international 1520


Lisbon, Portugal

The food scene in Lisbon has come on by leaps and bounds in recent times, perhaps due in part to the wider gastronomic revolution on the Iberian peninsular. At the higher end of the scale, Belcanto has received Michelin and Condé Nast Traveller adoration ever since its reinvention in 2012 by José Avillez, and if you’re willing to part with at least £100 on a meal then you should add it to your to do list – even if it isn’t going to move the earth.

José Avillez is a bit of a big deal in Portugal. He owns a small empire of restaurants in Lisbon and Porto and his CV includes internships with Alain Ducasse and culinary wizard Ferran Adria. Belcanto is the jewel in Avillez’s crown, located right in the old centre of Lisbon near Chiado station, and just a few minutes’ walk from his slightly cheaper bistro, Cantinho do Avillez.

On arrival at Belcanto you ring a doorbell to be let in (as is de rigeur for such restaurants these days). The obvious advantage for customers is this enhances a sense of security, even exclusivity, but it can be ruddy annoying when you’re actually trying to have a peaceful lunch and Lurch from the Addams Family has to go and answer it every five minutes. That wretched doorbell was to become the bane of my lunch there, signalling each new arrival like new characters turning up in an amateur murder mystery play.

there were ups and downs with the meal, mimicking the terrain of the city itself

The doorbell aside, the service was really good, though at times there were thinly veiled attempts to upsell, which I resisted because the restaurant is expensive enough as it is. Indeed, it actually worked out more cost-effective to eschew the £160 ‘Lisbon’ tasting menu in favour of à la carte – after all there is the usual array of amuse bouches and pre-desserts to fill you up anyway. At Belcanto the interim courses are legion, and mostly forgotten, but one that stood out was the mini martini with exploding olive. This would appeal to any hedonist’s sensibilities and it also became an opening conversational gambit for my fellow diners sitting to my left. When these things connect perfect strangers there’s usually something special going on.

That said, there were ups and downs with the meal, mimicking the terrain of the city itself. Starting with a Portuguese pot-au-feu, this vegetable consommé with floating bits of sausage was a bit of a non-entity. It was balanced and seasoned well, but priced as steep as a Lisbon hill at £38 (you read that correctly – £38 for soup!!). I was hoping for more bang for my buck, but hey ho, they have two Michelin stars so can charge silly prices.

Things massively improved with the main – the so-called “Suckling Pig Revisited” (£48). The pork was well-cooked – moist on the inside, crispy on the outside – with a beautiful jus that was ‘painted’ on the plate by the waiter, an orange purée and an edible packet of crisps. Yes, that’s right. A little transparent ‘bag’ containing crisps, which you eat in one whole mouthful. It’s a slight play on tradition, as in Portugal sliced fried potatoes are a normal accompaniment but it seems so counter-intuitive to put what looks like a small plastic crisp packet into your mouth. Presumably it’s made out of some kind of rice paper as it instantly dissolved on the palate, giving a small carb-loaded hit. The edible crisp packet will remain in my memory as one of the more inventive things I’ve eaten, despite being a metaphor for the mixed bag that was the whole meal.

The “mandarine” dessert (£18) was not quite the Tangerine Dream I was hoping for, and indeed I was advised that half of the things on the plate were not for human consumption. It irks me when fancy restos include inedible things in a dish – like filler tracks on a mediocre album. The dish comprised a moulded orange ball which oozed an orangey foam when punctured. All fun and pleasant, but when half of the dish is pure decoration you wonder what the point is.

The wine list, dominated by Dao, Barraida and Douro appellations, is unabashedly Portuguese, celebrating grapes that are indigenous to Portugal, with fairly-priced wines by the glass. Luiz Costa, a local sparkling wine with the same ingredients as Champagne, was a delightful preamble to proceedings. If you’ve recently won the lottery, there is a fabulous 2008 Barca Velha with a £1000 price tag (a truly exciting Douro by Casa Ferreirinha that is only ever made in ‘good’ years and up there with the best Priorats and Napa Valley cabernets).

Overall, Belcanto was good but I was left with the lingering feeling that your money can go so much further elsewhere in Lisbon – probably even at Avillez’s cheaper bistros. Whilst I wasn’t enraptured by the food, at least the wine was wonderful and the service very good.

Food & Drink56
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Largo de São Carlos 10
1200-410 Lisbon


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