On Rua Serpa Pinto, behind the Basílica dos Mártires, looking from the outside like a sleepy bed and breakfast, sits Belcanto. We squint through the net curtains – Lisbon is drenched in sun today – and can’t make out much of anything at all. The door is closed. We shrug and knock – suspense! – and are welcomed inside to a modest, wood-panelled room, where we park ourselves in the corner. Looking back at the window, the sun hitting the white stone outside creates a hazy, dreamlike glow, drifting down through the glass.
We take a quick trip to the kitchen – diners can observe its goings on through a large window – and sure enough, he’s there, supervising Saturday lunch. He’s 35 years old and in the place that earned him his first Michelin star within a year of its opening. Its second followed last year. The last time I saw José Avillez he was in a snowbound hotel in Lancashire, singing merrily with a bunch of other internationally renowned chefs. Today he’s supervising the alchemy that goes on at Belcanto, the highest point of a culinary empire that includes five other eateries.
Let me say this: at Belcanto I consumed 16 courses and tried about a dozen wines. It took three and a half hours. If I skip a few in the telling – and let me be absolutely clear about this – it’s not because they weren’t good. They were all unfailingly tremendous, sometimes bafflingly so. I just don’t have the word count, and you don’t have the patience, to indulge me in retelling each one.
At the outset, a tiny log arrives for each of us, upon which are nestled the exploding olives made famous by Ferran Adrian at El Bulli (and explained quite splendidly in this video). They’re unlike anything I’ve put in my mouth before, and that’s a pretty big sample size. They’re followed up by a shot of ginginha (cherry liqueur), though somehow this has been made solid. A pickled carrot speeds by and soon another signature bit of Avillez magic is upon us: the Ferrero Rocher filled with foie gras. Don’t ask me how, or even why. I don’t even like foie gras, but these are an ingenious concoction, rich and smoky and resting on chocolate sand. Everything that comes is small, everything is the product of precise technical wizardry, and everything tastes superb.
By this point the wines are starting to make their presence felt. The majority are white, a few sparkle, and most are from Portugal. Nuno Oliveira e Silva is the sommelier and the pairings are very thoughtful throughout, but the passion for each wine extends through all of the waiting staff. We’re polishing off a particularly fruity number when my dining partner’s favourite course arrives: ‘Porthole’ is a collection of exquisitely fresh seafood, presented on a kitsch plate that looks like, well, a porthole. It doesn’t tip into gimmickry like Heston Blumenthal’s iPod-toting Sound of the Sea – instead it’s simple a delight, one of those dishes that you feel sad to disassemble.
The next couple of dishes are back-to-back knockouts – corn porridge with smoked eel and bone marrow, pure comfort, followed by something called ‘The Garden of the Goose that Laid the Golden Eggs’. It’s a shimmering, perfectly suspended yolk, covered in gold, sitting amidst crunchy bread and mushrooms. I have no idea. It’s dreamlike. We’re still puzzling it out when hot on its heels come little lettuce-swaddled veal hearts with walnuts and bacon. I mean, my god. Portuguese pot-au-feu is up next, a brothy, healthy-feeling treat. Some outrageously fresh-tasting sea bass swings by, called ‘A Dip in the Sea’. I’m now in double figures for courses, I should be rolling around clutching something but I feel marvellous, and now José springs forth with his take on suckling pig; an orange compote and miniature salad streak down the middle of the plate – to its left, a square of delicate pork which a waiter kindly drizzles in sauce for me. To its right, a clear bag of homemade crisps. The bag is edible. We’ve been here three hours and we look across the table at each other, each of us munching on a bag.
The desserts are glorious – concoctions of citrus, pumpkin, and a chocolate tree. Weary, euphoric smiles abound in Belcanto. A deep, rich port has replaced the collection of empty wine glasses, and if it’s possible to relax further, we do, as the sun sinks low enough to throw its light into the ceiling’s highest corners. Nobody wants to leave. Coffee gives us an excuse to linger and try to process the epic that just played out in front of us. José Avillez is a technical master, there’s no doubt about that, but there’s such warmth behind each dish, playing on Portuguese staples and always foregrounding fresh, local ingredients. That’s what makes a 3-hour meal refreshing and invigorating, rather than heavy and overwhelming. As a restaurant it’s truly expressive, and simply a must-visit for lovers of fine food passing through Lisbon.
Belcanto is the first double Michelin-starred restaurant in Lisbon. In 2015, it was listed as one of the top 100 restaurants in the world. For more information, including details of the many wines Tom sampled, visit www.belcanto.pt.