Restaurante O Murta, Faro, Portugal

This place was a very lucky find and a huge treat.  We dug this one out of an old guidebook and, after much arguing and discussion with the cab driver, who had no idea it existed, we were happy to arrive.  You need one word and one word only to dine magnificently here:  cataplana.  I freely admit to not previously being aware of this transcendent dish:

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Another angle

Cataplana!

O ye of fishy savor

Of all the salt and wind of the sea

Of all the earthy flavor of plant and seed

Of all the dreams I’ve yet to dream

Cataplana, “oh, sim!”

I’ll have the Cataplana, please.

I just made that up, but you should follow the instructions and order Cataplana and be happy to wait for such perfection to be delivered to your table.  It is a traditional dish of assorted seafood and vegetables such as peppers, onions, and potatoes.  And, like many traditional dishes, one that is far too overlooked lately.  As a huge paella fanatic, I must admit that if the Portuguese ever figure it out, they’ll give the Spaniards a run for their saffron-flavored money with Cataplana.

The owners here have been doing this for a long time:  thirty-plus years, as the patriarch of the family told me.  The service is very homey – they only serve dishes that make them proud to smile, and generally eat exactly what you do.  As in, you will see them around the corner chomping away on their own portion, if you, like us, go too late.  For my money, Murta runs like a well-tuned instrument:  each note is perfectly tuned with each inch and you almost cannot go wrong ordering any combination on the menu.

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The bacalhau wasn’t bad either!

I already wrote a poem here.  What else do you want to know?  In the last several months the Cataplana is probably the best meal I have had, whether Barcelona, Sevilla, Lisbon, New York, LA, Zurich, Geneva, DC, Chicago, or Miami, this little granny-ran hole in the wall in the south of Portugal beat them all.  So, go!

Rua Infante Dom Henrique 136, 8000-256 Faro, Portugal 

Cervejaria Romiro, Lisbon, Portugal

This is the kind of place that causes you to continue giving hyped spots a chance.  Each time you think you’ve had it with what the crowd tells you, there’s a Romiro.

Famous for its seafood, that is what you will eat.  The waiters come around with digitized menus in several languages on iPads.  Items are listed by kilo weight, but you don’t order that way.  You just tell them what you want and for how many humans, and they do the estimating for you.  And don’t worry, they actually estimate perfectly.  Unlike with American spots, which I’ve found tend to constantly over-estimate in an attempt to run up the bill, Europeans (at least Portuguese, Spanish, and French) tend to value your experience over that of the house.  I don’t recall being asked how I wanted things prepared, which is fine because the chef chose “perfectly” as the cooking method.

Will you wait in line to get in here?  Yes.  Even the footballer who thought he could game the system was shuffled back into line.  But that line will move quickly and there is a fine reward at the end of it, rather unlike most lines I’ve tolerated.  You will be pleased.

One final note:  apparently I did it wrong by failing to order a “prego” at the end of the meal.  Don’t fail me.  Make up for my error and get one of these tiny little beef sandwiches that are said to be exquisite.

Cervejaria Ramiro, Avenida Almirante Reis No. 1-H, 1150-007, Lisboa, Portugal

Mercado do Campo de Ourique, Lisbon, Portugal

I never would have found this place on my own.  Many thanks to a group of locals that invited my friends and I along to watch the Euro Cup final match, pitting Portugal against France.  And a hell of a time, it was!

This is along the lines of the many food markets you see around the world that mixes fresh items with stalls or bars that cook/prepare food.  Something like Barcelona’s Boqueria or New York’s Chelsea Market.  For the Euro Cup final, they set up several televisions, including a huge projection screen.  We sampled many of the wares – from slow roasted pork reminiscent of Cuban lechón, to sushi, burgers, and a gorgeous Portuguese charcuterie board – everything was on point.  The wine purveyor had a great selection from several regions of Portugal and nifty little vinyl bags he would fill with ice to keep things cool.

