The best fine dining restaurant in Lisbon, and perhaps all of Portugal, is Belcanto. It has 2 Michelin stars and is No. 78 on the list of the World’s Top 100 restaurants. It deserves a higher spot than that, in my opinion, and I’m sure it would be if it were in a more high profile region like London or France. It was certainly my favorite meal on my London + Lisbon trip, which included meals at higher ranked places like The Clove Club and Dinner by Heston Blumenthal. What’s crazy is that Estela, a restaurant in New York, is ranked higher at No. 44, despite Belcanto’s higher skill level, better ambiance and more attentive service, but I guess when President Obama visits your restaurant it opens a lot more doors for you.
But don’t feel too bad for Chef Jose Avillez, who is doing just fine and is overseeing a small empire of restaurants in Lisbon. Belcanto is always booked up and charges a considerable premium on par with fine dining prices in major cities. The longer of the two tasting menu options, the “Discoveries Menu”, is 145 euros, and the shorter seven course “Lisbon” tasting option is 125. You could do a la carte at lunch, but you would be short changing yourself of your experience there.
Avillez’s point of view is to reinterpret and update traditional Portuguese cuisines for the modern palate while preserving the flavors. The way the food is presented will impress those who are accustomed to the culinary feats and theatrics of an El Bulli or a NOMA, but it will still remind them of the hearty family soup or pork dish that they grew up eating. The humble Portuguese pot-aI-feu stew gets gentrified as a minimalist broth with a neat side of cabbage leaves and a cube of pork fat, two ingredients that sound dowdy but are somehow glammed up here. This is what he is very good at – whittling away all the unevenness and heaviness in a rustic dish into something impossibly elegant and slender and very appealing. How he can do this with pork belly, the most obese of ingredients, I don’t know, but he succeeds.
He is El Bulli trained so there are molecular gastronomy tricks up his sleeves where olives explode, as do carrots and garlic, but it all results in a pleasant surprise that enhances the experience rather than being an instance of overdone technique. The most impressive dish by far is “the garden of the goose that laid the golden egg”, the 2nd course of the tasting. It’s a signature in the way that “oysters and caviar” is at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. Just looking at it will make you feel rich. The egg is covered in gold foil with specks of truffle surrounding it. Reading this might make you suspect that this is an exercise in arrogance in the way that Serendipity’s makes an $1,000 Golden Opulence Sundae, but it’s not all flash, all that glitters is really golden, especially when you eat it. That’s the general take away from the Belcanto tasting experience, every impressive course you complete is money well spent. Whether it’s to commemorate the beginning or the end of a vacation in Lisbon, there’s no better place to do it.
Largo de São Carlos 10, 1200-410 Lisboa, Portugal
call +351 21 342 0607 or email firstname.lastname@example.org for a reservation