Monday, June 23, 2008

Eleven reasons to eat at 'eleven'

I am on a flying visit to Lisbon in Portugal because I’m standing in for JD as his wife’s imminent 4th baby necessitates him to stand by with towels and hot water and despite just being here for work; a girl’s got to eat! I meant to do my foodie research before boarding my plane but just ran out of time so thought I'd rely on local knowledge. After enquiring at my hotel for their finest local fare they recommended eleven, and it turns out to be the perfect combination of gourmet dining and a wonderful view over the twinkling lights of the Lisbon harbour. I arrive at a large red wooden shed that totally disguises the delights beyond the heavy door. I'm escorted to my table with the most stunning view down the hillside.
It is cunning as you are initially greeted with a windowless structure but on being seated you see the back of the restaurant is entirely glass and you can view the brooding clouds tinged with pink (a good day tomorrow perhaps?) drift by. As the last vestiges of sun disappear behind the indigo sea and the sky bruises (thanks to Uncle Monty of ‘Withnail and I’ fame for that reference!) my cloud watch turns to a bat watch as a lone bat (okay there could be several but I never see more than one) performs an elaborate ballet to delight us. When I ask the waiter he says 'he is our friend!', so clearly is a regular visitor.

I've never been asked in a restaurant if I'd like my water cold or 'natural'. I thought he was requesting that I select from bottled or tap (and naturally as I've been well taught by Giles, I plump for natural) but he actually meant chilled or room temperature.

Water sorted, view checked out, now it’s time to study the menus. And I am totally spoilt for choice, there are not one but two tasting menus and get this - a lobster tasting menu plus the à la carte. I want to taste this infamous chef's bounty so plump for the least tomato-infested tasting menu. I explain my 'condition' and this is duly noted. I can tell this is the case as when the waiter is explaining the first amuse bouche he gets to the third one and as he utters the words 'mushroom and tomato pizza' he suddenly stops in his tracks, apologises, whisks the plate away and scuttles off. He returns with three spoons - cod fish, pesto and breadcrumbs and goose rillettes with smoked goose and my pizza substitution which is shrimp on top of guacamole. In the meantime I notice for the first time ever that another diner is photographing his food. He has a hefty SLR with all the accoutrements and laboriously shoots his lobster from every single possible angle. I am sure that my fellow diners don't always want to pause whilst I record the repast forever but at least I hope I'm quicker than him. His companion looks on slightly bored taking delicate bites into her scallops and still the click, click, clicking!

My second amuse bouche is sardine bruscetta with peppers. Maybe not my favourite dish but when in Portugal... Actually I'm trying a little to go native; the locals would generally consider starting their meal at 10pm when many of my non-Latin friends would be safely tucked up in bed. I don't want to be a complete tourist so opt for 9pm (I tried for 8.30 but that was waved away!) And whilst eating at a local time, I also enjoy some typical Portuguese foods, but definitely with an accomplished and modern twist. And the sardine is smaller than the size of my thumb so it's hard to be too offended.

Now the actual tasting menu starts with gusto, the foie gras terrine with chocolate caramelised orange segments and spices bread. The foie gras and the candied orange slice do a pirouette on my tongue, a sublime combination! The chocolate is very subtle but is picked up by the small glass of Bacchus Austese, which is a sweet German wine produced especially for the chef. And is extremely moreish!

The cod fish soup with peas, "rocha" pear and French garlic is delicious and creamy with just a couple of translucent flakes submerged in its frothy depths and is accompanied by a whisper of bread, almost like a cracker. It is served in one of those terribly modern large bowls with a bowl in the middle about the size of half a peach.

The John Dory-type fish (which sounded like Trager) is the Chef's Choice today and is just fabulously fresh and beautifully white. This is the essence of Portugal, swimming in spinach puree and foamy lemon cream. Truly delectable! I ask the waiter about the foam but he doesn’t understand the word ‘foam’ and decides I’m referring to the mousse. Okay fair enough, but it is indeed a foam!