Needless to say that after Portugal triumphed, there was much dancing, singing, kissing, and the beer flowed and flowed . . . free of charge of course.  Having had a great experience here during a very hectic, overly-packed moment, I would highly suggest any gastronomy fan to pay it a visit.

Mercado do Campo de Ourique, Rua Coelho da Rocha 104, 1350-074, Lisbon, Portugal

Arcano Restaurant, Barcelona, Spain

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Blink and you might miss the entrance to Arcano

The Argies are coming, the Argies are coming!!  And here you thought Messi was the only Argentinian of note in Barcelona.  Not so!  The Argentinian community in Barcelona should be proud to have Arcano as one of its standard bearers.

Sometimes you just need a steak.  I was feeling a bit run down from some intense workouts and non-stop travel, walking (and walking, and walking), and just feeling the general travel malaise that pops up after you’ve been mostly talking to yourself for days.  So I decided to go for the Palermo cure:  a perfectly cooked bife, served as only Argentinians can.

Now, I don’t normally recount my full experience in this space.  Rather, I prefer to just talk a bit about a place and tell you whether, and why, to go.  But Arcano is an exception.  Tucked away on one of El Born’s tiny, unassuming side streets, Arcano was a gorgeously appointed revelation, making grand use of its namesake Arches.  I walked in, solo, on a busy Friday night and without a reservation.  I’ve found that in Barcelona, not having a reservation is often an issue.  Not so at Arcano.  The staff asked my indulgence in taking one of their fantastic house beers at the bar for a few moments (a US-style summer ale, no less), while they prepared my table.  All the while, respectful, cordial, and expert in their attention to detail, as Argentinians often are.Arcos steak

As I said before, it was time to indulge.  So I went for the solomillo finished with a Pedro Ximenez reduction, topped with mushrooms and accompanied by a mushroom “cupcake.”  It was as extravagant as it was delicious.  It should be no surprise that the steak was a perfect medium rare, but the ballet of sweet, salty, and umami flavors created by the reduction and the mushrooms was just amazing.  A truly decadent experience worth every Euro I paid for it.  For the service, the gorgeous cave-like setting, and truly exceptional food, I highly recommend you pay Arcano a visit the next time you’re in El Born.

Arcano Restaurant, Mercaders 10, La Ribera-Born, Barcelona 

The Yard Milano, Milan, Italy

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Rm. 15 retains a few former guests

Family run boutique hotel the Yard is a nifty little treat right next to the happening Naviglio Canal area.  I’m a sucker for balanced design + function combos and the Yard gets it right.  The moment you enter the front door, which takes you through the immensely stylish lounge the Doping Club on your way to check-in, the amount of love spent on every detail is apparent.  We happened to have arrived the morning that the Olympic Commission barred the Russian athletes from the 2016 Olympics for, well, doping – the joke was not lost on us.

 

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No Russians in the Doping Club

Each room is uniquely decorated with a theme.  We stayed in the antique-themed suite (no. 15), which included a well-equipped private terrace overlooking the Doping Club.  The beds were comfortable, the bathroom (and hot water) well-equipped and in great working order (though I will admit here that I was disappointed to see toiletries from NYC’s C.O. Bigelow, only because I had hoped for some exotic Italian toiletries), and the décor entertaining, at the least.  Unfortunately, none of the fascist-era jack boots displayed as room decoration fit.  Yes, I tried.

The Doping Club is a plush lounge rivaling the nicest spots in Manhattan.  Although I never saw it very full (most likely due to only passing through during the post-dinner, pre-party shoulder period and after closing), I imagine it to be a popular venue with stylish locals.  The opulent throwback décor, cushy velvet couches, and fascinating artifacts throughout make for a great place to grab a cocktail, chat, and people watch.

