When I go on holidays I tend to select destinations based partly on the food that I can eat when I am there. What’s more part of the pleasure of the holiday for me is in carefully researching exactly where the best places to eat are. However, I do realise that travelling far and wide to seek out my selected restaurants can be tiring for travel companions who perhaps do not share my passion and leads to accusations of being somewhat, shall we say, anal. So for our first dinner in Lisbon I didn’t book anything and tried hard to adopt a relaxed approach when my friends Clare and Lucy suggested that we just wander around the Barrio Alto district and see what we felt like.
We made our way to a bar in the Barrio Alto for pre dinner drinks and as we sat there and sipped our beers we noticed a queue outside a scruffy doorway opposite. “What are they queuing for?” we asked the bar tender “a restaurant” he replied “excellent and typical Portugese food but it is tiny so you have to queue”. It seemed Clare and Lucy’s laid back approach had paid dividends. The eager queue and the bartenders recommendation was all the encouragement we needed and drinks in hand we joined the queue for Cantinho do Bem Estar. Let’s just say it is lucky that there is a bar opposite to serve you refreshments as Cantinho do Bem Estar is so tiny (22 seats) that we were in the queue for over an hour and did not sit down to eat until just before 11pm.
Inside the cosy space the atmosphere is cheery with cushions lining the benches and Portugal’s ubiquitous blue and white tiles decorating the walls and floor. The menu is heavy on seafood options with some intriguing dishes such as grilled octopus and rice which appeared to be a cross between an Italian risotto and a Spanish paella. We could not go past the mussels though which were a favourite at many tables. The mussels are tiny, in Australia they would be called pippis and I am not sure what the European or English name for them is. Do let me know if you have any idea. We were served with a huge tray of them coated in a white wine and parsley sauce and topped with lemon. The mussels were plump and shiny and slipped down your throat in a second.
For our lover of creatures that are not from the sea, Lucy, we order the veal which is served as huge, thick slabs of slow cooked meat. The serving size is so generous that despite the tender meat and delicate flavour the three of us cannot finish it off. There is no need to spend too long debating the wine list. The choice at Cantino do Bem Estar is red or white and it is brought to your table in a carafe. Despite the lack of choice and the parsimonious pricing the red is not too rough at all and actually a great accompaniment to the veal.
To finish we have the strawberries. This dessert is all it promises and more. A large bowl of intensely ripe strawberries washed and glistening like rubies. So simple and so lovely that we do not mind the fact that our teeth are now stained in red from the berries and the wine. Cantinho do Bem Estar is a brilliant little find and since my return from Lisbon I have found some discussion of it on Chowhound so evidently we are not the first tourists to queue at the little door in the wall for a brilliant and hearty meal. Still, I like the fact that it felt a little like we were.
Details: Rua do Norte 46, Barrio Alta, Lisbon, Portugal (Ph 21 346 42 65)
Damage: Such a bargain my mother would approve
If you liked reading this you might like to read about the rotisserie chicken at Restaurant Bonjardim in Lisbon.