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“You can do modern Portuguese cuisine without killing the past,” says José Avillez, whose passion for food has spawned a batch of five restaurants in less than three years in the Chiado neighborhood of Lisbon’s Old Quarter — each with a different concept and personality.
“Portuguese cuisine is based on stories and history,” says Avillez. “We’re a small country with many regions and different flavors and seasonings. Our kitchen is inspired by these regions, from the sea and the countryside to a more urban culture, but it’s not a substitute for the original, it’s an addition to it. You have to maintain the traditions and gastronomic soul of a country and that means flavor and textures.”
As an example, the 34-year-old chef offers an “edible cocktail” of white port, tonic water and a frozen cocoa-butter ball. “It’s a new inspiration that has everything, including the fact that you can eat port wine. It’s a different concept like seafood and pine nuts that for me are meant to be together,” he says.
Avillez, a disciple of revolutionary Spanish chef Ferran Adrià and his restaurant El Bulli, adds, “You have to do inspiration your way, but Ferran was a big influence. He changed my life, especially in terms of options.
“Portugal has its own identity and it’s very important to respect and maintain it. We have a Mediterranean climate and cuisine. Cod is the most emblematic ingredient and market-fresh vegetables, fish and seafood are basic.”
Avillez spends 80 percent of his time in Belcanto, his most acclaimed eaterie, across the street from Lisbon’s 18th-century Opera House, “because the creative brains and a small laboratory are here.” So are two kitchens and 25 cooks. “It’s quite an orchestra, everyone knows what to do — and they don’t talk much,” clarifies Monica Bessone, Avillez’s public relations director.
Belcanto’s two dining rooms reopened in 2012 under Avillez’s tutelage and it earned him a Michelin star within a year. (There are only two other starred chefs in Portugal). “It’s fine dining, but not too pretentious because people aren’t looking for formal,” he says. With vaulted ceilings in a soothing pale pink, grained-wood panels, a wall of wines and black leather-tufted banquettes, the restaurant has a clubby British feel.
It’s not easy to describe Avillez’s cuisine because nothing is what it appears. Think air and irony — and that’s just the beginning. Specialties include a mackerel belly starter; baby carrots and turnips in clotted buffalo milk; raw shrimp with walnut emulsion, and a
suckling pig that’s slow-cooked for 72 hours. French-fried potatoes are boiled before frying, and desserts include a frozen tangerine juice sorbet the size of a small baseball, and jellied olive oil, chocolate truffles and cookies from the coastal town of Cascais, where Avillez was born, tucked in a gift box.
In Cascais, and taking a page from Adrià, Avillez helms a takeout and catering service. “After 13 years, I’m still growing as a cook and trying for something different all the time,” he says. “Every new concept comes about because I have the feeling we should be doing more. I think it’s safe to say customers weren’t expecting this kind of creativity.”
How did he manage to convince them? “It’s a big challenge,” he says. “We have to deliver a special experience. The best way to maintain a clientele is quality and the team is ready and on the job up to 16 hours a day. People need to come and taste for themselves. Press and social media are important, but after critical appraisal is word-of-mouth. And the details, lighting and music are important, too.”
Largo de Sao Carlos, 10 Lisboa
Closed Sunday and Monday
For Friday and Saturday dinner reservations, Avillez suggests booking three weeks in advance.
Lunch or dinner for two, 150 to 200 euros, or $205 to $275 at current exchange, without tip.