I had the luck to get a last minute booking at Alma, the two star Michelin restaurant of Chef Henrique Sa Pessoa in Lisbon last week, one of only two restaurants in Portugal with two stars. It opened four years ago. While one dish was superb, another was served incompletely, and my waitron let the restaurant down.
Chef Henrique has a growing restaurant emporium, Alma being the most acclaimed restaurant. He also has two Tapisco restaurants that are Spanish and Portuguese Tapas, a riverside restaurant called Balcao in Lisbon that sells lightweight meals, as well as a restaurant Atelier in which he does all the cooking for a maximum of twelve persons, on demand. He also is one of the chefs who is represented at the Time Out Food Market in Lisbon. He has a restaurant in Macau, formerly a Portuguese colony. He also is a menu consultant to TAP, for their first class and business class passengers. It was surprising that he has such a large collection of restaurants, and that they represent such a diverse repertoire, from Tapas to Fine Dining! He is to stop opening new restaurants, I was told.
Getting to the restaurant was a nightmare, not only traffic being heavier in the city yesterday due to the celebrations of the Patron Saint of Lisbon, St Antonio. But also because the restaurant is on a little pedestrian lane that the Uber cars cannot drive on. The driver dropped me off on the wrong street and number. I tried to call the restaurant for directions, but they did not answer. My Uber driver was getting annoyed and angry, so drove around the block once more, angrily. On the second time, he saw the little lane and its street name, that the restaurant is located in. The restaurant does not warn one about this when booking. When I told Margarita, whom I had communicated with for the booking by email, as their reservation system only allows bookings for tables of two and upward, she didn’t seem to be interested in this feedback, as if it had never happened before.
The front door is locked, and one must ring a bell. Luis checked his iPad for my reservation and stored my luggage. He showed me to the table, sparse in it only having a side plate in a browny colour and odd bean shape, with a butter knife, not attractive to me in its design nor colour. It also had a little silver magnet which served as a cutlery rack for the table, on which rested a modern silver and black teaspoon. A linen napkin completed the table offering. I took a walk around the smallish restaurant, to photograph. Tables are very close together, against a wall, and one cannot help overhear the conversation of the table next door. Cutlery is by Cutipol, classic in design except for the modern small spoon. Most of the crockery comes from Vista Alegra and Serax.
When I thought about it after leaving the restaurant, I felt it to be very masculine in many respects. The predominant colour is brown: dark wood panels above brown banquets and dark wooden chairs with brown leather seats. Cone-shaped brass lampshades over the tables break the browns a little. I did like the shape of the brass ice buckets. There are no white table cloths which one would expect of a restaurant of this calibre. The menu, dessert, and wine list covers are brown leather. There is not a flower to be seen (except as one enters), or any softer touch to break the brown – it is clear that brown is my least favourite colour. A large wall circular mural is in a burgundy colour, not open to interpretation, and reminded me of the design of the Michelin star. I only saw one female chef through the side kitchen window, and the wait staff is predominantly male, the latter stark in wearing black suits, but with an open white shirt without a tie.
I loved the less-is-more menu, and that it did not have endless courses. It was easy to see what the a la carte menu entailed in terms of Starters and Mains, but it would have been nice to have the Desserts on the menu too, to make a complete choice of the meal upfront, especially as the desserts of the Tasting Menus are specified in the Main menu. The four a la carte dessert options are contained in a small A5 menu all on their own. Two Tasting Menu options are offered, a Classic One at €110, and a Coastal Costa a Costa one at €110. The latter Tasting Menu was described by Luis as being lighter than the former, consisting of fish and shellfish only. In the Menu booklet, the menus are replicated in a number of languages, English being the first language in each.
I could have ordered a bread course at €6, which disappointingly came with a ‘wheat bread’ and two rows of sourdough, made with barbela flour from Northern Portugal. To me the latter is such a basic bread that it does not belong in a fine dining restaurant. Part of the course was snacks too, explained as a Tapioca cracker, cockles in brine and sea lettuce, codfish tongue in a wine and butter sauce, and red pepper tempura. This is what the small spoon was on the table for.
Luis took my drinks order, and I asked for tap water with lemon, which is my standard drink. Instead he poured water out of what looked like a 500ml bottle, for which I was charged €3! I contemplated the menu options, and the dishes I liked were in the la carte menu too, so I selected three starter options, and one dessert, bringing my meal total to €80. He decided on the order in which they should be served. Luis had introduced himself as my waitron, so I was surprised when Madalena brought cutlery for the first dish, and brought most of the dishes to the table. I asked her about this, and she said that they work in teams of two, she running the section I was seated in with Luis, but she did the less glamorous work and he just seemed to oversee her. A first male chauvinism, something I picked up with a number of Portuguese men in Lisbon, during my stay.
The first course was glazed baby carrots, in different colours, served with bulgar wheat to which had been added pistachio nuts (giving a nice crunchy texture as well as colour) and sultanas, adding a surprise sweet taste to the dish, the menu having referred to the additions as ‘dried fruit’. There was goat cheese cream and cumin oil in the dish too. What I liked the most about it was that the carrot leaves had been deep fried and added on top of the dish, as a garnish. When I commented on this, I was told that they do not waste anything in the kitchen. The colouring of this dish was very autumn in its presentation. The cost of this starter was €21.
