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robert camuto: letter from europe

Lisbon’s Modern Flavors

Tasting Europe’s newest culinary capital
Robert Camuto returns from Portugal with a newfound appreciation for Lisbon's excitingly original cuisine and wines.

Posted: Jun 22, 2015 12:00pm ET

Less than a day into a long weekend trip to Lisbon, strolling down a wide sun-splashed boulevard, I came to a conclusion: "I could live here."

"Why?" asked my wife (who knows me too well). "Because it's a sunny place with great food, and you can drink wine all day?"

Well, yeah. 

Portugal's capital is Europe's latest urban bloomer, with a new generation of chefs—still under 40—enlivening southern Portugal's seafood- and olive oil–based cuisine with modern techniques and a lighter touch. Lisbon (see my travel article, "Lisbon's New Dawn," in the July 31 issue of Wine Spectator) is now a great place to eat beautiful food full of intense flavors and drink complex, varied wines at a fraction of the prices in most of the continent. 

Gastronomic booms often go hand in hand with wine. And, of course, Portugal's wine scene is exploding with higher and higher quality.

Though the Douro (named for the river that cuts through that ancient, legendary wine region of steep-terraced vineyards in northern Portugal) has led the push to produce stellar sought-after wines, the country's culinary renaissance is centered nearly 200 miles south, at the mouth of the Tagus river in hip, bustling Lisbon. 

Lisbon's cuisine is the result of a long history of fusion that blossomed here some 500 years ago when Portuguese explorers returned home with new foods and spices including potatoes, tomatoes, coffee, tea, curry, coriander and pepper. That spirit of adventure lives on. 

The tone for our long weekend exploration of Lisbon was set on the Thursday night of our arrival, with a 10 p.m. reservation. 

Lisbonites generally start dinner around 8 or 9 p.m., but most restaurants and bistros take reservations at 10 or later. 

The place was Frade dos Mares, a small, modern seafood restaurant that was buzzing with casually dressed Lisbon diners packed elbow to elbow at 12 tables. 

We wanted a red wine that could pair with seafood, and when I asked our waiter for help, he looked lost. He sent over another waiter—the one who buys the restaurant's wines—who expertly guided us through the first of many strange-looking wine lists on our trip. 

Lisbon wine lists are dominated by Portuguese wines. With 29 appellations packed into this small country and dozens of grapes you've never heard of, navigating them requires some help. 

The bottom of the wine price range in most restaurants is about $12 to $22; here you'll generally find fruity, quaffable whites, reds and some rosés, usually from the bargain regions of southern Portugal around Lisbon. 

The top of the wine lists could be called The Douro's Greatest Hits, and here you'll find top wines like Quinta do Vale Meão's Douro 2011 (Wine Spectator's No. 4 wine on the 2014 Top 100) for a little over $200.

In between these two extremes things get very interesting. 

Our wine-savvy waiter guided us to the elegant, velvety 2005 Quinta da Falorca Touriga Nacional Dão, at 50 euros. The wine was served ever-so-slightly chilled with a plate of traditional lagareiro-style octopus roasted with an intensely fragrant mix of green olive oil, garlic, onions and cilantro. For me, Dão wines, including whites from the Encruzado grape, were generally the most memorable: Elegant and medium-bodied, they hit a sweet spot and paired terrifically with the cuisine. 

Over the next few days we ate in wine bars, a classic steak house and modern avant-garde restaurants topped by José Avillez's Belcanto. Even here in Lisbon's 2 Michelin–starred culinary tower, we found a casual sort of ease and humor, beginning with an unforgettable amuse bouche of an "inverted martini"—a small crystal glass of olive juice floating a olive-shaped sphere of gin. 

Across Lisbon in neighborhoods that ranged from chic to funky, we drank some surprising wines—from Campolargo's smoky, white made from the Cercial grape in the Bairrada appellation to a fruity, southern regional Alentejano red blend from the producer Bombeira do Guadiana. 

Discovery is what's so refreshing about Lisbon: You can do lots of research and preparation, but you still won't know what to expect until you taste.

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