Portugal has been unlike anywhere else I’ve visited on this trip. There was a distinct Western European feel to both France and Spain, but Portugal feels like another world, what with the steep cobblestone paths and narrow streets that somehow fit tiny trams, and with beautiful tiled buildings that are dilapidated and covered in graffiti and still manage to keep their charm.
But most importantly (to me), the food is very different. On our first night in Lisbon, we went out to dinner at a Fado bar called A Baiuca, which served us smoked sausage and monkfish stew. This at best could be described as tasty, but homely. That pretty much sums up most of our dining experiences in Lisbon, so I wasn’t expecting to find haute cuisine in Portugal.
I was delighted to be proven wrong by Tavares. Opened in 1784, this restaurant is one of the oldest in the world and somewhat of an institution in Lisbon. The decor reminded me of Versailles, with all the decor in gold with crystal chandeliers and every wall covered in mirrors. Marie Antoinette would have been satisfied to dine there – or at least use it as a jewellery box, knowing her ridiculously decadent lifestyle…
Anyway, I digress. The decor was deliciously opulent, the service was warm and attentive, and the food was, in a word, genius. Chef Aime Barroyer has an impressive resume and I haven’t been so taken aback by the innovation in cuisine anywhere else in Europe, as much as I was at Tavares.
We had the tasting menu, which was long, so get settled in, people, because this is going to be a long post! We started with a red mullet dish served with cuttlefish, lobster and duck pressed with foie gras, finished off with squid ink. Too many different and pervasive flavours in one dish, right? Wrong. Barroyer obviously spends a lot of time researching flavour combinations, because this was brilliant. The duck meat with foie GRAS went well with the mild tasting but fresh fish flavours, and the saltiness of the squid ink reduction tied it all together nicely.
Next up was the mackerel with shrimp in pastry, mussels, seaweed, sweet potato chips, smashed sweet potato and tomato foam. This for me was the standout dish. Just deliciously fresh, light, with the perfect balance of sweet and salty. The addition of ginger to the sweet potato was great.
Course three was roasted sardines with smashed corn, coriander, clams and bloody mary jelly. This wasn’t my favourite, as I must confess to liking the texture of little oily sardines in a can more than fresh sardines. I think the flavour of large sardines is too overpowering. That said, the way this dish was put together softened the sardines nicely, making the dish perfectly edible.
The fifth course was very difficult to come to grips with for some of my fellow diners – rabbit belly, rabbit liver and escargot with garlic foam. This dish for me established that Barroyer was one talented man, because this combination was delicious – this coming from a person that swore they’d never eat snails again after a most unpleasant experience in Lyon five years ago.
Number six was incredible and unlike any beef dish I’ve had before in that I wasn’t bored two mouthfuls in – Portuguese beef loin with potato purée and beet root salad, beef tartare with quail egg, and oxtail marrow with oxtail jelly and potato purée. This was heavenly, all components perfectly cooked and flavoured, textures perfectly married.
Seven and eight were desserts, which were caramelised fig ice cream with fig cake and toffee, and carrot cake with sweet rice and passionfruit sorbet. Both were delicious, but the carrot cake was surprising for me – I’m not the biggest fan of any of the elements of this dish individually – carrot cake, rice pudding or passion fruit. But it was delicious, and served with dried sugared carrot shavings and a chip made of passionfruit flesh, was just damn clever.
So in short, Tavares surprised me. Initially, its old world-y history and decor had me completely unprepared for the displays of innovation that followed. Unlike the other Michelin star restaurants I’ve had the good fortune to experience on this trip, Tavares dares to try something new, and pulls it off expertly.