trap and waaayyyyyyyy overpriced. (Most expensive espresso we had in Portugal.) Get a francesinha at a little nothing place on the street for half the price and it will be just as good.
A Grade (Porto) - Get the octopus cooked in the oven. Have a glass of wine. Thank me later. (The rest of the food was fine, but the octopus dish ranks in my top 5 ever -- doesn't quite surpass Le Bernardin, but for about 1/20 the cost, still a pretty good achievement.)
Casa Aleixo (Porto) - Cute mom and pop place with quality, cheap, homemade food. Won't blow your mind but is a nice break from the decadence of places like Lemos and Yeatman. For what it's worth, I ordered a veal steak which was huge and perfectly cooked to rare (as requested) -- it was 13e. And absolute steal. (Worth noting at this point that I was very impressed with the cooking skills I encountered throughout Portugal. I never once received something over or undercooked.)
For those interested in Port tasting, we hit about 10 houses with our favorite being Ramos Pinto (get the 20 year aged Tawny). We also enjoyed Ferreira and Noval, with the latter not really being a house per se, but the port is excellent.
Largo (Lisbon) - Amazing scene. Think fish tank filled with jelly fish. Good service, good bread. Well cooked food, though somewhat uninspired and boring. My duck and risotto were both well seasoned and cooked, but certainly weren't wowing in any way. I was disappointed after the great nouvelle portuguese food we had had at Pedro Lemos and Yeatman in Porto, though in hindsight this wasn't such a failure.
Cervejaria Ramiro (Lisbon) - I admit to not having other similar places to compare this too, but we loved Ramiro. Super nice and welcoming staff. As others have mentioned, come here for fresh shellfish and that's it (as that's all they serve). Beautiful salty, sweet prawns and crab, and the garlic bread wasn't half bad either. Also try the barnacles if you have never had them. Warning that this place is by no means cheap, but is reasonably priced for shellfish. (Maybe someone can answer this, but does Portugal have a different shrimp species than we get elsewhere? Throughout the country, but especially at Ramiro, we though the shrimp were far better than what we are used to.)
Assinatura (Lisbon) - WORST meal of the trip (at any price point). Most expensive restaurant we went to and we went with high hopes. It was an epic disaster from every perspective. We had the 5 course tasting menu and each course was a failure, texturally and flavor-wise. No texture contrasts and very, very strange flavor profiles. It couldn't decide whether it was classic portuguese food or something more. Given that i liked 90% of the food I had in Portugal, quite shocking that I found each of these dishes so awful. Looking only at the food, this was one of the worst restaurant experiences I have had in years.
Lisboa a noite (Lisbon) - Fine, but extremely overpriced. Wine here was 30-40% more expensive than any other restaurant we went too. (Quite shocking that the Yeatman had such cheaper wine.) In any event, I would skip this one.
Ibo (Lisbon) (lunch) - An excellent way to end the trip. Sat on the water on a beautiful day and drank delicious wine matched by equally delicious food. Not the most inventive cuisine, but the flavor profiles are spot on. We stuck to the mozambican food and, while we thought it wasnt quite as different as we expected, we were nevertheless impressed. Think very high-end Indian food. Mango salad with crab meat was a perfect light starter (with oh so sweet crab meat in bountiful proportions) and a spicy goat curry was a nice contrast.
Alma (Lisbon) - The savior of modern portuguese food in Lisbon. While not as good as Lemos or the Yeatman, this at least redeemed Lisbon to some extent. Appetizer of scallops with Iberian ham was more like 5 different components that didn't fit together, but each component was amazingly cooked. (4 huge scallops for an appetizer was also a pleasant surprise.) Entree of suckling pig didn't quite reach Lemos' levels, but was excellent as well. Excellent wine and service as well. Note that it is a bit out of the way.
Anyway, that's my trip. We were quite surprised to find that the food in Porto was better than in Lisbon. I don't hesitate to say that Lemos and Yeatman can compete with anywhere I have eaten elsewhere in the world.
In conclusion, please please avoid Assinatura :) but otherwise enjoy as the food in portugal is so great!
Regarding the shrimp,at least compared to the US, the answer is that they don't so much have a better species of shrimp, just a much better way or catching and delivering to market.
Nearly all wild shrimp sold in the US are frozen at sea. Most "fresh" shrimp in US markets is defrosted previously frozen shrimp.
Nearly all wild shrimp in Iberian/Mediterranean markets are caught by day boats and delivered to market fresh, often still twitching. That makes all the difference.
If you go to South Carolina and find a small shrimper with fresh caught shrimp they'll be much better than you are used to as well.
Oh, and A Grade does wonders with baby goat as well.
Ugh, so sorry to diminish your expectations, but I went in with a similar mindframe and was left sorely disappointed. I wish I could say that it was just strange flavor profiles (e.g., fish with green sweet potatoes and dried strawberries), but to be honest I also thought the cooking and plating techniques were far below that of other places we ate in portugal. in fact, aside from assinatura, we couldn't get over the fact that we did not eat a single other thing on the trip that was not cooked perfectly, which was somewhat of a shocker given the variety of proteins we had.
In any event, curious to hear your experience if you go. Maybe the answer is that we should have ordered a la carte instead of the tasting menu? Anyone else have a view on this?
My experiences at Assinatura were all very good or excellent. Lots of times at lunch, with 3 course for 25€ always very good, very portuguese, very good product. A few times at dinner with some of the best dishes i ate in Lisbon. I still recomend it, and my boss (a great foodie) just said me that Assinatura, for him, is one of the best 3 lisbon restaurants for fine dining.
I am Brazilian, and a lover of Portuguese cuisine. I dined yesterday at Assinatura, and today I read this post.
My meal, at Assinatura was spectacular, from an amuse bouche (stuffed zuchini flower) to the dessert (lavender and a cherry cheesecake). I know many restaurants in Lisbon and was very impressed with this new restaurant. Next time will be my first choice.