Belcanto, a symbol of Portuguese haute cuisine, has put that country in the spotlight on the world gourmet stage. Meet the restaurant’s chef, José Avillez.
When you arrive in front of Belcanto at Largo de São Carlos in Lisbon, you must ring the doorbell, as though you were about to enter the home of Chef José Avillez. It’s true that, out of his 18 restaurants, it’s here, in the intimate ambiance this two-Michelin-star institution decorated in local colors, that you feel most surrounded by his creativity. “Belcanto is an extension of my living room. This is the place where I can go the furthest with my history and Portuguese identity,” he explains.
He remembers it as though it was yesterday: 2011, that auspicious year when he struck out on his own by buying up and taking over Belcanto, a traditional restaurant that first opened in 1954. The gourmet dining scene in his country was sluggish back then. “Portugal was just starting to come out of the economic crisis and there were very few chef-led restaurants other than in a few big hotels,” he recalls. Avillez’s takeover of the establishment thus marked a turning point that can be effectively measured in studying the delectable Lisboan tasting menu, a kind of a retrospective of his work of the last eight years.
Guests are welcomed with a Dirty Elderini, a cocktail made with vermouth, elder liqueur, tonic water, and an “explosive olive,” based on the spherification technique – a tribute to Ferran Adrià and his famous El Bulli restaurant, where Avillez did an internship in 2007. The procession of amuse-bouches that follows is first savored by the eyes: tuna tartar cones hidden in a small pot of (real) flowers, originally created in 2016 for the chef’s wedding held in his own restaurant, or “stones” of chickpea and cod, two favorite ingredients in Portuguese cuisine, a nod to the traditional Lisbon sidewalk. It is hard not to think twice about eating these pretty little “pebbles,” but once the rocks are between the teeth, all regret vanishes!
The banquet continues with revisited classics from local culinary tradition, including the crisp and tender roast Bairrada suckling pig served with a lettuce-hearts salad and orange dressing. The star of the “Mergulho no mar” dish is fish cooked sous-vide at low temperature and served in mussels jus, awakening the flavor suggested by its name: “a dive into the sea” in English. A delight that is seasoned with nothing but a few drops of lemon juice. You will simply not get enough.
Ninety percent of the products are domestic, including the wines, meats, fish, and seafood. “It’s very important to promote our country, but without being closed to others, either. The Portuguese were great navigators who brought back ingredients and techniques from over 50 countries,” he reminds us.