The runny rice that was served at our table had an intense, emerald color decoratively dotted with little greyish white clams without their shells. Thick creamy coriander liquid seeped out of it slowly. Subtly briny and fragrant fumes rose up to our noses and aroused our appetite even further. A visit to Lisbon had been long overdue and a sumptuous, contemporary Portuguese lunch by chef Henrique Sá Pessoa at restaurant Alma highlighted the joy of being back in one of my all-time favorite cities in world. The question was if he could persuade me with his bacalhau.
Alma is situated in Chiado, a part of town that has traditionally been home to upmarket shops and Lisbon’s well-known coffeehouse A Brasileira, but is now host to an array of boutiques selling Portuguese products. The country has emerged from the crisis with a revival of small factories and workshops producing the most amazing items such as woollen spreads with intricate patterns, fancy furniture, funky kitchenware and not least, all sorts of gastronomic products. Throw in a number of top-notch restaurants and you have an area that is a must-go for anybody with a serious interest in the Portuguese capital and its food.
Counter dividing the kitchen from our table
We got a table that could be qualified as the chef’s table. Only a counter on which the dishes were plated divided us from the kitchen where the cooks were concentrating on different steps of the culinary process or, later on, were preparing for dinner. Otherwise the dining room was intimate, smaller than I expected, with furniture that held the middle between Scandinavian design and a more luxurious version of Thonet’s art nouveau bistro style. The atmosphere was, despite the time of day (lunch time) a bit dark and combined with the tunes, it felt at first somewhat clubby, but once we got settled in, we detected a more relaxed urban casual chic vibe, including a crying baby.
While we were studying the menu, we were treated to some exquisite amuses, the best and most creative one being two match-shaped pieces of red bell pepper with a tempura of charred vegetables and a smoky paprika dip. (See main picture.) Not only was it a visual attraction, it was also a great culinary creation. The crisp freshness of the pepper and the crunchy tempura contrasted and complemented the silky dip wonderfully. It aroused our appetite and our curiosity for what was to come.
Alma offers four partly overlapping three- and four-course menus that carry names such as Alma (meaning ‘soul’, consisting of Sá Pessoa’s favorites), Caminhos (‘roads’, experimental dishes inspired by the chef’s travels), Costa a Costa (‘coast to coast’, seafood) and Origens (‘origins’, Portuguese classics). To maximize our choices we decided to go à la carte. As I intended to see how Sá Pessoa transforms classic, often quite rustic, dishes into contemporary cuisine, I focused on some traditional names and ingredients: Bulhão Pato, açorda and, in particular, bacalhau, all of which I had eaten before, many years ago, in their old-fashioned form.
The açorda, which I had as a starter, is a dish based on bread covered with garlic, olive oil, coriander and either shrimps or bacalhau (dried and salted cod) and topped with a poached egg. By steaming it, its consistency changes into something ressembling a stew or porridge. I also had it quite soupy. Sá Pessoa stayed relatively close to the original, but through the use of excellent quality ingredients and a couple of twists he elevated the açorda to something extraordinary. His version came with red prawns and sea lettuce and was infused with a reduction of crushed prawn heads, which gave it a deep oceanic flavor. A ladle of lemongrass foam added a tinge of brightness that could have been a bit more pronounced. In its entirety however, it was magnificent.
Back to the emerald delight I mentioned before. The centrepiece of this main course was a good chunk of well-prepared, fresh sea bass, but it was overshadowed by the sparkling deliciousness of the Bulhão Pato, the green risotto-like rice dish. (Bulhão Pato is originally a dish of clams and coriander that took its name from its biggest advocate, a poet, back in the 19th century.) The Portuguese are the biggest rice eaters of Europe and also grow a lot of their own. The country cultivates two major varieties, the Agulha and Carolino, the last one having similar properties as the better-known Arborio rice the Italians use for their risotto. Whether we had Carolino or not, our group of four jointly decided this was not only the best part of the dish, but may as well have been the best part of the entire lunch.
Bacalhau Sá Pessoa
On the other side of the table one of my friends ordered the famous, or for some infamous, bacalhau that you (used to) find all along the Atlantic seaboard up to Norway. On one of my first extensive trips to Portugal in 1990, with the same friend, we tried bacalhau many times and never managed to develop an appreciation for it. The closest we got to something palatable was in Bragança, a town in the remote northeastern corner of Portugal, interestingly enough a place where you expect mountain fare rather than seafood. But then, cod is dried and salted in order to preserve it and hence, I guess, it could also make its way to Bragança. There we had a big piece of bacalhau, made succulent again by either soaking it in milk or water; I can’t remember precisely. It was half way decent. Ever since both of us have mostly avoided bacalhau. Alma, we thought, had to be the opportunity to finally master that acquired taste. Sá Pessoa’s bacalhau comes shredded with small strips of potato, which masks the intense flavor of “pure” bacalhau. On top of the potato and cod mixture, there was a runny egg hidden by an artfully created layer of thinly sliced bacalhau marinated in black olives. The taste was quite sensational. The potato and the egg made it rich and velvety and the top layer of fish added a little explosion of the real thing in every bite.
By the time dessert came (a good but somewhat far-fetched “sea flavors” combination of lemon curd with squid ink, pistacchio, yuzu sorbet and tiny pieces of seeweed), I was so satisfied with Sá Pessoa’s rendition of Portuguese classics, that I didn’t pay much attention. My heart jumped again with two of the friandises. The iconic pasteis de nata was recreated as a sphere of liquid, eggy cream held together by a crisp hull, an almost voluptuous subtlety. A small cube of sheep-cheesecake with cinnamon also enchanted our tastebuds.
Chef Sá Pessoa didn’t have to win me over for Portuguese cuisine in general, but he did win me over for bacalhau. We enjoyed all his dishes tremendously, not only because they were delicious and well prepared, but also because they remained, despite their reinvention, utterly Portuguese.
Rua Anchieta, 15 – Lisbon (Portugal)
T: +351 213 470 650
Three-course set menu: € 80,-
Four-course set menu: € 100,-
Three courses à la carte: € 70,-