Dear readers, food lovers and forever-hungry-gourmets, you might have wondered where we’ve been the past months. To be frank: busy with our day-jobs as teachers and busy with the publication of this very cool booklet with Nout’s poetry and Nora’s photography. All good and well you might say, but, as an Italian friend of mine always likes to ask in the beginning of a conversation: did you have anything nice to eat recently? To that, I would answer the same as Ivanka Trump’s most recent Facebook status: “it’s complicated”.
A PIECE OF GRILLED TUNA AND BEYOND (*)
Aside from time constraints, one of the main reasons that there were no articles published in the last three months was that there were relatively little new discoveries. As last year has seen us eating our way through the city with sometimes disastrous, sometimes bitterly disappointing results (Pachamama, Come Prima, Buenos Aires Café), we decided to opt for a relatively low-risk couple of months: in general, Lisbon does not really have any culinary standards when it comes to new places that open up and the price of something does not necessarily correspond with quality, or simply good food. That is why we’ve mainly stuck to our personal favorites, unwilling to make a lot of unnecessary, unpleasant risks.
This was also because a couple of the places that we’d previously positively reviewed, had significantly started to slacken. Case in point: an awkward dinner at Moustache Smokery which featured the previously so tasty, Lisbom award-winning vegetarian shepherd’s pie which this time tasted flat, pale and didn’t feature the mushrooms it had the last time. Or the fact that the meat – supposedly their selling point – was this time nothing to write home about, rather dry and flavorless. Considering the fact it’s a slightly more expensive place, the question arose: was it still worth the money? No, absolutely not. A cool original place where we’d take a friend to who doesn’t know Lisbon all that well as we did that last unfortunate time? Definitely not.
Or what to make of a place like Miss Jappa, which last time we were there served us a half-finished pork dish that featured an artificially tasting, unbalanced orange sauce that really should have never made it past the test phase or the fact that the black sesame seed crème brulée was not only not as delicious as it was the first time I had it, the sugar was also carelessly thrown on top without the proper crispiness. It just didn’t scream out love or passion and ultimately, wasn’t worth the higher price anymore.
That also is Lisbon: places start out with good intentions and ideas but somehow, in the daily grind of things, they get bugged down, lose momentum and inspiration and all that remains is the buzz that they’ve gathered along the way, leaving only a hot air balloon: it’s easy to prick a needle into it and watch it fly away. Then there are also places like Vélocité that maybe a year and a half or so ago when brunch wasn’t a thing yet, were ahead of the competition but are now lagging behind because they just haven’t evolved. Not to mention that it’s a terrible place to be on Sundays because of all of the kids running and screaming. It’s of course great if you’re a parent in search for a nice place to go with your kids and eat something a bit more distinguished, but it requires a lot of patience and tolerance to sit through your relaxing brunch. Not to mention that the orange juice we got served last time, was ridiculously acidic for an empty stomach. It’s not about high standards here, it’s just about getting the simple things right.
COFFEE, CASUAL PIZZA AND STICKY GENTRIFICATION
What a difference then with a place like Bettina & Niccolò Corallo, serving us always with a smile – no matter how tired they must be sometimes – and a coffee with the accompanying piece of chocolate always as good as it was the last time. There’s an art in this – getting the simple thing that you do right every day. And it’s something that these days gets forgotten or underestimated – especially in a trend-and-buzz-Instagram-driven place like Lisbon. Case in point: one hungry night we wanted to go for a pizza at Zero-zero near Principe Real, but because of their ridiculous “casual” but extremely badly thought out system of not being able to book a table and requiring you to wait for Baby-Jesus-only-knows-for-how-long, we didn’t. We ended up having an amazing as always, tasty burger at the ever peaceful, quiet Gayola, only a two minute walk away. Lisbon moves in mysterious ways indeed.
This is of course how people like us get stuck in ruts: the neighborhoods around Praça dos Flores or Principe Real are culinary-wise where most of our favorites are gathered and where we know that foodwise, things will be a safe bet: let’s go and eat at Fernanda’s wonderfully cute Mercearia do Século because there we’re sure that nobody’s trying to rip us off or that we’ll end up with a stomachache after the end of our meal. Want a glass of wine? Why bother trying the gentrified looking, expensive red wine that The Mill offers in a clinical, white interior when you’ve got the incredibly cozy, homely Carinho do Vinho always pulling you in with a great glass, equally wonderful conversations and food that is always as good as it was the last time.
Granted, it takes away the element of surprise or joy of discovering new places a little bit. It’s just that Lisbon is going through massive, major changes: from gentrification with the overvaluing of real estate to the deterioration of public transport to the blind endorsement of tourism of any kind (all three of which are more or less interconnected problems anyway), Lisbon is, for better or for worse, no longer what it was when I first came here nine years ago. For those who are interested in knowing more about these developments, you can watch the documentaries Terramoturismo and You’ll Soon Be Here.
We’re well aware that Lisbon and its inhabitants is tackling some major, crazy-shit issues right now that go way beyond a nicely dressed salad or a decent piece of grilled tuna, however: we all need to eat two to three times a day and many traditional restaurants here are still neighborhood hubs that bring people, families and friends together over good food and (preferably) a glass of wine. Or three. What the heck, just make it a bottle. Even though we’ve rarely covered pastelarias, restaurants or BBQ-places (churrasqueiras) so far, we do love them and now that so many of these places will see their rental prices going up, we are genuinely worried they might be disappearing, which kind of would turn in Lisbon into a city like so many others. Who would want that?
A COOKIE COMPLETELY COVERED IN CHOCOLATE
The humble, noisy, chaotic and almost always delicious tascas, traditional Portuguese restaurants and churrasqueiras are safe bets in a city that is overtaken by sharks looking to make quick money with mediocre food and wine: it’s not only one of your best bets of supporting local, small businesses that are slowly being eradicated in favor of fancy, luxury restaurants and hotels, but also your highest chance of getting a great piece of grilled fish or meat, straight from the bars. A glass of dry red wine or crisp vinho verde is all you need to make for an optimistic, light lunch that is ultimately a meal fit for a king without having to break that pink porcelain piggy you had tucked away under your bed (who needs banks, seriously?).
As Lisbon is still continuously changing, one of the most important things we can do, is to keep coming back to local, small businesses, if you like them at least. Provided you can spare the money, buying a bottle of wine from Carinho do Vinho or getting a coffee at Corallo’s or buying vegetables at your local grocery stores or buying your meat from a qualified butcher instead from the supermarket, is a way of sustaining the very businesses that make up so much of what a diversified Lisbon is supposed to look like. Plus, most of the businesses might be a bit more expensive, but in comparison to the often very expensive bars and restaurants in Baixa-Chiado, there’s also a bigger chance of you getting something worth for your money.
No, it won’t stop tourist-trap restaurants from opening up and it won’t make Padaria Portuguesa go out of business (not that that’s the point, but still), but it will, maybe, hopefully, stop your favorite bar or neighborhood shop from disappearing, giving you a great conversation or just a damn good time and a feeling of joy and love for life in general in the meantime. In culinary terms, that’s like a cookie completely covered in chocolate: from whatever angle you approach it, it’s pretty great.
(*) Because it was a long article, I decided to make subtitles. They don’t really give an indication of the structure of the article, but hopefully they’ll make you want to eat something.