After Wine Tourism in Portugal organized a Alentejo wine travel for Nelson Carvalheiro, he shared his experience in a complete Alentejo Wine Travel Guide, already published on our blog.
We are now republishing it by categories and dedicate this article to the Best Restaurants in the Alentejo.
You see, what makes the Alentejo such a unique place is that life revolves around food and wine. These are the two major priorities life. Well, maybe a third. Companionship! Nothing else matters.
The best that the Alentejo has to offer is the connection of food and wine. It's not just that is comparable to Tuscany, it puts the region right up there with other great gastronomical destinations in the world. I was lucky to have found the Alentejo just on the breaking point of the mini food Food&Wine revolution, where it is no longer just the old ladies who have cooked all their life and hold all the secrets to the cuisine of the Alentejo. A new breed of young male chefs are making their name heard across the territory and across the Portuguese food scene.
Evora has become the gastronomic heartland of the Alentejo and has identified itself as the ambassador for the cuisine from all the Alentejo, especially to visitors who come for just a few days while visiting Portugal. As with any nation that prides itself of its heritage food it always pairs it with Alentejo wine. No other possibility exists. Before tourists came just to spend the day, now they come and stay for three or four. It is no longer visited only the city of Évora, were discovered the charms of Vila Viçosa, Borba, Monsaraz, not to mention the Alqueva or the Alentejo coast.
This high demand allowed that the regional gastronomy differentiates itself and has entered in the most elaborate kitchens, something that is possible due to the wealth of pre-existing dishes. The challenge in turning "poor food" in something with the worldwide recognition of "haute cuisine" was finally achieved.
In order to dissipate all doubts, L’AND is by far the best restaurant in Alentejo. I know that I am going to be crucified for this remark, especially when there are so many places which I have yet to visit (like Mercearia Gadanha), however this saying comes, not just from my personal experience, but from conversations I have had with fellow colleagues over the last year. Before I further explain the previous statement, I would like to add another premise, as it is necessary to make my point. The second bold statement that I would like to make, is that the L’AND Restaurant and Chef Miguel Laffan are one single entity. There is no L’AND without Miguel and Miguel cannot live without L’AND. The deterrent evidence of this theory is L’AND’s Michelin Star achievement in 2014 and its subsequence lost in 2016. It was Miguel who gave the Alentejo a Michelin Star and it was his absence from L’AND that ultimately lost it.
I didn’t know Miguel before our dinner, neither I had ever tasted any of his work, but somehow I always sympathized with him. Pretty much the same feeling like I had with Ricardo Costa, from The Gastronomic Restaurant at the Yeatman or the feeling I have for Chef Cordeiro (whom I have yet to meet). Miguel’s greatest achievement, and what the critics didn’t understand when they kept hammering him with the “why did you lose the star” question is that this guy managed to put Alentejo Food on the map. His cuisine is almost 100% based on Alentejo and Portuguese produce, techniques, flavors and most of all Miguel’s genius.
What he did, was take this rough, peasant feeding cuisine and bring it to its fullest splendor. Gaining Michelin Star with resource to French and Italian inspiration is easy, but to take a regional Alentejo product like Cabeça de Xara - a pate made from the soft pieces (not the brain) of a pig’s head, which he makes himself in the restaurant, and turn it into a fine dining is somewhat of an achievement. Especially when you top it with langoustine tartar and serve it with fennel pure, and bergamot. This is a prime example of the creativeness that Miguel has brought to the Alentejo and what ultimately won it the Michelin Star. Also, this Michelin star helped in this international projection of the Alentejo as a wine and gastronomy region of global interest.
And this is exactly what Chef Miguel Laffan does best, to be disruptive, yet conscious, to challenge the status quo, while respecting the culinary heritage, to make you play catch up with the multiple layers of flavors which his dishes keep delivering in your palate. The same thing for the Alentejo steak tartar pictured bellow, which is served with fresh mustard seeds, a parmigiano-reggiano fondant and slow cooked egg yolk. Even something so simple as a Pork neck is plated with miso and paprika, green asparagus and citrus fruit.
Miguel defines L’AND as “…an affirmation of the new Portuguese gastronomic culture. One that not only reflects our history and our culture, but also integrating the experiences and ingredients resulting from discoveries in the Far East. I wish to transport my patrons on a culinary journey, a journey inspired by the natural environment surrounding the L'AND Vineyards. My dishes are influenced by the Alentejo cuisine with a contemporary interpretation.”
Our dinner lasted for over 3 hours, and we were joined half way by Mario, the L’ANDs GM. Rather than taking photos of the dishes and notes about what I was eating and drinking, I listened to Miguel. I did no judge him, evaluated him or asked him any silly questions, or even interrupted our moments together to post something on Instagram, I just sat there and observed. I observed the man who is not a natural from the Alentejo, but loves this land like if he had been born here (which is the case of Mario). A Chef which is humble enough to ask if he could address me in the first person 5 minutes after we sat together. A fellow food lover who rather than shoving his pride down my throat, enjoyed the food and wines we were served as if he was me, a first timer at his restaurant. And finally, the three of us enjoyed a sumptuous time together, taking about everything in life, calling mutual friends (this means you Jorge) and just being three Portuguese man at the table.
The fact of the matter is that now Miguel is back to L’AND and an almost certainty that the award will be back on the table in 2017.
