It’s a vibrant microcosm of an historic walled city. Killer Queen Anne townhouses among thriller Tudor jetties and gables with all the cosiness of a cathedral precinct. It’s more like the Town of London than Tower of London. We’re here for an exclusive afterhours private view of the Crown Jewels or as our beefeater guide calls them “the most valuable objects on the planet”. Our favourite pieces are Queen Victoria’s Diamond Crown and the Grand Punch Bowl.
The crown was designed to be worn by Queen Victoria on top of her widow’s cap. So tiny, it’s more of a crownlet. It incorporates 1,187 brilliant-cut and rose-cut diamonds in an openwork silver frame. Queen Victoria first wore this crown for the opening of Parliament in 1871. The punchbowl is full throttle George IV bling. A silver gilt wine cistern, it can hold the equivalent of 144 bottles of wine. One way to get the party going! In between rods and coronets, there are more orbs than an episode of Most Haunted.
The social merry-go-round never stops. The after party is at The Reveller on the edge of the Thames (where guests more than live up to its name). The after after party is at Dirty Martini in the City. And the after after after party is at Annabel P’s, the new Annabel’s. Like Barack Obama, we’re always trying to push a little more optimism.
With the rhetorical daring of Mrs Merton’s interrogation of the millionaire Paul Daniel’s wife Debbie Magee, what first attracted us to the lovely Belcanto? Answer: wherever there’s a Michelin star there’s Lavender’s Blue. Make that two and we’re there with bells on ding-a-ling. Belcanto is the first restaurant in Lisbon to receive two Michelin stars. José Avillez is the first Portuguese chef to achieve this accolade. The hot to trot 36 year old has created a paradise for pescatarians with sophisticated palates. He does, after all, have over 1,000 miles of coastline to explore. Piscean provenance ain’t ever a problem. In his own words:
“My life is cooking. Because of that, many of my memories are tied to tastes. I was born and raised in Cascais, near the sea. The memory of being that close to the sea is very strong and is really a part of me – it defines me. I truly love cooking fish and seafood. Let me say I believe that in Portugal we have the best the sea has to offer in the world. I love creating dishes with the taste of the sea. At Belcanto, we use algae codium which has a very strong taste of the sea. I loved eating it on the beach at Guincho.” Such joy, joy, joy.
Belcanto is in Chiado, Lisbon’s most exhilarating neighbourhood. Chiado is a cultural mix of the old and new, the traditional and the adventurous, a distillation of the best. Easily a metaphor for José’s cooking. Outside may be sweating 30 degrees but inside a coolly slick gastronomic and sensory performance is underway. There are just 10 tables for the chef to impress with his pedigree. Table to tableau. Thank goodness for the high waiter to customer ratio as we eat more courses on the tasting menu than Henryk Sienkiewicz’s novel Quo Vadis has had film versions. The bill comes to €759.50. Say bon. Not exactly cheap as frites, but it’s a special occasion, a Lisbon treaty.
Behind an unassuming white exterior lies the understated white interior. A blank canvas. It’s the food that delivers the colour | shock | humour | art. Palette to palate. An exploding olive, “a tribute to the great chef Ferran Adrià” explains our waiter, sets the scene. José trained at elBulli, Ferran’s legendary triple Michelin starred Catalonian restaurant. Said olive is served in a 2cm diameter frying pan. Similarly, caviar topped edible stones crack open in a flow of volcanic lava. Textures and tastes and experiences and expectations are reinvented. Foraging in flowers for tuna tartar cones for starters. “You tell me!” smiles our waiter when asked what the indefinable taste is in the pudding. “How is your mushroom?” he later laughs. Rosemary ash butter tastes like fag butt ends. This is haute haute haute cuisine. And we’re loving it. All 3.5 hours.
Birthplace of fashion designer Cruz Bueno, it’s good to see the cool cool cool citizenry of Lisbon that have hung around in the sizzling heat live up to our soignée sartorial expectations. And there’s not a pickled dead sheep in sight. There’s more art in simply eating. Portugal is having a fashion moment according to Knightsbridge’s top kitchenware store Divertimenti. This Christmas’s essential stocking filler is a cabbage bowl designed by Portuguese artist Bordallo Pinheiro. Caldo Verde, cabbage soup, is a national dish. Our Divertimenti bowl is purely ornamental, unused of course. Bathos to pathos.