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I don’t know what these bowling balls did wrong to land them in jail

As if the staff were not friendly enough, the breakfast included in the room rate is simply outstanding.  You’ll be greeted with a sunny “buongiorno” the moment you enter, along with a cheery tail wag from the resident principessa puppy.  The standard continental breakfast includes fresh juices, fruit, yogurt, granola, a selection of pastries and prosciutto croissant sandwiches, and cheeses.  Everything is supremely fresh and delicious, and you’ll be offered exquisitely prepared cappuccino, with or without chocolate (don’t be daft, get the chocolate) and as much additional fruit as you can handle.  Really, a fantastic way to start the day.

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Principessa! Possibly the best thing about the breakfast

For its ambience, charming décor, attention to detail, quality appointments, and cheery service, I can’t imagine doing better than the Yard Milano.  I will be back.

The Yard Milano, Piazza XXIV Maggio 8, 20123 Milan, Italy   

Restaurante Santo António de Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal

What was once an absolute steal, tucked away in one of the Alfama’s tough to locate corner terraces, must have made its way into a guide book or two.  I’m now no longer conflicted about listing it here.

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Keep going, you’re on the right path.

Although they recently raised their prices to be somewhat less shockingly inexpensive and shrank the number of menu offerings, it’s still great quality Portuguese food at friendly prices.  (Oddly, each time I’ve mentioned the menu changes to the staff, they denied it, saying “impossible!”)  Most of the staff here appear to speak some amount of English, though you don’t need much Portuguese to find dourada grelhada (grilled sea bream) on the menu.

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They just really like Dustin Hoffman.

The neighbors sharing the terrace add a good deal of charm to the outdoor ambiance – you will always be accompanied by at least one tiny dog, one Portuguese grandmother straight out of central casting, and a pet bird with a call so distinctive you think it’s fake at first. On the inside, the walls are covered with photographs of actors from their iconic roles, some even signed.  Dustin Hoffman in particular occupies a unique location of honor, getting his own dedicated lighting and wall just off the restrooms.

I’ve been here several times and to my knowledge there is no Fado show included.  Head to Santo António for a break from the ubiquitous singing and price gouging and a nice meal that still benefits from the unique feel of the Alfama.  Oh, and beware the fried potato skins that come with the couvert – you may end up battling your dining mates for them.

Restaurante Santo António de Alfama, Beco São Miguel 7, 1100-538 Lisbon, Portugal

Chez Henri, Geneva, Switzerland 

If you should find yourself in the Paquis neighborhood near the train station and despairing of the new hamburger rage, sick of pizzerias and kebab, duck into the rear of the Hamburger Foundation for a lovely surprise.  

I’ve had oysters in Europe before and had always despaired of their bland flavor and  puffy texture.  Nothing like the culinary roller coaster of love you can find in most oyster bars in the US, East or West coast.  In other words, I was skeptical.  Whether it was the warm friendly service staff, the other smiling patrons, or the soundtrack that followed Edith Piaf with Chet Baker (a match truly made in heaven), I conceded to my companion’s prodding and went for it.  

I was stunned to find the familiar delcious, creamy, brininess a la kumamoto.  Shucked with love and pride right before your eyes and delivered to you by those very same hands – a stellar and unexpected treat!  If you like oysters, it’s worth the treasure hunt to find Chez Henri.  
Chez Henri, Rue Philippe-Plantamour 37, 1201 Geneva, Switzerland


Ginja d’Alfama, Lisbon, Portugal

 

Ginja Rack
So many Portuguese liquors, so few shots and still be on your feet.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself stumbling around the Alfama between the right hours, and if you’re lucky enough to find the doors open to this teensy little establishment, you just might be lucky enough for the aged and wise Don Jorge to threaten you with the tiny blade of his wine opener, secretly pay your tab, then bound out onto the street while pumping his biceps at the world and announcing “amanha!” before you ever know what hit you.

Eder (whom I believe speaks English) and the rest of the staff are cordial and ready with a joke and a smile.  Though the menus offer food and all manner of tipple at rock bottom prices, I’ve only ever stopped in for a medronho (arbutus berry brandy), some fresh squeezed Algarve orange juice, and the occasional cafezinho.  You’ll notice the walls are adorned with all manner of Portuguese liquor, in addition to many different brands of the traditional ginja (cherry liquor) the place is named for.  Even if, like me, you stop only for a single fortifying shot of medronho before heading to the next Fado stop, you’ll grow an affection for this little place quickly.

