Monday, 1 February 2010


A short getaway to Portugal (Lisbon and Madeira) where the food can be very good; restaurants in both destinations including regional specialties

I had a lovely week in Lisbon and Madeira. I actually went to Madeira to meet my mother who escaped to the island to get away from a New York winter. Madeira is a Portuguese island on the same latitude as Morocco and has a temperate climate all year round. However, although warm, this season was very strange and we had more rain and clouds than usual. Lisbon, usually warm, was sunny but cold. It is a charming city with beautiful castles and museums. I also visited Sintra, which is a couple of hours outside of Lisbon. Sintra is a stunner of a village and has a magnificent ancient castle with different colored stone walls.

In Lisbon, I was very disappointed with the food I had. I went to one of the only Michelin Guide one-star restaurants in town; (Eleven) and found the meal to be stilted and over-priced. One thing to beware of is the fact that anything that they put on the table is charged to your bill (including bread and the amuse-bouches that are complimentary in every other restaurant I have ever been to). When I ordered one glass of champagne, I welcomed the unsolicited refill that in Paris would have been offered. Bad news for me at the end of the meal, when I was charged for two and not one glass of champagne.

At Eleven, I started with a beautiful lobster salad garnished with mango. However, it was much too salty and therefore inedible. The main course was a very good sea bass covered with wild mushrooms and served with an herb pudding.

Belem is a small town right near Lisbon and they have the famous pasteis à la Belem. The fun part is to go to the bakery where they are sold. It is very picturesque and there are many different attractive cakes for sale. The pasteis are small tarts filled with flan that you garnish with a vanilla powdered sugar and cinnamon.

I stayed at an ultra-luxury hotel (The Lapa Palace) where I got a promotion of three nights' stay for the price of two nights. At the hotel restaurant, I did have a lovely Portuguese rosé sparkling wine called Murganheira Rosé Bruto. Although my meal was simple, it was quite good. I had a interesting codfish concoction garnished with spiced pears, followed by a beautiful Atlantic Seafood Stew full of shellfish. The coffee soufflé was excellent but too much after such a copious meal.

My third dinner in Lisbon was at a restaurant recommended by the Guide Michelin for authentic inexpensive food. Ordering the local specialty of Bacalahou a Lagareiro, I was very disappointed. It is salt cod that they forgot to wash, garnished with potatoes and onions. The fish was so salty that I could hardly eat the dish. It was covered with cilantro even though I warned against that. When I pointed it out to the waiter, he smiled and just spooned off most of the cilantro to the side of the plate!! What elegant service!

My best meal was a lunch I took at the seashore (Guincho Beach) at a restaurant called Meste Zé. I had grilled turbot, ordering precisely the number of grams I wanted. Otherwise they would have made a kilo for me and charged me over 50 euros. I admired all the lobsters and jumbo shrimp that passed me by on waiters' trays being carried to other diners. Everyone was having a good time and the food was just fine.

The town of Funchal in Madeira is tourist-oriented and has outstanding restaurants hotels.The gardens are spectacular even in the beginning of January. My mother, her assistant and friend, Marian, and I went to a French place, an Italian place, and two some Portuguese restaurants and had excellent meals. At the Cliff Bay Hotel, we dined in the restaurant: Il Gallo d'Oro. (The fancy restaurants in Madeira do not charge for amuse-bouches or bread, I am happy to say.) After some lovely amuse-bouches, I started with a Savarin of Fresh Crab garnished with smoked salmon. The dish was delicate and full of crab. My main course was turbot stuffed with fresh jumbo scallops, a sauce of Sevruga caviar and a large piece of juicy lobster tail. It was elegant, beautifully presented and just wonderful. We didn't order dessert but they did bring out the pre-dessert which was a lovely chocolate cake with chocolate leaves. This is a restaurant I would definitely go back to.

Next door to this hotel is the famous Reid's Palace. It is one of the most elegant and renowned hotels in the world. We were treated to a tour of the hotel and a visit of the Presidential Suite named after one of its inhabitants: Winston Churchill. There is also a George Bernard Shaw Presidential Suite. I could live for a few weeks in the bathroom alone, decorated with the beautiful hand-painted blue and white tiles that are so omnipresent in Portugal. We had lunch at the Poolside Restaurant and ordered the reasonably priced buffet that had a large choice of cold and hot appetizers and main courses, and beautiful desserts. They served my favorite Portuguese bread (Bolo do Kako) which is a round doughy loaf. Next door is their main restaurant, The Villa Cipriani. This restaurant was the best of the entire vacation. The pasta choices and preparations were all spectacular as were the main courses and desserts. And unlike so many restaurants of its kind in Europe and in NY, the atmosphere is very quiet, allowing for animated conversation. For a restaurant of this caliber, the prices are quite reasonable.We paid 60 euros per person for a full meals and a few glasses of wine and drinks.

The two specialties of Madeira are the Grilled Espada served with Grilled Banana, and the Espetadà Regional, which is a skewer of juicy prime beef grilled and served on a stand. You push off one piece of beef at a time. We had the beef dish at Los Combatentes in the center of Funchal, and the fish at a restaurant called O Regional. The prices were quite low in these places and service was extremely friendly.

One morning we went to a very animated market. We saw the usual vegetables, fruits, and flowers, but in the basement are all the fish displays. I love fish, but these looked really monstrous and I took a photo of the ugliest of all. Sitting on the ice, they looked pretty scary, but I am sure they are part of a wonderful regional dish.

I thoroughly enjoyed this trip and hope my mother chooses Madeira next winter!