Inside this 15th century monument, the Divinus Restaurant is located in the old cellar of the convent, where the symbiosis between history, authenticity and gastronomy is perfect. Chef Bouazza interprets the Alentejo cuisine with great passion, taking it as his starting point of the original recipes of this gastronomy and treating each delicacy as unique. On the other hand, he challenges the imagination and creates his fusion dishes inspired by the Alentejo. The Divinus' menu is divided into traditional and author cuisine; the choice is not easy as you can choose soups and stews, "migas" and "migalhas" (crumbs) or opt for the traditional snacks, but privileging every moment the use of certificated and indigenous products. Combined with an excellent service, sympathy and a wine list with huge references at a national level, the Divinus Restaurant is indeed a divine experience.
I have known Chef Bouazza Bouhlani for some time now. Even though I only meet in Person when we showed up to shoot some dishes for my Portuguese Travel CookBook in 2014, I had dined at Divinus on two occasions before. 2012 and 2013. There was always something special about the food I tasted here, and it was not only because the restaurant is inserted into the 15th century reconverted Convento do Espinheiro Hotel. The presentation has always outshined the pastel tones and silenced atmosphere the hotel. I mean, some of the arrangements I have eaten were beautiful masterpieces of art. This disruptive someone was Chef Bouazza, a Moroccan national, raised and educated in the culinary arts in Portugal.
His design and forward vision into the dishes he presents to his patrons have always dazzled me. Sometimes, his work just seemed too good for this place. Too well “painted” and “sculpted”. It was almost as if they didn’t fit to the location. My wonders on why Divinus never got a Michelin Star were explained by Chef Bouazza during our dinner together. “It is not for the lack of quality, presentation, or flavor I can assure you. It is a matter of situation. Divunus seats 80 persons, and when we have a full house, I must make sure they are all properly fed. Also we cater a lot to functions and weddings, and this makes impossible to run a separate operation just for the restaurant. At the end of the day, Divinus is inserted in a 90 room boutique hotel, part of the Starwood brand. If we were a Relais and Châteaux, things would be different!”
Before we sat down to enjoy his brand new Summer/Spring menu, I challenged him to photograph some of his new courses in the Gardens of Convento do Espinheiro, as I believe they would shine even more in the twilight of an end of day in Alentejo. Also, I was tired of shooting food inside a restaurant, and from looking at the photos, I am happy I did so.
Maria Carapinha, the director of the Convento do Espinheiro tells us that "the magic of the Alentejo cuisine is to create, with simple and traditional products, dishes where the taste and the pleasure of eating be a cultural act. Since the olive oil and Galician Cordovil to the flesh of mounted, since the Guadalupe bread to the flavorings that grow spontaneously in the torrid Alentejo plains ... Of olive oil and Galician Cordovil to the flesh of mounted, of Guadalupe bread to the flavorings that grow spontaneously in the torrid Alentejo plains ... Chef Bouazza Bouhlani and his brigade make science. "Because this kitchen requires love, imagination, and art, it is with great pleasure and excitement that we have prepared this table so that with your friendships, affinities and sympathies you have a memorable meal", assures Maria.
Proof of this determination to a higher valence to this food from humble beginnings, Chef Bouazza Bouhlani prepares dishes such as : Roast crayfish and tartar of same, beet salad ; Passion fruit panna cotta, caramel rock, passion fruit mousse
Located on the ground floor of the Sepúlveda Palace building, the Degust'AR restaurant has the gastronomic signature of the Chef António Nobre. The menu has as its starting point in the Alentejo cuisine, and the Chef develops his creative inspiration by exploring the Mediterranean flavors. The atmosphere is refined, comfortable and intimate. The vaulted ceilings, the horseshoe arches and some frescos on the walls, give the restaurant a unique and special character. The restaurant has a reception area with a bar, and a cellar where you can find the nearly 150 wines that make up a wine list where all regions of Portugal are represented.
Sadly, Chef António Nobre was not there to welcome me as originally arranged, but his Sous Chef Tiago Moreno was kind to accommodate my appointment. It was a Sunday afternoon and I arrived early, so the place was naturally empty. In one of the corner side rooms, next to window so I could photograph better. First up was the amuse bouche, a braised head of mushroom with oregano and cheese served in a clay pot. It its meat to be eaten with the fingers, so don’t make a fool out of yourself like I did, by trying to eat with a knife and fork.
The first starter and my preferred choice was a seared scallop atop a cauliflower pure and seafood foam. The black ink you see is dried ink from cuttlefish. Although this dish has very little to do with the Alentejo, I enjoyed it because it was fresh, simple and to the point.
The second starter was filling of crab inside a puff pastry cake and Alentejo lettuce salad. The crab cake was good, and something I wish one could get on the go at a local snack bar with a cold beer.
The fish course was a grilled loin of red snapper with orange supremes and pennyroyal Migas (breadcake). This was the dish I liked the least. Although the snapper was fresh, the amount of breadcake was just too much. Also there was not so much pennyroyal flavor.
I made my comments known to Sous Chef Tiago and decided to join him the kitchen as he made my meat course: Mertloenga Veal sirloin, with a farinheira cust, potatoes and wild mushroom ragout and chestnut confit. The meat was super tender, and this was the first time I had tasted beef from Mertolenga cattle. Very juice. The farinheira added an extra level of smokiness to the place and complemented the softness of the meat. The ragout was also very good, a bit too simple for such a noble cut, but it worked nethertheless. The chestnut confit was served cold and contrasted the whole dish. Also, it is spring and chestnut is an autumn produce.
Overall very good effort by young Sous Chef Tiago Moreno who had to make my lunch happen in no time.