Belcanto http://belcanto.pt/EN/ welcomed me. The Maître de was like the Jeeves of Lisbon. He shimmered around being helpful and unobtrusive. I ordered a la carte – Wave Breaking to start, (translated as ‘bivalves, coastal prawns, seawater and seaweed ‘sand’) and Dip in the Sea (‘sea bass with seaweed and bivalves’) for my entrée. He approved, and asked if I had any food allergies. When I said no alcohol, he didn’t curl his lip or sigh. He went and checked. Good man, because one of their signature freebies turns out to be an ‘inside out martini’. Happily for me, they were willing to adapt. The waitstaff deserve props for being game and throwing no ‘tude. Another thing I really liked about this place was the small waiting area that had a phrase by Portuguese writer Fernando Pessoa, “To be great, be whole,” spelled out in light coming from the spaces created by missing books. Books! Ironic, given the words were made of absences.
I won’t keep you in suspense, the food tasted great – really top shelf. What was interesting was the amount of attention paid to deceit. Food as trompe–l’œil. They were into trickery and tomfoolery, and they liked explaining it afterward. Imagine Penn and Teller as chefs de cuisine.
Here’s the real crew on the job.
First thing they brought out looked like a tangerine-colored candy fireball. It balanced on a short handled spoon they rested on an indentation in a stone. It was a thin shell around a liquid they promised wouldn’t actually have alcohol in it. They didn’t exactly lie. It tasted faintly like vanilla and cherries. It was their riff on a faux aperitif. I would have preferred to skip it.
An olive trio followed. A tempura-esque fried olive (I could have gladly eaten a dozen of these), a soft shell olive that was olive-colored and shaped, but had a melting texture, and the aforementioned inside out martini, which, sans booze, was like a tablespoon of olive puree.
More trickery followed. Something that had the exact texture of an almond rocher, including the gold foil cup, but was fois gras and nuts with a fragment of gold leaf. I could have eaten these until all the chefs went home. I forget what they called the thing in the back, but it reminded me of fried chicken. The little half moon in the front was tasty and threw me because the visual matched the flavor.
They delivered bread and butter with due ceremony. There were choices of breads and three kinds of butter. Resistance was futile with the olive roll.
Now we come to what I actually ordered. All of the above was just foreplay. Wave Breaking, a diorama of tiny morsels of various sea creatures punctuated with dots carved out of green apple, and a foam that the server said was part seawater. Crumbles of dehydrated seaweed made the sand. By now I am in the swing of having fun with this. It’s not food to satisfy physical appetite so much as to engage the mind and encourage you to be playful. Well, as playful as a joint with a head chef named David Jesus (I am not making this up) can be.
I ate my seafood morsels and though they were small, the flavor was mighty. Especially the mussels. I remember thinking how I didn’t realize that fresh was a flavor until now. The immense amount of briny goodness in those tiny bites was startling.
The sea bass, aka Dip in the Sea, brought along his friends, and the actual amount of fish was impressive. It was poached in seawater, and was moist and tender to a degree outside of my experience, except for a butterfish I once ate in Hawaii.
The raspberry was another bit of cleverness. It was looked real, but it was reconstructed, reformed and chilled – pure liquid essence of raspberry, with a touch of wasabi.
Dessert was called, with surprising directness, banana, chocolate and peanut. Robert will recognize this layout from The Getty Center, in LA.
Can’t say it was visually appealing, but it tasted just fine, though it required more plate scraping than I like to do in public. The peanut was another decoy. It was made out of a hardened substance reminiscent of a peanut butter cup, but not as sweet. The chocolate was excellent, intense and neither sweet nor bitter – balanced on the edge of both. Those banana slices were fakes. More like a cold puree with a faint banana flavor formed into discs and dotted with faux seeds.
They brought a wooden Chinese puzzle box for the finale. It pulled apart into three drawers filled with cocoa shells, and each level presented a pair of ….something. The top level was said to be olive, but it tasted sweet and crunchy, just like a gumdrop. Okay by me.
The middle layer was candied black garlic. Summoning all my bravery, I put one in my mouth and chewed twice. Gah. So bad. Nasty. Absolutely foul. I spit it into my hand as discretely as I could manage, only to realize there was nowhere to put it. Desperate, I dropped it back in the box, slimy with drool. Sorry! But no. Hell no. I don’t want a mouthful of sugary garlic to wipe the excellent flavors I’ve just experienced off my tongue. Lesson learned. When creative food goes wrong, it’s a spectacular crash.
Fortunately, the bottom level had a pair of raspberry and chocolate morsels that were sublime. All’s well that ends well.
I decided a postprandial walk was just the ticket. And by ‘walk’ I mean mountain climbing with steps, no sherpa. That’s how Lisbon rolls, people. Believe you me, I was grateful that Jessica ran me up and down those stairs at the gym.
I headed to the big square beyond the grand arch. Mafalda called it Lisbon’s St. Mark’s Square. A tourist kindly took my photo by the Tagus River.
Afterward, I walked down the street of trim, braid, buttons and lace, and did a little window shopping. Finally headed towards my B&B, following the Google map. It was a long, hard slog that felt longer when I realized it was mostly straight up. By the time I came through my door, I was aching from hip to toes.
Time to call the cavalry, aka Uber. I promise myself I’ll start using the service tomorrow. Spend several hours working out a plan of what to see on Thursday – proximity is crucial. Dinner is cake and tea and tangerines, and I’m in bed and asleep in no time.