By 10.30 the joint is jumping, I can hear many more voices than I can see and surmise that there is even more to the restaurant than meets the eye. In fact I suddenly realise that what I thought was a mirrored wall is in fact more than double the length of the restaurant again. It's a shock when I realise what I thought was our reflections are in fact further happy diners basking under the inky sky!

Staying on a fishy theme my next course is green risotto and crunchy shrimp and meat juices. Prawns wrapped the finest of pastry jackets and crowning the dense herby and spinach risotto. I've always been laissez faire about prawns, I can't see the point of them cold, wrapped in Parma ham or pastry and warm and then I'm more interested. But I realise most of the world would cross hot coals to eat them, I can take them of leave them though these Portuguese examples are maybe the finest I've tasted.

Next I enjoy the welcome breather of a palate-cleansing sorbet Cava eleven. This one is a delicate peach which is then deluged in cava. So refreshing and intoxicating all in one go!

The wine to accompany my duck is Fagote, a rich and dense red wine from the Doura region where the port is produced. The Crossed duck from Challands with ancient mustard sauce, pumpkin couscous and small vegetables is delicious. I've never really understood the point of couscous (so bland they named it twice). I will concede that pressed onto the fork with a bite of lamb seems to extend the mouthful and the couscous mops up the juices. But by itself even with the addition of pumpkin just does nothing for me.

It is way past 11 and I have ominously a selection of cheeses followed by assorted desserts to contend with. Thank god the smell of the sandwiches of the British Airways flight over was so vile that I couldn't even take a tentative bite like both my neighbours (see it's not always just me being fussy!) They discarded theirs whereas I realised that one of two cheese sandwiches was heavily laced with tomato and the other slathered in an eye watering carrot chutney. Hmmmn not my favourite food, not my favourite airline! Well at least I was spared the totally unnecessary trumpet fanfare and round of applause that greets an as-scheduled landing of that other airline.

I have a little pause whilst the cheese trolley does its rounds and then I'm introduced to a plethora of Portuguese cheeses and for the faint-hearted a couple of French also. Eschewing the goat and blue, they make a small cheese plate up with the final flourish being a spoonful of vibrant pumpkin jam. This goes remarkably well with especially the harder cheeses and as delightful as the fruit and nut bread is, I'm starting to feel a little utterly overwhelmed now.

I notice there's another man sat by himself taking photographs of all his food, how passé my photography must seem to eleven’s staff!

I have been asked to return my linen napkin for another crisp square; clearly I should have so besmirched my other (I haven't) that it would need upgrading. Perhaps that is their signal that the savoury door has closed and the sweet dessert is opening.

Then a coffee mousse with raspberry cream and madeleine . Not loving coffee I just enjoyed the madeleine with the raspberry swirl.

It's now past midnight, where I should be turning into a pumpkin, I take solace in my oh so stylish boutique hotel bed being about 15 minutes away but more cutlery has appeared the end is not quite nigh.

Now a beautiful square plate arrives topped with Chocolate and ginger mousse in raspberry sauce, Lemon sorbet and rhubarb sorbet, Macaroon sandwiching vanilla ice cream and Raspberry tart. Sadly this rather defeats me, I'm am able to note the texture of the sorbet, the ice crystals are completely indiscernible and makes a fine, elegant finish.

The Mignardises or petits fours atop their silver pedestal don't hold a candle to the vibrancy and 'eat me' quality of the dessert plate and I cannot contemplate the merest morsel of food so I leave them be.

I am guessing that this is far from an atypical Portuguese meal, the chef Joachim Koerper is weaving his international wand with a whisp of his homeland, but then I've always been led to believe salt cod is an acquired taste so maybe that's a good thing. I'm even given a Portuguese cake prettily wrapped up to take home (in case I'm peckish in the cab perchance!) It's not one of the infamous local custard tarts that I intend on partaking in, but there's always tomorrow.
As I didn't touch the petit fours being entirely overfaced
I could say that I had an eleven course menu at eleven, and they really were truly fabulous. Joachim Koerper certainly has a fine pedigree and his talent shines here, so a very much deserved three (not eleven) forks for eleven. How clever am I to unearth THE Michelin starred restaurant in Lisbon, what a useful talent.

No comments: