Please The Palate Pick of the Week: Dining at Two-Star Michelin Restaurant Belcanto in Lisbon

With only two days in Lisbon, my friend and I were looking to pack in as much as we could. She emailed me asking if one of our activities might be to have dinner at Belcanto, a two-star Michelin restaurant. The 2019 Michelin Stars had just been announced and Portugal has twenty-six Michelin starred restaurants, twenty which have one star and six which have two stars. Belcanto had yet again received two stars. I knew it might be a bit of a splurge but I could not say no.

Of course, the challenge would be getting a reservation. We were only two weeks away from going on our trip and the website only had an email address on it. I reached out to a friend of mine in Lisbon who works for the elegant Palacio Estoril Hotel and thought he might be able to find their phone number and call from the same time zone. The next day, I had an email from him telling me that the restaurant was completely booked BUT he was able to get us a seat at the Chef’s Table. We would experience a tasting menu with wine pairing. We immediately booked the reservation.

Belcanto is owned by celebrity chef José Avillez. Avillez has worked with gastronomic superstars Ferran Adria, Eric Frechon and Alain Ducasse, as well as received his first Michelin star at Taveres, Lisbon’s oldest and grandest restaurant. Avillez took over Belcanto in 2012. An award-winning restaurant since 1958, Belcanto had been a late night gathering place for artists and opera patrons who frequented the nearby St. Charles theater, as well as a “gentleman’s club” where dancing girls performed on a small stage. Avillez renovated it into a subtle and sophisticated intimate restaurant with only 36 seats.

Two weeks after booking our reservation, and after a week of wine tasting in the Dão region, we arrived at Belcanto. We were greeted at the door and our coats were taken from us as we were escorted through the dining room into the kitchen. We walked past the chefs who all waved and welcomed us as if we were old friends.

We entered another door where we came upon our table, set for two. We took our seats and in front of us was the entire kitchen, with the pastry team closest to us. There was a sense of serenity in the kitchen as the cooks all worked at the various stations. There was silence but when the chef spoke, each and every member of the kitchen would say “chef” out loud, almost in unison, to acknowledge that they heard him.

As we settled in, our host Luis, or rather our conductor for the evening, welcomed us. He was funny and charming and his words were like poetry as he explained that we were embarking on a journey with familiar flavors but new textures and some surprises.

To begin, we were served a Dirty Elderini with a spherical olive El Bulli, inspired by Avillez’ time working at El Bulli in Spain. A clean drink with a hint of sweetness, the El Bulli olive was filled with vermouth and melted in the mouth. It was a refreshing drink to start our evening.

The sommelier then came to our table to present the first wine for the evening.

We began with the Filipa Pato 2017 Nosso Calcario Bical from Bairrada, a region between the hills of the Dão region and the Atlantic Ocean. Bical is the primary white wine grape of both Bairrada and Dão and produces an aromatic and well-structured wine with soft acidity. The delicateness, freshness and intricate acidity made for a perfect pairing for the first few dishes.

We began with the amuse bouche, three striking dishes that were almost too pretty to touch.

The Cod and Chickpea “Stones” were black and white to represent the black and white tiles on the ground throughout Lisbon. The most popular dish in Portugal is cod and the Portuguese will say that they have 365 recipes, one for every day of  the year. I also head some people say that there are 1001 recipes with cod. Whatever the true number is, cod is served numerous ways in Portugal and at least one of the recipes is of cod with chickpeas. For our dish, the black stone was chickpea with a cocoa shell and the white stone was cod with a white chocolate shell.

Another typical product found in Portugal is canned fish, an industry that dates back to 1853. One type of canned fish you can find is tuna from the Azores. Azores is an island off of Portugal where a number of tuna species are found on the migratory route. In addition to canning this tuna, the tuna steaks are one of the most traditional dishes from the island. Our Azorean Tuna “Bouquet”  was a bouquet of flowers and tucked inside was a tuna tartare cone.

The third plate of our amuse bouche were two little Pig Heads and inside the delicate, thin crisp wafer was pigs head terrine, otherwise known as head cheese.