There was a period, roughly between 1985 and 2005, when no busy London restaurant could have survived, let alone prospered, without the hard-working staff from one particular country – Portugal. Regardless of the cuisine, it was the Portuguese who provided many of the kitchen staff, barmen, waiters and often the general managers, as well – the vital, hidden roles of any restaurant.
This source has dried up in the last 10 years or so thanks to the rise in appreciation of the charms of Portuguese ingredients and the beauty of its countryside, as well as the renovation of the inner cities of Lisbon and Oporto. Young Portuguese can find employment closer to home, and who can blame them? Fish and shellfish from the Atlantic; fruit, vegetables and everything to do with the pig from the countryside; all these factors, coupled with a much sunnier climate than in northern Europe as well as a rise in employment in Portugal, have made for compelling reasons to stay in their own country.
All these thoughts went through my mind during our dinner at Belcanto in Lisbon. This restaurant was where the young chef José Avillez started his career in 2012. (He has since gone on to open six others and is working on his first outside the capital.) Our meal included several highlights of a year in which I have eaten enviably well. And the fact it was served with such panache, with such matter-of-fact confidence and friendliness added enormously to the enjoyment.
On a road sweeping down to the sea, Belcanto has occupied the same site since 1958. A curtained window, a bench on which several diners were sitting as we walked past half an hour before opening time, 7 pm, together with the sign and the menu, the only conspicuous signs of habitation within. The front door remained closed throughout; it is opened only when a rather operatic-sounding doorbell is rung, prior to a warm Portuguese welcome.
Having been seated at a table which had a view of the stylish dining room as well as the kitchen – where most of the male cooks were sporting brown flat caps – I could take in the room. Tablecloths and linen napkins absorbed what noise there was. The lights, both overhead and those turned against the wall, provided sufficient – but not too much – light (enough to read the menu). The cork-bound wine list, intriguing art on the wall, as well as well-worn brown leather banquettes – all this immediately made us feel welcome.
To this must be added the warmth of the service. Perhaps because Portuguese men tend to be slightly shorter than most of their European counterparts, this seeming disadvantage gives them one conspicuous advantage as waiters – they are able to look the seated customer directly in the eye, obviating any form of condescension. Certainly this was true of Sergio, our bearded waiter, and his colleagues, both male and female.
The menu falls into two distinct categories. There are two set menus, one at nine courses and the other at six, plus à la carte. The à la carte menu, which we chose from, is admirably brief. Jancis chose the first starter, a classic of the restaurant described as ‘the garden of the goose that laid a golden egg’, and I chose a simpler dish, the famous red prawns grilled in rosemary ash (€40). This was followed by Avillez’s version of suckling pig and fillets of red mullet, a fish that in the best hands can take on great texture. My wife, a fan of Portuguese wines, put us firmly in the hands of the knowledgeable sommelier, Rodolfo Tristão.
While the egg, cooked at 62 degrees for 45 minutes, came surrounded by glistening wild mushrooms, the red prawns tasted entirely of the sea, as did my main course. Here two red mullet fillets had been sautéed before being served alongside some corn porridge from the Algarve and three exploding clams, which were served in spherical, green balls.
The suckling pig reminded me of the words of Marilyn Monroe on being served matzo balls in the Jewish household of her then husband, Arthur Miller. What, she is supposed to have enquired, do they do with the rest of the matzo? My wife was served an oblong, perhaps 3” x 4”, of very thin suckling pig skin, with the thinnest piece of meat underneath, on to which Sergio ‘painted’ an appetising jus made from the pig. Alongside this came an edible packet of thinly fried potatoes, some delicious orange-perfumed sauce studded with intense black garlic and a sautéed lettuce heart, acknowledging local habits in Bairrada, home of leitão, Portugal’s famous suckling pig. I can only assume that suckling pig features prominently on Belcanto’s staff meals.
We finished on a satisfyingly citrus note, the best type of dessert in my opinion, with a ‘tangerine’ enclosing a tangerine mousse and a deconstructed version of Portugal’s famous egg custard. Tristão’s intelligent wine combinations for me (Jancis’s were different) began with a 2016 Verdelho from the Azores, moved on to a 2004 Quinta d’Oiro Syrah from Lisbon and ended with a glass of 75-year-old Carcavelos, the historic dessert wine made from vineyards that have now virtually disappeared under Lisbon’s westward expansion.
Belcanto Largo de São Carlos 10, 1200-410 Lisbon, Portugal; tel +351 213 420607
About €150 a head including wine and service.