Portugal Part 2: Dining in Porto
Updated: Aug 27
When I travel to a new destination, I want to experience cuisines and dishes that are authentic to that region. I try to balance the adventure by eating at various venues from street vendors, to family owned and run restaurants. In addition, I usually choose one fine dining restaurant that is splurge-worthy.
That restaurant for me in Porto, Portugal was Elemento. As the Michelin Guide describes it, this is "traditional Portuguese cuisine with a modern touch." Elemento is a casual, fire dining restaurant. No, that was not a typo in the last sentence. Chef and owner, Ricardo Dias Ferreira does indeed refer to Elemento as a "fire" dining restaurant, in that it focuses on one element - fire.
Every dish that requires cooking, is prepared in either the 19th century oven or on the customized grill that you see in the picture above. Chef Ferriera uses a variety of components to ignite and maintain the fire including, traditional firewood as well as eucalyptus, straw, pine needles, pine cones and more. Selections are made based on what will enhance the flavors in a given dish.
O Nosso Pão e Manteiga
Bread and Butter
This butter was so creamy and would have been perfect on its own but, was upgraded with the infusion of fresh chives and a dash of black salt.
Amuse Bouche #1: King Fish with Trumpet Mushrooms and Caviar
The sweetness of the roe and the nuttiness of the mushrooms, complemented the firm fish, swimming in a perfect sauce.
Amuse Bouche #2: Beef Tartare
This was such a clever dish. Rather than serving the tartare with a traditional crostini, the meat was nestled inside a tart and topped with a dollop of hollandaise-like sauce instead of the customary egg yolk.
Tártaro de Camarão Vermelho, Guanciale, Caldo de Cebola
Red prawn tartare, guanciale, roasted onion broth.
Robalo de Anzol, Molho de Carabineiro, Ervas de Ria
Line caught sea bass, red scarlet prawn sauce, saltbush leaf.
This was the first time I had eaten saltbush which is a plant that is native to Australia. It added a salty, herbaceous quality to this dish that I really loved.
Lombo de Veado, Cogumelo, Macadamia
Venison loin, mushroom, macadamia nut.
I usually avoid ordering venison because it is such a lean meat that, if cooked incorrectly, will easily and quickly dry out and become very tough and unpleasant to eat. This was not the case at Elemento. This venison was tender, moist and flavorful.
Entrecôte de Minhota, Bochecha Assada, Vegetais, Cominhos
Beef entrecôte, braised cheek, oak grilled vegetables, cumin.
Bolo de Abóbora, Espuma de Feno, Merengue de Szechuan
Pumpkin cake, hay foam, szechuan pepper meringue.
This meal was flawless. To my surprise, Elemento is Michelin-recommended but does not have a star, which I think it deserves. I highly recommend Elemento if you are in Porto.
Cantinho do Avillez
Chef José Avillez is a legend in my book. He earned his first Michelin star while working at Tavares, arguably the oldest restaurant in Lisbon. Two years later, he set out on his own and opened Cantinho Do Avillez. This, his first solo venture, is his tribute to Portuguese home cooking. The menu features an array of comfort foods that are all perfectly executed.
Assortment of breads with olives, tomato and garlic sauce, and house-made butter
Deep Fried Green Beans with Tartar Sauce
Green beans tempura seasoned with lemon, salt and tartar sauce.
Prawns à Bulhão Pato
Prawns with white wine, lemon juice and cilantro, sautéed in olive oil.
After opening this restaurant, Chef Avillez opened Belcanto. Within a year of Belcanto's opening, he earned his second Michelin star. He now has over 20 restaurants, each with a unique concept. Impressive, right? Oh, and did I mention that he is only 43 years old? Cantinho Do Avillez was the only one of Chef Avillez' restaurants I was able to visit while in Portugal and it was magnificent. I will definitely be back to experience more from this exceptionally talented chef and entrepreneur.
Almeja is run by husband and wife team, João Cura and Sofia Amaral Gomes who have created this cozy, charming, bistro-style restaurant in a former, historic, grocery shop. "Almeja" means "to crave" in Portuguese and this restaurant produces dishes that you will indeed crave.
Carolina Rice from Mondego, Seafood and Seaweed
Carolina rice, I learned, is a native Portuguese rice from Mondego (the river that crosses Coimbra). In this dish, the rice was cooked risotto-style and loaded with cuttlefish and samphire (a succulent that grows wild near rocky or marshy saltwater sources). The brininess of the samphire harmonized beautifully with the sweet and milky notes of the cuttlefish.
Sweet Curry, Coconut, Mango and Lime
This dessert was so creative. It introduced me to a flavor combination I had never experienced. The server insisted I order it and I am glad I acquiesced. This was one of the most happily surprising desserts I have ever had.
On another note, prior to my trip to Portugal, people kept insisting that because I speak a moderate amount of Spanish, I would be able to pick up Portuguese. I must strongly disagree, as I found the two languages extremely different. For example, in Spanish, "almeja" means "clam." You can imagine how confused I was when I searched the entire menu and could not find a single clam. I did however find many things to crave.
The Famous Francesinha From a Street Vendor
The Francesinha (translated "little Frenchie") is the Portuguese adaptation of the Croque Monsieur. The sandwich was created by Portuguese chef, Daniel Silva while he was living in France. He brought it back to Portugal and first served it in Porto. This layered sandwich is made with bread, ham, steak or roast meat, and sausage. The sandwich is then covered with melted cheese and a hot, thick, spiced tomato and beer sauce. This is a Porto staple and classic.
From food we shall move to the wines I experienced in Portugal. In my next post, I will share about my travels to the oldest, demarcated wine region in the world - the Douro Valley.