Excuse the rather trite title but it seemed fitting because:
A) the restaurant in question is called Lisboa tu e eu, or “Lisbon, you and me” in English
B) Restaurants like this remind me how much I adore this city
Let me set the scene.
The evening was composed of a rare combination of circumstances that will almost definitely never reproduce themselves simultaneously again. That is to say, the pandemic was still limiting travel into Portugal but two of my friends from the UK had managed to sneak in for a small holiday, meaning I found myself out in the normally very touristy neighbourhood of Alfama on a Monday night in June and actually able to secure a walk-in table at this very popular tasca.
It’s excellent when you remember a place like Lisboa tu e eu when you have guests in town because it comprises the exact Lisbon experience that they are looking for and it’s even better when the normally heaving crowds have dispersed and you can linger there for an entire evening.
I had booked on their highly untrustworthy-looking website and received no confirmation. Upon calling I received hearty assurance from whom I believe to be the chef that everything was confirmed for our 8pm reservation. An hour later, I received a call from the same woman telling me that the manager had decided to cancel all online bookings for the evening but that if I showed up at 7.30, we should be able to get a table.
I know. It doesn’t make sense to me either. But this is very typical old-school Lisbon restaurant behaviour: you sometimes get the genuine impression that they don’t want your custom.
Nevertheless, we arrived at 7.30 and chose our own table under the expansive wooden trellis over which trail the leaves and branches of a grapevine. The tables were scattered haphazardly over the tiny cobbled square out front, flanked by what are, without a doubt, the most uncomfortable stools I have ever sat on. Since the whole square is mildly sloping, we concluded that it was only a matter of time before someone slid off their stool. I prayed that it not be me.
The real-life consequence of the slope was, happily, the fact that the sauce on every dish we were served gathered gracefully on the left-hand side, making it infinitely easier to dunk torn-off strips off crusty bread in.
This brings us, just as gracefully, to the question of the food. One of those places where you share lots of smallish plates, we had primarily chosen it because, being the beginning of June, it was prime sardine time. A two-person sardine tapas came with four enormous, silvery sardines seasoned with a little red onion and chopped coriander and dressed in olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
The menu is composed of Portuguese classics, done properly. We ordered three fluffy patiniscas (salt cod deep-fried in batter with parsley) that were clearly made to order and were light and salty with a perfect hint of chewiness. Then there was the garlic prawns that couldn’t have been fresher and were served as they should be: head and tails still on but shells removed so that the garlic butter could permeate the pink-streaked white flesh. Finally, on our waiter’s recommendation, we had a portion of pica pau, a traditional dish of pieces of marinated meat served in a beer and mustard sauce with pickles and whose name actually translates to woodpecker – not sure why. Ours was little chunks of chicken breast so tender that our knives cut through them like butter. Naturally, all this was washed down with a half litre each of the house red and white.
On the way to the toilet, I spied what looked like a plate of homemade pastéis de nata – custard tarts – but which our waiter informed us were actually called flores de nata – custard flowers. These delicate roses of baked custard were wrapped in a pastry so fine and thin that it looked at first glance like baking paper. We ordered one, as well as a helping of their arroz doce – rice pudding -, which the menu rather arrogantly claims to be “the best in the world”.
I can confirm that it is. It arrived in a small bowl sprinkled liberally with cinnamon; creamy, rich and slopping elegantly over to the left, as with all our dishes. As we placed spoonfuls of it in our mouth we were greeted with the pleasant surprise that it was warm, a perfectly-timed touch as the square was at the moment beginning to cool down considerably. The flor de nata was as dainty as it sounds and biting into one began crisply before dissolving into the baked custard, saved from any hint of cloying heaviness by just a whisper of lemon.
Our bill did not even reach 50 euros. Not bad for the best meal I have eaten in Lisbon in a while. As the evening wind picked up, the waiter brought out blankets in pale blue and white. Diners wrapped themselves tightly, taking on the unmistakeable impression of shipwreck survivors; all leaning precariously to the left on their dreadfully uncomfortable stools, redeemed by the warming comfort of tasca fare at its simplest and most and exquisite.