The second course was the absolute highlight, and I wished that I had eaten it last to keep the taste in my mouth for as long as possible. The seared foie gras was served with a radically contrasting coffee sponge cake, a coffee foam, beetroot, and fresh as well as poached Granny Smith apple, on a bed of granola, giving it a good crunchy texture. The sweetness of the cake was a good contrast to the melt in the mouth foie gras. The presentation of the fabulous dish was disappointing. The price of this dish was €25.
By contrast, the third course disappointed the most, it being the Portuguese sole, served with pea purée and some peas, with Alentejo chorizo to add smokiness to the dish, and a creamy hollandaise sauce. The chorizo had been mentioned by the waitress, and was mentioned in the menu. My first note in my book was that this was a very bland dish, compared to its predecessor, and when I looked at the menu again, I discovered that there was no chorizo in my dish! I told Luis, who walked away from the table without reacting to me! He brought Restaurant Manager Manuel Silva to my table, who wanted to initially try to encourage me to be happy with this, as the chorizo did not add much to the dish, by implication. I do not think that they took me seriously, not initially at least, as I was dressed as a tourist in presentable shorts and my walking shoes, which I wear almost exclusively these days. He then gave in, and said he would bring me a small sample of what the dish should have been! The bowl in which it was presented was beautiful, with an edging looking like ostrich skin. In retrospect I saw this as another chauvinistic strike! The charge of this dish was €23. Should I have paid for a dish with such a major kitchen error?
The dessert was the one that was part of the Costa a Costa Tasting Menu, sounding more interesting than it really was, entitled ‘Sea flavours and citrus’, it visually representing the oceans of Portugal, and the islands of Madeira and Azores in particular. Lemon curd with undefined grey (possibly the kettle fish which Luis had mentioned as an ingredient of this dessert) on top was a representation of the rocks and the land. The crystallised sea weed was a literal representation of the ocean, green tea infused before being deep-fried, making it a crunchy addition to the plate. There was pistachio in it too, but what it represented linked to the dish theme was not communicated Citrus was introduced into the foam to represent the ocean, and the dish was completed with yuzu Sorbet and two citrus meringue sticks. I felt that this dish was trying to be too clever but did not succeed. It was very tart with all the lemon. It cost €11. It was a hard dish to photograph, reflecting the light above.
The Classic Menu offers the carrot and foie gras Starters; mains of salted cod, and suckling pig Confit; a palate cleanser of basil sorbet with lime and meringue; and a dessert of blackberry textures with celery. The Costa a Costa Tasting Menu offers a seafood and fish soup, and Portuguese sole as starters; John Dory with squid and fennel and scarlet prawn as mains; passion fruit and yoghurt as a palate cleanser; and the sea flavours and citrus dessert. Other a la carte starters are scarlet prawns. Main courses are salted cod, John Dory and squid, Portuguese beef fillet, and a pork dish.
I interacted with the Sommelier Pedro, and asked him why he has no South African wines on his wine list, he told me that there is no demand for it, and that he only carries Australian wines in addition to the local ones. He indicated that it is difficult to find importers of South African wines in Lisbon. He did rave about a Glen Carlou Chardonnay that he had tasted via an importer.
I had a second interaction with Restaurant Manager Manuel, when I asked him about restaurant Awards, and the World’s 50 Best in particular, in that Portugal has no restaurant in the top 50 of the list. They would like to be on the list, but do not chase Awards, rather wanting to satisfy each individual customer by serving the best possible food. An American couple sitting at the table next to me overheard the conversation, and we carried on chatting about restaurant awards, and how important the World’s 50 Best has become.
A last surprise course was petit fours, the chef’s interpretation of pastel de natas which exploded in the mouth, having been told to eat it in one bite; a raspberry macaron (macarons are sooo yesterday); and a chocolate truffle with olive and olive oil.
I must mention the bathroom, the tiniest I have encountered in a restaurant, painted red, and offering black toilet paper! It was such a contrast to the dreary brown interior design in the restaurant. But one bathroom for ladies clearly isn’t enough, as we had to queue for it.
I loved the foie gras starter, and was very disappointed at the way the kitchen error with my sole starter had been handled. The American style blues and jazz music was not Portuguese, given the local focus of the restaurant. My four courses were a perfect choice, not being too heavy and I not feeling overfull at the end of the meal. It is expensive, the carrot dish in particular, I felt, Luis was the biggest disappointment, showing no interest in me as a diner, as to where I was from and why I was making notes, He was cut off and distant, perhaps because his English is not as perfect as that of some of his colleagues. Manuel the manager only warmed to me when I asked him about restaurant awards. There had been no communication to Luis as to my dietary requirements, which I had communicated by email. The Menu does not mention every ingredient in the dish, nor were they all mentioned at the table, a disappointment for me as a restaurant writer. I found the food presentation disappointing, also masculine, with no softness or flowers. The salt in the dishes was just right. I was shocked when Luis asked if I wanted to add a tip. The bill is in Portuguese, so one cannot see if this is allowed for on the bill. He asked when he was taking the payment in the credit card machine, an absolute no no in my book! I am glad that I went to Alma, but will not rush back!
Alma, Rue Anchieta 15, Lisbon. Tel +351 213 470 650. www.almalisboa.pt Instagram: @henriquesapessoa Closed Mondays.
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Chris von Ulmenstein, WhaleTales Blog: www.chrisvonulmenstein.com/blog Tel +27 082 55 11 323 Twitter:@Ulmenstein Facebook: Chris von Ulmenstein Instagram: @Chrissy_Ulmenstein