We went to Belcanto on our first night in Lisbon as a special 50th birthday treat for me, gifted by generous friends.
We had read all the rave reviews and arrived with very high expectations, all of which were well and truly exceeded. I have tried to capture the spirit of the restaurant, the atmosphere and the taste sensations here but it is not easy to do.
We arrived at the low key entrance and were warmly greeted and quickly seated by friendly staff. We instantly felt welcomed and relaxed.
The restaurant itself was a quick 5 minute walk from the apartment we were staying in the Bairro Alto district of Lisbon, an area known for it’s cafes and restaurants.
It is in a beautifully renovated building and reflects an upmarket, elegant but relaxed vibe. The colour scheme is subdued but brought to life with splashes of colour from strategically placed flowers and plants. The tables are set without cutlery with napkins elegantly draped off the tables. The lighting is perfect creating a warm ambience without being dark.
According to a story I read in http://www.wbpstars.com/belcanto.html: “The original Belcanto restaurant was opened in 1958. The name Belcanto derives from the opera style and the famous national opera house in Lisbon is located only a few metres from the restaurant. José Avillez took over the restaurant in 2012 and totally renovated it again in 2016. Today, the interior of restaurant Belcanto is bright, combining lots of wood, green chairs, and luxurious elements.”
The Chef Jose Avillez is obviously now world renowned having gained his first Michelin star just 18 months after taking over Belcanto. He trained at El Bulli and according to those who know the Belcanto menu features techniques reminiscent of that famed establishment.
It was great to be able to choose from the a la carte menu, because we knew the tasting menus would be beyond our appetites and budgets! We were so glad we did because even with us just choosing an entree and main each, we were treated to a series of serious amuse bouche (surprises as our charming and playful waiter Joao put it).
We started proceedings with a glass of beautifulPortuguese sparkling wine as we contemplated our menu choices.
We then began our Belcanto experience with the arrival of our first surprise – a small bao style sweet fluffy steamed pastry bun with a delicious salty fish filling reminiscent of the traditional Portuguese sardines paste but worlds away! The tiny bun is served on a plaster cast of the Chef Jose Avillez’s Hand, a symbolic gesture of his offering to his guests. Nice touch.
This was accompanied by an inverted dry martini: the liquid is olive juice and the “olive” is a sphere of gin which just dissolves in your mouth leaving you knowing you have eaten an olive but not quite sure where it went! The combination of ingredients, tastes and sensations of this amuse bouche sets the tone for the rest of the meal and the surprises along the way.
This was followed by a light cherry gazpacho, accompanied by treats in a number of forms including fake cherries filled with a cummin spiced soft cheese, and avocado tempura! My descriptions cannot truly describe the taste sensations or ingredients used. Needless to say it was a delicious combination, as was the divine sardine fillet with tomato flavoured “snow”, smoked eggplant topped with rosemary ash. In our books we were up to course 3, then the bread arrived with 3 types of butter – including rosemary, tomato and normal.
Our palettes and appetites were certainly ready for our menu choices, which included famed “Garden of the goose that laid the golden egg” and European lobster with caviar, marrow, spinach and a white bean purée.
The golden egg actually uses edible gold leaf to encase a slow-cooked egg and is surrounded with crunchy breadcrumbs and mushrooms.
For mains we enjoyed the Suckling Pig with Sarapetel (meat and offal in a vinegary sauce), soufflés potatoes, a fave bean stew with orange peel purée and a peppercorn sauce and Hay-roasted squab (cooked medium rare) with a zuchinni flower filled with foie bras with roasted eggplant and a hazelnut and cinnamon sauce. Each mouthful of our mains delivered flavour, taste and texture of new dimensions. Air filled potato soufflé puffs, squab dissolving with tenderness, crispy pork encasing tender pork, and perfectly spiced sauces accompanying it all.
We had already decided that this was the best meal we had, had in our lives and that every accolade and very Michelin star earned by Belcanto was very well deserved before we even encountered the absolute stand-out of the night – dessert!
Of course, our jovial Head waiter Joao and his band of friends who were looking after us with great service, wine recommendations, jokes and stories (like trying to convince us the squab had been shot by them in the adjoining square) revelled in presenting another surprise in the form of a tantalising palate cleanser of sorbet before presenting the piece de resistance, the renowned Mandarin dessert.
Here’s a description of the making of the Mandarin dessert which explains it much better thanI can: “The dessert with mandarin is exceptional in terms of flavours and experience. It derives from a childhood memory from the chef where children went searching for mandarins that felt from the trees. At Belcanto, the mandarin is a reconstruction filled with mandarin foam, on a custard of mandarin, and accompanied with a sorbet of mandarin. A crumble of mushrooms finishes the dish and refers to the earth where the mandarins were found. In his kitchen José Avillez is assisted by his right hand Head Chef David Jesus and a driven, international team. The staff works dedicated and in utmost concentration in the kitchen. The fine wines at Belcanto are superb and the perfect accompaniment of the dishes coming out of the kitchen.” And a link to their story on Belcanto http://www.wbpstars.com/belcanto.html
It was a divine end to an absolutely stunning dinner…. a series of dining moments that seem to transcend each other as the dinner progresses. What made it truly special was the fun, playful but utterly professional service which ensures a truly enjoyable evening without the expected stuffiness or snobiness of a restaurant of this world class calibre. Also, all the generous surprises along the way gave us an insight into the gastronomical techniques that one would normally expect only from a degustation menu.
It will be a night we will remember for the rest of our lives and for this the cost was well worth it for a special occasion as it was.
Here’s a link to an article on Jose Avillez and Belcanto https://www.foodandwinegazette.com/8728 which you might enjoy as well.
If you are heading to Lisbon, then go to http://www.Belcanto.pt now and book in for a truly memorable evening.