Ginja d’Alfama, Rua São Pedro 12, 1100-172, Lisbon, Portugal

Mesa de Frades, Lisbon, Portugal

Don’t go here.  It’s a terrible place.  If you ignore my warnings and venture here anyway, expect to step into the alternate universe of real, living and breathing, Fado.

As you approach the big wooden door at the end of what looks to be a mixed use carpark or courtyard, prepare to be greeted one of two ways.  First, if the imposingly large, old, and somewhat foreboding door is shut, your approach will surely be halted by one of several different gruff locals who are charged with the task of not letting you get near the door until the time is right.  That means that, after the current song is completed he will “ring” the doorbell, which is actually a tiny light that flashes above the singer’s head, and the door will be opened from inside by the very person who is about to send you headlong into musical revelry.

If, by chance, your timing is just right and you walk up to an open door with clusters of Portuguese folks milling around, smoking cigarettes, and laughing loudly and slapping backs, then you are in.  These folks, in fact, are made up mostly of a community of Fado players – singers, guitar players, and their close supporters – that works much more like a family, than a scene.  As with family, there is much love and support, served with a healthy dose of rivalry and teasing.  If you show up more than once, you too start to become family and can expect nods of recognition and appreciation from performers and the staff alike.  Hopefully, you speak enough Portuguese to join in the conversations – a group of older white-mustachioed enthusiasts I came to call simply “os tios” are quick to include you in conversations ranging from finding the soul of Fado, to politics and love.

A word about the space:  there isn’t much of it.  Within a few hours of being in Lisbon you will have seen thousands of azulejo covered walls.  But Mesa de Frades is inside of an old chapel, the walls of which are covered by azulejo frescoes so stunningly beautiful that you’ll find yourself just beaming at them once the guitar player turns the lights back up.  As with all Fado, there is no amplification of the music, so shut your pie hole.  And you will be hushed as the musicians reach up and shut the lights out and you enter the dark, quiet, intensely romantic and hot heart of the fadistas who are not just performing for you, but pouring out their entire essence right there into your heart and soul.  It’s not uncommon to notice your fellow revelers wiping away tears or for you – your modern, Instagramming, Facebooking, emailing, busy persona – to just melt away into the forgotten corners of your heart, with only the strains of the Fado to guide you back out.  You’ve been warned.

Mesa de Frades, Rua dos Remédios 139, 1100-445 Lisboa, Portugal

El Padrí, Cadaqués, Spain

So what do you do when you’re starving and it’s after 11pm in little ol’ Cadaqués?  You go see the Godfather, of course.  Jaume is the proprietor of this tiny little spot down a back alley, where he presides over a raucous crew of locals and seasonal residents.

Upon returning from the spectacular Vívid wine festival in Sant Martí d’Empúries (highly recommended in its own right) a couple of hours south of town, we discovered that the tapas served during the festival had already burned off and were craving anchovies intensely.  Although most of Spain is more than willing to feed a weary soul late into the night, Cadaqués is oriented more toward relaxation and outdoor activities and there wasn’t much to choose from.  Actually, there wasn’t anything.

On a wing and a prayer, we went for broke on a crowded and jovial alleyway, winding our way through wine-swilling revelers and the occasional dancer.  Without my trusty Catalan companion, I surely would have perished this time.  She was able to sweet talk Jaume into breaking out some of those famous excellent L’Escala anchovies (served over bread with piquillos, of course) and some pa amb tomaquet – the famous Catalan staple of crispy bread rubbed with garlic and tomatoes, then drizzled with olive oil.  It really hit the spot and I thanked my lucky stars, for surely, with both my trusty Catalan and my Godfather looking out for me, I couldn’t go wrong.

El Padrí, Carrer Miguel Rosset, 6, 17488 Cadaqués, Girona, Spain