TThe waiter’s evening offering at Lisboeta had all the chef’s hallmarks. “Nuno would love you to try the lard with port caramel,” he said, in a way that suggested chef and patron Nuno Mendes, the good-natured disruptor of Portuguese cuisine in Britain, hadn’t really left me a choice.
I didn’t want pork fat pudding. I wasn’t quite sure at the beginning of the meal whether I wanted razor clam and black pudding on toast—it tasted like musky armpits—but on both occasions I found myself nodding my head in agreement, as Mendes’ restaurants are always wildly and wildly educational Journey. He has become famous on the British food scene over the past decade and is loved for his shaggy, avuncular charm that masks a passionate mischief in his kitchen, as well as a noble drive to enlighten Britain via the piri-piri and pastel-de- Nata approach out to Portugal. If Mendes cracked down and just dished up spicy chicken, croquettes and squid, he’d probably be richer than gods, but instead he insists on salted, room-temperature slivers of amberjack with orange and onion or wild mushrooms in yolk bread sauce alongside plates of spicy feta from the Serra da Arrábida.
“A piece of deeply personal Portugal”: Lisboeta’s chanfana with lamb.
And lest everything get a little wobbly and unstructured, at least for the British palate, there’s Coombeshead farm bread with bright pink whipped pork fat to wipe the plate down. Every dish at Lisboeta has a story from each waiter about their mother, grandmother or great aunt who cooked that exact egg yolk sauce or chanfana lamb stew every Sunday because Mendes has created a deeply personal slice of Portugal here, and the staff can’t do it themselves help. So as you begin with the chanfana — a dark bowl of lamb shoulder slowly simmered in red wine with beet tops and chunks of bread — they draw in to share stories from their childhoods. The emotion is kind of draining, but Grace Jones and The Clash were playing loud in the bathroom, so I hid there occasionally.
Lisboeta’s GOan Seasoned Roast Pork: “Lovely…but the size of a baby’s hand.”
On a Monday evening in the middle of spring, Lisboeta was packed because wherever Mendes goes, the food crowd follows him. He was once the chef at the Chiltern Firehouse, which is sort of a celebrity safari park, which I always thought was an odd attitude because Mendes was genuinely interested in cooking and the clientele only cared to stare at each other at the table and hope Romeo Beckham or Lindsay to see Lohan. Mendes brought the intensity of Ferran Adrià – who he cites as an influence – and his clientele pushed lettuce leaves around their plates while uploading toilet selfies. Mendes then opened Viajante, where guests first saw his true passion for presenting Portugal, but with Japanese, Iberian and South American influences. Later, at Mãos, he offered an intense, three-hour, seasonal tasting menu to just 16 people at a time. In comparison, Lisboeta feels like a breezier, more down-to-earth place. It’s not remotely cheap: this very delicious, deeply filling lamb stew costs £44 for two, although a single hungry person could easily destroy it; A side of Charlotte potatoes costs an additional £6. A delightful, crumbly, Goa-spiced pork pie is the size of a baby’s palm and costs £3 a bite.
However, as restaurant rents and bills rise, I’m becoming increasingly accustomed to the fact that dishes that are stretched, styled, and written on feel much larger than they are when you remove the sheets and garnish. There are hits and misses in Lisboeta, but I certainly learned more about authentic Portuguese food. Do I like the wobbly, pig-like, milky egg yolk pudding on a bed of blood red port caramel? Not special. It tastes exactly like it sounds: like a bacon and bird trifle. But do I support Mendes’ relentless drive to serve him? Yes I will. From the bottom of my heart. It’s tough out there for underdogs these days and we have to applaud them. Although the bacalhau à brás — cod confit with caramelized onions and potatoes — tastes just like one of those 1980s cod batches we cooked in bags.
Bacalhau à brás (salted cod, onions, matchstick fried potatoes, all bound with egg) as served in Lisboeta. Photo: Karen Robinson/The Observer
Despite all these things, Lisboeta is an intimate, gently challenging attempt to bring Portugal’s vibrant traditions to British palates, with Mendes offering his trademark tongue-in-cheek tricks at the helm. There are far worse places to order a white port and tonic and half a dozen pork pies while watching London’s food scene go by. The service is charming and fast, the music is great and Mendes will most likely be behind the pass as there is no doubt that he cares deeply about his restaurants. His pork pudding will definitely be featured in restaurant reviews by the end of 2022. And rightly so. It was unforgettable.
Lisbon, 30 Charlotte Street, London W1, 020-3830 9888. Open Mon-Tue 5.30pm-11pm, Wed-Sat 12pm-11.30pm, Sun 12pm-5pm. About £75 a head, plus drinks and service.