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Av. Alm. Reis 1 H,
BY NEAL MARTIN | APRIL 21, 2023
Clams in garlic and parsley
Edible crab with crab mayonnaise
Citron sorbet, cheesecake and Morgado do
2018 Buçaco Branco Reservado 92
Lisbon has become a must-see European destination. Practically everyone I know returns, eulogizing Portugal’s capital, and vowing to go back at the earliest opportunity. Enough was enough - time to see what the fuss is about for myself.
Like Rome, the heart of the city is draped over seven hills, and indeed, the Romans named it Olissipo due to their similarities. Its highest hill, Sao Jorge, is crowned with the crenelated walls of the Castelo St. Jorge, surrounding red-tiled townhouses cascading down to the yawning Tagus River that feeds into the Atlantic. Lisbon’s famous colorful, ornately designed ceramic tiles cover entire facades and constantly stop you in your tracks. Cobbled, uneven pavements are like Roman mosaics. Streets echo with clanging rickety trams and funiculars. Pastelarias bustle with customers devouring irresistible patéis de nata. (The best I stumble upon is Manteigaria - the pastry a little lighter and the filling creamier.) No wonder that even during the off-season in February, Lisbon’s narrow streets throng with tourists, by the voices I hear, particularly French, English and American. Perhaps Lisbon is a little ramshackle and timeworn? Maybe a bit dirty, even grimy in some places? Yet, it’s a bulwark against gentrification and thereby retains its unique character and charm, which is why many advise visiting now before it’s too late. I hope the encroaching homogeneity of modernity is not this city’s fate, though ominously, I notice a great deal of construction work in the heart of Lisbon.
The Cervejaria Ramiro interior
Lisbon is a foodie paradise, not least for pescatarians. Its dining scene is so dynamic that after sage advice from a local, I altered every pre-booked dinner the day before departure. Be warned: you will want to dine at nearly every restaurant you walk past! Those wishing to sample local cuisines more conveniently can drop in at Time Out Market in Cais do Sodré, where 26 vendors and eight bars congregate under one roof. Choose what you fancy and carry your dish to one of the long tables in the central courtyard. It’s a Mecca for tourists and an efficient way to sample local cuisines.
My first port of call, Cervejaria Ramiro, is a Lisbon institution. It has been around since the 1950s. The late Anthony Bourdain dropped in to film an episode of his show here. Located on a major thoroughfare, it is larger than anticipated, with no free tables on an unseasonably warm evening. There’s a lively atmosphere, the din of animated conversation punctured by raucous laughter. Suffice it to say, it’s probably not the ideal rendezvous for a quiet, romantic date. Staff seems to consist entirely of men in branded pale blue shirts that are occasionally a little brusque in manner, but that’s probably because of the hectic pace. I have read elsewhere that you cannot book a table, though I was able to reserve one myself on a Wednesday night. I suspect that might not be possible during busy weekends.
Dishes at Ramiro revolve around crustacea rather than fish, a cornucopia of shrimps, prawns, crab, langoustines, clams and lobsters. Basically, if it’s got a shell, then it has crawled onto the menu. If it has gills and a fin, better to try a restaurant like Sea Me.
Edible crab with crab mayonnaise
We commence with half-dozen fresh oysters served with a quartered lemon. These are subtle in flavor, sweeter and less saline than others, and delicious as they slip down the throat with ease. Steamed clams come with obligatory white wine and garlic. I feel this dish could be a little more generous - too many clams parted from their shells.
Crab is one of Ramiro’s specialties. You can opt to have it served without the shell, but that takes away the ritual of smashing the claws and prizing out the white meat. The crab meat is among the freshest I’ve encountered and comes with a scrumptious crab/mayo sauce. Granted, it makes a bloody great mess, and the amount of crab meat is a bit paltry, considering the effort. But if you love crab, Ramiro should definitely be on your list.
We have to order the scarlet shrimp, known as carabineros in Portugal and Spain, and crevette impérial in France. They are fished in east Atlantic waters and, as their name infers, are limpid scarlet in color, renowned for their relatively large size and robust flavors. These are magnificent. The meat is sweeter and more succulent than your usual shrimp, meatier than I am accustomed to and with a deliriously long aftertaste. Superb.
Morgado do Bussaco
Desserts might be an afterthought, but these are highly recommended. The cocktail glass of citron sorbet comes with a generous glug of vodka, though the spirit is indiscernible. This is vibrant and sharp, revivifying the senses. The raspberry cheesecake has a wonderful consistency, like something your mum would rustle up, a bit rustic and all the better for it. The traditional dessert from Barriada, Morgado do Bussaco, boasts a generous sprinkling of crunchy walnuts that combine beautifully layered pancakes and egg whites. I don’t want to think of how many calories I ingested.
The wine list is brief and perfunctory. If
you seek a comprehensive list of Portuguese vino, then this is not the place to
come. However, I immediately spot one of the country’s most iconic and, until
recently, elusive wines for way below-market price, the 2018 Branco Reservado
from Buçaco. The estate was incepted at the beginning of the 19th
century when Alexandre de Almeida had the
novel idea of combining his luxury hotel, the Bussaco Palace in the mountainous
north Coimbra (depicted on the label), with its own bijou parcel of vines and
unique wine. Almeida purposefully kept it out of the limelight, though news
leaked, and over ensuing decades, he stealthily built a loyal following that
continues to this day. A tasting of mature vintages a few years back proved its
longevity and explained why they cost a pretty penny. This 2018 is arguably
infanticide, but a pleasurable one. It is initially arresting thanks to its
smoky, almost oxidative trait on both the nose and palate. It jars the senses. Over
the course of a couple of hours, it coalesces and gains complexity, with scents
of green olives, shucked oyster shells and sea spray, not a million miles away
from Muscadet. The palate is beautifully balanced, edgy and very saline, not
complex yet focused and poised. That green olive theme continues commingling with
Anjou pear and hazelnut. It is difficult to resist another sip or order a
Cervejaria Ramiro is the ideal way to commence your Lisbon epicurean odyssey. As the taxi driver put it on the way back, it’s a favorite with locals because it lacks pretentiousness and offers value for the money. There are plenty more sophisticated restaurants, such as the subject of my next Vinous Table, but this beloved Lisbon restaurant should be on your to-do list.
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