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The Lisbon-born chef behind The Loft Project, Viajante and Chiltern Firehouse takes us through the street maze of his home city in search of goose barnacles, custard tarts, sour cherry liqueur, plates of jamón Ibérico and the best red mullet you’ll ever taste.
Sitting by the river, basking in the late-summer sun of another Lisbon day, mopping up the garlicky puddle of shellfish broth that’s pooled in the bowl where once resided chubby clams: the food memories that come to the fore when Nuno Mendes thinks of Lisbon are plentiful. 'The clams are amazing,' he says. 'They’re incredibly meaty, and so tender – just cooked with olive oil, garlic, coriander and lemon juice. Soaking up the savoury juice with some bread while sitting by the water, drinking beer – this was my upbringing, I grew up eating this.'
Born in Lisbon, Nuno talks of the city in terms of the endless days, the ‘craziness of the old buildings’, a maze of streets, blue skies and the river that passes through en route to the Atlantic – a route taken in the past by an endless stream of Portuguese explorers who were looking for horizons new.
It was a two-way street, with the international cuisine of the city proving inspirational to a young Nuno. 'The thing that excited me the most was food. It sparked my curiosity and ended up as my career, allowing me to wander the world,' he says. 'My father didn’t connect with me in many ways, but we were really close because we both loved food. He clocked how excited I got about food and kept pushing me, taking me to places.
'Because of its mercantile history, Lisbon was pretty amazing when I was growing up: there were Japanese restaurants doing fantastic food, good Goan food, some really nice Chinese – due to our presence in Macau – great Brazilian, Mozambican, East African – every time there was a new place open in town, we’d go and check it out.
'I remember even in those days,' he continues, 'going out at night, walking through the streets and thinking how beautiful it was, how interesting it was, it had so many layers – you never knew what you’d see around the next corner.'
His portrait of Lisbon is made with produce, not paints. 'I first tried red mullet in Lisbon and fell in love with it,' he says. 'I’ve not had the sweetness and shellfish flavour it has anywhere else – the same goes for the clams, the squid, the octopus... Then you have the Sardine Festival – the Feast of St Anthony (patron saint of Lisbon) – and it’s one big party around the city at the beginning of the sardine season. Everywhere you go, there are grilled sardines, just on bread or with roast green pepper salad. They're never filleted – you just munch through them, picking out the bones.'
Fish, insists Nuno, is better in Lisbon. 'It’s the flavour,' he says. 'They’re fighting fish because there are so many waves in those cold waters and also a lot of plankton, so they gain so much flavour and the fattiness to them is really incredible.'
Lisbon isn’t just about its ocean wares, though. 'The produce from Alentejo [the neighbouring region that acts as Lisbon’s kitchen garden] is amazing, but it’s basically peasant food,' he says of local dishes. 'They work with very simple ingredients but create incredible dishes, so flavourful, so unique. We make many things out of bread, and we’ve perfected it. In Alentejo when it’s wild asparagus season, everywhere you go people are having a wet bread board, with loads of asparagus and raw eggs, coriander, garlic, olive oil... It’s really something marvellous.
'They also have some of the best black-footed pigs of anywhere in the country. They feed on acorns, making the meat very special.'
Traditional desserts from the monasteries also make his list. 'Most of the desserts contain cinnamon, sugar, orange and lemon peel – they’re fragrant and spiced,' he says. Toucinho do céu is the classic. It means ‘bacon from heaven’ and is basically a lot of egg yolks, almonds, sugar, cinnamon and little flour.' He also recommends a place to try it: Taberna da Rua das Flores.
And then it’s back to fish. 'Fish are everywhere you go,' explains Nuno. 'The goose barnacles, you find them everywhere. You just sit and eat a plate of them on the beach and it doesn’t cost anything and you know they will have been caught that day.'
Talking of Lisbon takes us back to the start of Nuno's career, when he first left the city to focus on fish, albeit not solely the eating kind. 'When I was 19 I moved to Miami to study marine biology,' he explains. 'I’d cooked at home, but I didn’t see it as a career. There were no schools and it was hard to find a restaurant to train at.
'After the first two years in Miami, I knew it wasn’t for me and a friend introduced me to a cookery school and I fell in love with it. I didn’t know this world existed.
'When I returned to Lisbon, my dad owned a farm, so I helped him out for a time, and then I started looking for other schools. I eventually found one in San Francisco, California – I wanted to experience cooking and living in that part of the world.'
