Nuno Mendes knows what he’s doing. He worked for elBulli when it was the hottest kitchen in the world, combining art and science to change the way we think about modern cooking. He opened a gastro-pub in Hoxton just when it was dawning on regular joes like you and I that pub food could be more than six pints in a Toby Carvery.
By the time Mendes opened the wonderful Viajante in the Bethnal Green Town Hall, he was already established as one of the top chefs in the country. Next came a stint at Chiltern Firehouse, where he helped create a world-renowned ‘it’ restaurant famed for its crab doughnuts and beloved of the Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame.
Earlier this year, reading the prevailing winds of the restaurant zeitgeist, he opened Lisboeta in Fitzrovia, a paean to his home country of Portugal, which manages to effortlessly lay the template for what high-end casual dining should look like.
Located on Fitzrovia’s Charlotte Street, ground zero for hot new London openings, it’s surprisingly big, the slim row of tables on the ground floor belying the long, bustling dining room upstairs, whose exposed brickwork is offset with copious greenery and decorated with artwork celebrating all things Lisbon.
I was meeting my father there on a Wednesday afternoon seven months after it opened and it was buzzy enough that you couldn’t hear the people at the next table, which was just as well because a terrible quirk of fate meant I was seated next to my boss – I wouldn’t wish my father’s conversation on anyone, least of all the person responsible for signing off my pay cheques. Thankfully there’s an infectiously laissez-faire atmosphere at Lisboeta, and this potential social hand grenade failed to detonate.
This atmosphere is also reflected in the cuisine, if not the prices. There’s a sharing concept, of course, so we started with a delicate little pile of confit cod hidden beneath a wild tangle of crispy potato, and two Mr Kipling-sized pork pies housing subtly Goan-spiced, slow-cooked pork, and draped with a translucent sliver of jamon that was so deliciously fatty as to be virtually liquid. The former was great but it’s the latter that still invades the quiet moments of my life a week later.
Then came an extremely decadent mushroom açorda, a dish made by Mendes as a kind of garlicky bread paste, with meaty chunks of mushroom lurking amid bubbles of olive oil, and I wished we had kept some of the less thinly-sliced bread from earlier to scoop it up with (although that would probably be deemed an unforgivable culinary sin in Lisbon).
After that we shared a thick red prawn and seafood rice dish called arroz de marisco, delivered in a utilitarian metal pan and served with the decapitated heads of the prawns now submerged within. The heads are there so you can squeeze in the precious green brain juice, which adds a potent tang of the ocean to this beguiling stew. The heads also bring a welcome bit of theatre, although beware pointing them in the wrong direction, lest you get a lap-full of ganglia.
I was ready to call it quits after that but the waiter insisted we try the abade de priscos, an egg yolk and pork fat custard served in a shallow pool of deep red port caramel – and my goodness it’s worth extending your meal for. The rich, unmistakably animal taste turns an otherwise simple affair into something you’ll be booking a repeat visit to try again.
This is a fabulous restaurant, able to equally wow a 40-year-old food writer and his 70-year-old father. Lisbon is one of the great food cities but there can’t be many chefs crafting its cuisine with such fluency and care as Lisboeta. Nuno Mendes knows what he’s doing.
• To book go to lisboeta.co.uk