It’s been two years since the last time the American In Portugal dynamic duo (my fabulous food photographer friend Rochelle Ramos and myself) paid a visit to Peixe em Lisboa. Translated to “Fish In Lisbon”, this is the capital’s most known local food and wine event, featuring chefs and restaurants from in and around the greater Lisbon area, showcasing the region’s love of fresh (and majority local) fish and seafood in both traditional and modern/fusion dishes. Each year, a group of known chefs and restaurants are invited to participate, along with other local wine and food vendors, and some have become repeats over the years while others rotate in and out. The first time we went to Peixe em Lisboa in 2012 with fellow Lisbon guide Mary H. Goudie , we interviewed the then, up and coming Chef José Avillez and sampled several of his dishes, along with some tasty stuff from 100 Maneiras, which I chronicled on here in “Peixe Em Lisboa “Lisbon Fish & Flavors”-A Portuguese Gastronomic Event That Deserves More”. We decided to return the following year and this time I featured our experience on Catavino- “Peixe em Lisboa: Exploring Restaurant SeaMe in Lisbon” where we interviewed Filipe Rodrigues, another innovative chef who had been cooking up some amazingly delicious fusion fish and seafood dishes at SeaMe. After taking a year off from the event in 2014, we got a good reminder to return this year from the improved social media advertising the event has been getting more recently. So we conceded to come back and see if Peixe was still fun the third time around. And indeed it was!
For Peixe em Lisboa 2015, we decided to turn to a classic Portuguese restaurant to feature, and managed to snag an interview with Chef Manuela Brandão of Pap’Açorda. Co-owned surprisingly by American actor John Malkovich, Pap’Açorda is one of the most well-known traditional Portuguese restaurants in downtown Lisbon, and has been in business since 1981! With successfully surviving over three decades, the restaurant has really carved out a notch in the city’s food culture, serving up its namesake açorda– a traditional Portuguese dish similar to stuffing, normally made with seafood or saltcod (along with a meat variation done there), as well as many more classic Lisbon fish and seafood dishes and a very famous chocolate mousse. Though it’s a bit pricey for a traditional style restaurant, locals continue to praise it and had always assured me that it’s worth the money to go and enjoy this historical Lisbon food icon. Thus, I was curious to find out!
Chef Manuela, who has been at Pap’Açorda since the beginning, also continues to express the same passion and enthusiasm for cooking as when she started there over 30 years ago. Although a bit shy at first, she warmed up to us and explained how she normally prefers to stay behind the scenes and focus on her craft, rather than playing to the media. This probably explains why we had never heard of her name in the restaurant industry here, despite her being an integral part of such a known Lisbon eatery. As exampled in her dishes, Manuela likes to keep it simple and delicious, letting the local/seasonal ingredients speak for themselves, which is one of the best features of traditional Portuguese cuisine.
First we sampled their cavala alimada- a cold salad dish of Atlantic chub mackerel marinated with a simple garlic and red onion vinaigrette, it’s a great method to smooth out the stronger flavor of the mackerel.
Next, we tried one of their breaded sardine fillets, a not-so-traditional preparation for a traditional Lisbon fish, yet simple and satisfying. The light citrus salad Manuela paired with it was also a nice contrast to the rich flavor of the sardine.
Thirdly, we dug into Pap’Açorda’s take on the traditional Portuguese fried fish fillets with seafood rice, but instead of using the typical pescada– hake, Chef Manuela opted for peixe Galo– John Dory fillets and mixed in fresh local berbigões– cockles into the rice. This created a much smoother and more satisfying flavor on an otherwise ordinary dish, it ended up being my favorite out of the fish dishes at the entire event.
It was refreshing to meet a female Portuguese chef that has managed to do so well for so long, yet she hasn’t seem to have gotten nearly as much credit as her male counterparts in the industry here. I think this is a shame in some ways, because we need to see more talented female chefs not just here in Lisbon, but in the global restaurant industry overall. Here in Portugal, it’s a common fact that the majority of the typical Portuguese tascas– the traditional family restaurants that always put out simple, delicious food- do so well because of the powerhouse female cooks in the back pumping out this great stuff day after day. And they are not making anywhere near as much money or getting as much appreciation as the known male chefs in the cities’ fine-dining establishments, and who rarely stay in business half as many years as these tascas. Pap’Açorda then appears to be one of the few, high-end restaurants that has managed to have maintained the same lifespan as a reliable tasca, and perhaps this is because of humble, focused female chefs like Manuela. Girl power!
In a heavenly finale to our tasting, we tried Manuela’s signature chocolate mousse. While this dish wouldn’t outwardly appear to be traditionally Portuguese, it’s actually quite a staple in the cuisine here, and I have tried many a chocolate mousse over the years at various birthday parties, picnics, family dinners etc. However, this one was BY FAR THE BEST chocolate mousse I have ever had, anywhere in the world! And I am normally not a big chocolate mousse fan either, but both Rochelle and I, as well as our other friends who had joined us, gobbled down Manuela’s mousse like it was our last meal! It most definitely lived up to its hype, and has obviously contributed to Pap’Açorda’s continued fame.
I really enjoyed talking with Chef Manuela, she was wonderfully down-to-earth and honest. When asked what she thought of the other restaurants and chefs here, she said she liked them all and couldn’t pick out a favorite. She told me: “We all work in this industry together and we have happily traded our dishes with each other to sample during the event, it’s like family.” It was so nice to hear such an experienced chef say something like this, one who thankfully has not lost her sense of humility and compassion. After such a great experience, I look forward to visiting Chef Manuela at Pap’Açorda in the near future to sample the rest of the menu, and I hope she keeps up that spirit!
Overall, we enjoyed our time at Peixe em Lisboa, we sampled some wines from both José Maria da Fonseca, the event’s main wine sponsor, as well as from some of the other local wineries. The ticketing like I mentioned in the first year is still a bit silly with only one wine and one food tasting, but one can still work with it and purchase more tastings during the event if they wish. And whether traditional or modern, I hope Peixe em Lisboa continues to showcase Lisbon’s great restaurants and Portugal’s love for fresh fish!
Peixe em Lisboa- I think we’ll be back next year!
Andrea and Rochelle