My first surprise on arrival in Lisbon is its modern airport that is still almost in the city centre. A swift 20-minute cab ride delivers me to my hotel, the aptly-named Sublime Lisboa, a recently-opened 15-room luxury bolthole and what seems to be the perfect base to explore one of the most attractive European capitals to visit right now.
Lisbon is genuinely inexpensive and offers palatial architecture and avant-garde museums, verdant parks, a bracing waterfront and relaxed cosmopolitan vibe. But I am not so interested in these highlights – instead I'm here to check out the Portuguese capital’s reputation as a gourmet hotspot.
Having garnered a name for itself in the culinary world, the city is famed for everything from gourmet fine dining and fun street food, to traditional local cuisine and exotic flavours of former colonies in South America, Asia and Africa.
An eclectic menu certainly awaits the adventurous foodie: Delicious grilled sardines or rich octopus stew, creative Brazilian-Japanese tacos and makis stuffed with amberjack ceviche, creamy guacamole and spicy chipotle sauce or Portugal’s favourite “seafood rice” – a brothy fusion of paella and risotto, brimming with mussels, clams and plump prawns. Bold gourmands should not miss juicy percebes, prehistoric-looking goose barnacles, or caracois, succulent snails cooked with tangy garlic and piri-piri.
Meanwhile, desserts are to die for, especially the emblematic Pasteis de Natal, a creamy custard tart.
My first evening is spent with the city’s most renowned chef Olivier da Costa who, in addition to five locales in town, oversees a global empire of 24 restaurants from Brazil to Bangkok, London to Paris, with an opening in the Middle East envisioned for next year.
We kick off at his flagship Seen Restaurant and Bar, housed in a glamorous rooftop bar with panoramic vistas, perfect for sundowners and shisha. Inside the funky dining room, da Costa explains that “this is where all of Lisbon comes to see and be seen, and where the cuisine is fun and exciting, rather than formal gastronomic.
My recipes here use Portugal’s outstanding ingredients, adding in surprising tastes from my global travels; a king crab roll with wasabi and japaleno peppers, or Brazilian-style deep-fried tapioca with locally cured cheese and spicy guava jam.”
The scene is very different at his smart XXL dining room, which da Costa describes as “the favourite of all my restaurants, where clients feel they have been invited by a Portuguese family into their home for dinner. And I think we serve the best bacalhau salt cod in town, a huge chunk smothered with smoked peppers, confit onions, on a bed of fried turnip leaves.” I have to agree – it is totally delicious.
The beating heart of Lisbon is the maze of steep narrow streets in the historic city centre, climbing up to towards Sao Jorge Castle. These ancient neighbourhoods of Bairro Alto, Chiado and Alfama are a hotbed of terminally hip foodie diners, such as Prado, O Velho Eurico or Taberna da Rua das Flores, where diners either need to book well in advance or brave long queues.
But I am working on a tip to check out the more under-the-radar Terraco Editorial. There is no sign for the restaurant on the street as you enter the wonderfully retro Pollux home furnishings store where a lift whisks you up to the rooftop restaurant.
Created by dynamic young chef, Rui Rebelo, this space used to be the employee canteen for the store, but is now transformed into a dining room whose terrace offers breathtaking views over old Lisbon. Rebelo is clearly a chef who likes to have fun, proposing an affordable, contemporary menu of petiscaria – local-style tapas.
Making use of the outstanding, sustainably fished seafood from Portugal’s Azores islands, it is difficult to resist the pull of dishes such as shrimp cornets with smoked tomato sauce, seared bluefin tuna on a celery puree, or grilled swordfish with coriander sauce and pickled apple.
Echoing what da Costa told me, Rebelo also recommends getting a taste of authentic Lisbon street food, either in a traditional tasca – whose zinc bar and tasty home-cooking resemble the spirit of a French bistro – or in one of the numerous covered neighbourhood markets, where stalls are piled high with a cornucopia of fruit, vegetables, fish and meat.
While the venerable 140-year-old Mercado da Ribeira has now been transformed into the Time Out Market – essentially a tourist trail food court – I prefer to seek out genuine community life at the Mercado 31 de Janeiro, whose cheap and cheerful Cantina Cafe is packed with families tucking into the best grilled sardines in town.
Every Lisboeta has their own favourite tasca, and I found mine at O Prado while visiting the city’s avant-garde Maat Museum. A world away from the fashionable Prado in the old town, this nostalgic tasca has lively communal tables and a brigade of jolly female chefs in the kitchen who prepare generous servings of classic dishes – caldo verde soup, tomato rice, steamed clams and mussels, Bacalhau a Bras, shredded cod with potatoes, olives and eggs. Don't even try to resist the home-made caramel flan.
Food lovers looking for the gastronomic experience of a Michelin-star tasting menu are also spoilt for choice in Lisbon and my own visit ends in the sumptuous interiors of the art deco Hotel Ritz, where young chef Pedro Pena Bastos takes diners on a gourmet tour around his native land at Cura restaurant.
A small team working in an open kitchen prepare the Origens tasting menu, which showcases the finest regional ingredients, from line-fished Azores amberjack and turbot to seasonal turnips, leeks and asparagus. They create light, modern recipes like slivers of squid on roasted seaweed, topped with caviar or tender slow-cooked beef ribs with mustard greens and sweetcorn.
Be sure to arrive hungry, as over a long, lazy evening, no less than 13 of these tempting dishes are rolled out. Bastos also proposes the same number of courses in a vegetarian menu, something I've already decided to try the next time I visit Lisbon to sample its culinary delights.