This post is a part of the What’s On My Plate series
Picture: Fernando Monte da Silva
A typical Francesinha from Porto, which though not what I had eaten, is spectacular
Lisbon. It is a city of dreams, a melting pot, a proverbial human paella and a meeting place for many cultures and communities. In this respect, it is not unlike Goa, except with better planning and a greater level of acceptance for differences between communities. And this settling in of various cultures has in turn translated into culinary evolution. Influences from across the world have managed to permeate the once stoic and immovable nature of local fare. There are countless venues for the old school Portuguese meal, but in similar vein, also those that now dish out contemporary twists in the culinary plot.
One such classic example stemmed from my customary wanderings around the back ends of the city, on my first trip there, in 2012. As I traipsed through the little cobblestone lanes that weave their way through the area between Praça do Comércio and the Baixa area I found myself utterly lost. As I sought to wend my way out, my stomach purred, suggesting that it had been neglected for a significant stretch of time. Trying to avoid extending the injustice I had done myself, I looked for some sort of respite, which is when I found Estela, a lovely septuagenarian with supremely intensive culinary nous. All she had was a little space no more than 50 square metres, a solitary oven and a spotlessly white apron. Rather than be boorish, I decided to ask the ‘lady of the house’ for her recommendation, to which she dutifully replied with a half toothless grin that I should try her interpretation of the Francesinha. This is sandwich with origins in the city of Porto, the name of which literally translates into ‘Little Frenchie’. However, it is no ordinary sandwich, as it comprises wet-cured ham, sausage and roasted meat, before being encased in bread and covered with melted cheese. This is then served with a thick tomato and beer sauce. Which begs the question, how (and more importantly why) does one meddle with a creation is already sublime? But when you’re hungry (and I was famished) you bite your tongue and trust the judgement of the wise. And it was well worth it. Replacing the beer with white wine, the tomato with garlic and the meats with an assortment of seafood, the lovely lady got it spot on. The sad bit is that as I walked away with a content stomach, I realised that the old lady had no signage to her establishment and the place is indeed hard to find, but I hope that someday, I can return once more.
In similar vein, on my next trip in 2014, I set out to dinner with my fellow native, historical guide to the city and favourite raconteur, Jason Keith Fernandes. We bounced from restaurant to restaurant and city square to city square, unable to decide where we wanted to eat, because in true Goldilocks fashion, some restaurants were too stuffy, others too hippie and none were just right. We eventually entered an establishment called ‘Sea Me’. Over much banter and laughter over topics too controversial to be discussed back home, we devoured smoked mackerel with mildly dressed potatoes and seared scallops with mango relish and sea salt, before ordering a dessert of 'Arroz Doce’, which is sweetened rice dusted with cinnamon powder. Except here, it was served with a generous scoop of cinnamon flavoured gelato instead.
My point is, however, not merely the kind of/quality of food offered, which is undisputedly phenomenally fabulous. It is the manner in which food is addressed. The Portuguese ancestors of these fine chefs would have been aghast to see their local produce being ‘defiled’ with such innovation, but they walk into their kitchens and do it every day anyway. In similar vein, how long will it be before we see innovative Goan cuisine to welcome the weary traveller in such of dishes anew? That is truly the culinary question of the hour.
Finding smaller places in Portugal, in general, and Lisbon, in particular, is quite tricky. Not too many have signage either. I've learned that from experience, so making notes is advisable.
Sea Me is fabulous, though a tad expensive for a budget traveller, to be honest. But it is an experience worth having.
The average cost of a meal for two (minus the libations, but including the vinho de mesa or house wine) would be an approximate of €60/₹4,200 (at the time of publishing this review).
How to get there
Rua do Loreto 21, 1200-036 Lisboa, Portugal
Food is a huge part of any culture and for me, chancing upon a good meal is synonymous with having a great day. The What’s On My Plate series of posts is where I discuss food, great places to eat, and anything gastronomically moving. This could be anything from a great place to eat, to an obscure kind of food, to an origin story. After all, there is no love like the love of eating.