After that, the culinary globetrotting continued apace: Japan, New York, New Mexico,Barcelona, Southeast Asia, London, working for the likes of Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Ferran Adrià, Wolfgang Puck and Rocco DiSpirito. London has been home since 2006, with Nuno first heading up Bacchus in Hoxton, before his pop-up The Loft Project confirmed him as the hottest meal ticket in town, a status that was cemented when he opened Viajante – the Portuguese word for ‘traveller’ – in Bethnal Green. Next came Chiltern Firehouse, which he made into one of the capital’s most exclusive restaurants.
Just over a year ago, he opened in Lisbon. 'It’s always been a dream of mine. I’d known the owners of Bairro Alto Hotel for a long time. They showed me what they were planning to do – a major renovation – and we agreed very quickly to work together.'
The result was the BAHR Restaurant and Bar. 'I didn’t want to bring a bag of tricks to Lisbon and just open it up and say, "look at this, look at this". I wanted to cook things that I couldn't anywhere else. I wanted to use quality ingredients, to cook the red mullet that’s only been out of the water for four hours, the Ibérico, the fish from the Azores.
'The Azores has the most amazing microclimate,' expands Nuno, 'and you get these giant squid, amberjack – incredible fish you simply can’t find anywhere else.
'I wanted to go back and cook recipes that I fell in love with from Alentejo and other parts of Portugal, recipes that tell our story. Like canja, which my grandmother used to feed us. It was only when I went to Asia and found it there [congee] that I started to think about how it travelled. The same with custard tarts in Macau, or tempura and castella cakes in Japan – all were brought from Portugal.'
The restaurant has also given him more opportunities to return to Lisbon. 'I’ve always gone back a lot,' he says. 'I used to come back every other month, now it’s every month.
'I think one of my favourite things to do is just get lost in the old part of the city,' he continues, 'wandering through old neighbourhoods, walking to the riverfront – it’s an amazing place to hang out.
'It’s nice to follow the rhythm of the day. Lisbon people wake up and have a small breakfast, coffee at 9am and a pastry, maybe a custard tart at Pastéis de Belém, the original place for custard tarts, or Manteigaria at Bairro Alto.
'Then, for elevenses it’s a savoury pastry, maybe a prawn turnover or some potato croquettes – you won’t find better ones outside of Lisbon.
'At lunchtime, go to one of the tascas, small restaurants with no more than 15-20 seats maximum that are dotted all over town. Taberna da Rua das Flores is one of my favourites. They’re always packed with workers and there will just be a small menu: grilled cuttlefish with turnip tops and green beans, cod with potatoes, grilled sea bass with a lovely tomato salad, or maybe a really nice Portuguese stew – just simple dishes.
'In the afternoon, maybe try a ginja [sour cherry liqueur] from the back wall of one of the kiosks, then check out all the independent shops, the museums and monuments.
'It’s light until late in the summer, so you might not have pre-dinner drinks until 8 or 9pm. After that, it's on to a seafood restaurant, then the old town bars until 2am, followed by a club – the nightlife goes on until 6 or 7am.'
Adding more touches to his picture of Lisbon, Nuno continues to reel off more dishes and ingredients that Lisbon and Portugal have helped share with the world, from samosas and gelatinous pig’s trotter soups to bao to its passion for coriander – 'we use it more than anyone else in Europe,' he says.
But his main reason for wanting everyone to visit Europe’s second-oldest capital is not just the food, it’s for the feeling of the city.
'Lisbon really is one of the most interesting capitals in the world,' he says. 'I’ve lived in many different places and this city is still incredibly beautiful. It’s got this truly amazing light – it’s the "city of light" – and when you’re in Lisbon, it makes you feel so alive.
'When you get here, you slow down in time and it allows you to take in a deep breath and just forget about the relentless rhythm of everyday life.'
Ramiro My favourite seafood restaurant in Lisbon, this place is legendary. The clams bulhão pato are second to none, and the little prawns from the Algarve, just with a little hit of rock salt, incredible. Follow with a prego (steak sandwich) for your main. Avenida Almirante Reis 1
Taberna da rua das Flores One of my favourite places in Lisbon, this is a simple taberna but with really incredible food. It's super-casual but a really nice typical experience. Go at night
– you don't need to book. The area it's in is cool, too, and worth exploring if you fancy a drink after dinner. Rua das Flores 103
Feitoria This the home of an incredibly talented chef, who is, in my view, the best chef in Portugal – chef João Rodrigues. Expect a tasting menu with lots of amazing produce and a fine-dining setting. Amazing Michelin-starred cuisine. restaurantefeitoria.com
SANTA CLARA 1728 As an alternative to the Bairro Alto Hotel bairroaltohotel.com – which is where BAHR resides – this is a cool place to stay. It's an 18th-century property is right in the old cultural quarter with great views of the river. santaclara1728.com
Words by Alex Mead. Photo by Jamie Orlando Smith.
This interview was taken from the August/September 2020 issue of Food and Travel magazine.
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