When the Hallelujah Chorus Sang
“I’ll eat when I’m dead,” quipped Daphne Guinness, heiress-turned-chanteuse. We haven’t cooked since the war but we’ve certainly dined out on that. Quo vadis? Quo Vadis. Hello Kitty Fisher’s. Blue Fin seafood. Annabel’s. The incredibly Social Eating House. Intertwining wining and dining otherwise known as ‘spending the nephew’s inheritance’. First there was the Astrid Bray hosted Christmas party at Daphne’s. Next came the Launceston Place midsummer soirée with good stock (company and gravy) and theatrical staff. Epigram anyone? Yep, both Princess Diana haunts. We’re following in her footsteps, even photographing Prince Charles. Le Caprice to go. Completely up our own rue.
Provenance matters, whether antiques or antipasti, dated or stated or possibly slated. So it was good to indulge in whipped Elveden beets at the MABA (Middle Aged British Artists) adorned Hix Soho. The farm shop on the Guinnesses’ Elveden Estate is a destination in itself. For the carnivorously inclined, Glenarm Estate produce pops up several times on Hix’s menu. The walled garden at Glenarm Castle is a destination in itself.
Escaping what Lord James Bethell called “the chilling effect of the referendum on social calendars” at Westbourne’s groovy fifth inaugural garden party, waving goodbye to The Right Honourables Tessa and Jacqui, we’re off to hot hot hot Lisbon. Well, not before stopping for nocturnal wanderings in the Royal College of Surgeons’ Hunterian Museum. It’s not every night we get to enjoy noirish canapés next to the mesentery of a sheep with several globular cysts attached to the tissue by long pedicles.
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.
- Dip in the Sea: poached sea bass wings between seaweed and bivalves floating in seawater (“The oldest dish on the menu,” confirms our waiter)
- The Garden of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs: soft boiled egg cooked at 45 degrees for 25 minutes, hand decorated gold leaf, crunchy bread and mushroom
- Roasted Red Mullet: mullet with Portuguese corn porridge, liver of mullet sauce, coriander, lemon juice, white wine and a rice bag of crisps
- Pre Pudding: pumpkin and peach foam wafer with pumpkin seeds, port wine and miso
- Pudding: mandarin sorbet with lemons, custard and cookie crunched porcini mushroom
- Post Pudding: chocolate olive oil gum, raspberry and wasabi sorbet, marshmallow and lime petit four
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.