George Mendes Shares 5 Favorites in Lisbon
After graduating from culinary school and working at Bouley in Tribeca, Alain Passard’s Arpege in Paris, and as chef de cuisine at NYC’s Tocqueville, George Mendes opened Aldea, a homage to his Portuguese heritage. In October, the Michelin-starred chef released his first cookbook, My Portugal, a beautiful book of stories and recipes inspired by a road trip through his native country and by his restaurant. Below, we ask Mendes to share a few must-try restaurants in Lisbon, from the best riverside market and cervejarias to innovative fine dining.
AndrewZimmern.com: Where do you love to eat in Lisbon?
George Mendes: I’ll start with a market in the Cais do Sodre section of Lisbon. The market is on the Tejo river, and it’s this beautiful structure with tall ceilings—I think it was a former factory of sorts—that was cleaned out. It’s full of stalls of produce from all over Portugal, including tropical fruit from the islands. When I was there it was full of fruit like mangosteens and Buddha’s hands, all these tropical fruits that you don’t see in Lisbon often. In addition, there’s a little seafood hall where there are just stalls and stalls and stalls of incredible fish. And then another wing of the market is a food hall where big name chefs in the city have opened little outposts of their restaurants: there’s someone doing burgers, there’s a coffee vendor, then there’s someone doing pastry. There’s a Michelin star chef, Jose Avillez, who’s making little sandwiches, so it’s a really cool place. It’s really amazing to see something like that in Lisbon.
GM: As far as restaurants, I could go on forever. I think my all-time favorite, the one I always send people to and always visit myself, is Cervejaria Ramiro. The name cervejaria comes from old time Lisbon beer halls–breweries where people would go in and just have beers. Then eventually they started to serve food, specifically shellfish, oysters, shrimp, clams and mussels, very simply prepared, similar to tapas. And then eventually over the years, these beer halls started to serve more Portuguese fare, and that’s exactly what Cervejaria Ramiro is. They probably get the freshest shellfish in the world, everything from gooseneck barnacles to langoustines the size of your arm, enormous oysters, three to four different varieties of shrimp from different regions of Portugal—fresh shrimp that still have their roe. It’s bustling; it’s busy; it’s delicious; it has great energy and there’s always a line out the door.
GM: For really great food, there’s the one Michelin star (on the verge of getting the second Michelin star) Belcanto. It’s a very small restaurant in the Chiado district. Chef Jose Avillez is a dear friend and a really talented young chef. He’s doing some of the most exciting food in Portugal right now, if not in Europe. There’s never a dull moment at his restaurant. He trained at El Bulli, so he comes from that avant-garde, humorist, creative experience of dining. He’s just doing phenomenal food. He’s built a little mini empire for himself: he has Cantinho Do Avillez, a very rustic traditional Portuguese restaurant, a pizzeria, and another cafe. He’s just building, building, building.
Taberna da Rua das Flores
GM: A restaurant I just discovered on this last trip is Taberna da Rua das Flores, a very small tavern in the Bairro Alto section of Lisbon. It’s hard to describe Chef Andre’s style—it’s rooted in traditional Portuguese, but there’s a lot of Asian influence. He’s doing crazy things like curing and preserving octopus roe, and then treating it like bottarga and grating it. He can get his hands on ingredients from fisherman that never go to the market, who have ingredients I’ve never seen. It’s very casual. There are no reservations; you get there, put your name down, you wait up to an hour and you drink beer or wine in the street until your table is ready. It’s a really fun place.
Cervejaria Da Esquina
GM: Another place that I love to go to is Cervejaria Da Esquina. Vitor Sobral has been a well-respected chef in Portugal for the last 20 years plus. He has a little empire, but this particular restaurant is really cool. It’s a modern take on a cervejaria. There’s a beautifully designed fish tank right up front, dividing two rooms and it’s full of lobster. He has a fish case full of sardines and all kinds of shellfish. And, what’s really cool is that he has three or four varieties of beers—lagers, ales, porters and stouts—that he’s matching with traditional Portuguese fare. I’ve had some of the best rice dishes of my life at his place. It’s always a must go for me.
Mercado da Ribeira: Avda 24 de Julho, Cais do Sodré, Lisbon, Portugal
Cervejaria Ramiro: Av. Almirante Reis nº1 – H, 1150-007 Lisboa, Portugal; +351 21 885 1024; cervejariaramiro.pt
Belcanto: Largo de São Carlos 10, 1200-410 Lisboa, Portugal; +351 21 342 0607; belcanto.pt
Taberna da Rua das Flores: Rua das Flores 103, 1200-194 Lisboa, Portugal; +351 21 347 9418; facebook.com/pages/A-Taberna-da-Rua-das-Flores
Cervejaria Da Esquina: Rua Correia Teles 56, 1350-102 Lisboa, Portugal; +351 21 387 4644; cervejariadaesquina.com
About George Mendes
George Mendes spent seventeen years honing his culinary knowledge, technique and style under the guidance of some of the world’s greatest culinary masters before opening his first restaurant, ALDEA, in May 2009. At the restaurant, located in Manhattan’s Union Square neighborhood, Mendes’s rustic yet refined cuisine has earned the restaurant a one-star rating from the Michelin Guide every year since 2010, along with glowing two-star reviews from both New York magazine and The New York Times and three-star reviews from the Daily News and Bloomberg. In 2011, Mendes received one of the industry’s most coveted honors when he was named one of Food & Wine magazine’s ten “Best New Chefs.”
In its debut year, ALDEA was named one of the ten best restaurants to open nationwide by Alan Richman of GQ magazine, and was ranked third among the ten best new New York restaurants by Bloomberg restaurant critic Ryan Sutton. Adam Platt of New York magazine ranked ALDEA second in a list of the ten best new restaurants, with Mendes named as one of the year’s four best new chefs, and in December 2011, placed ALDEA among his list of the 101 best New York City restaurants.
A first-generation American born to Portuguese parents, Mendes grew up in Danbury, Connecticut, enjoying elaborate, festive meals. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in 1992, Mendes worked for David Bouley, his mentor, at the original Bouley in Tribeca. There, he sharpened his cooking skills as garde manger, entremetier and poissonier. To further hone his talent, he participated in two month-long stages at Alain Passard’s Arpege in Paris, France, where he learned the importance of exceptional ingredients and simple preparation.
When Bouley closed in 1996, Mendes became the executive chef of Le Zoo, a small French bistro in Greenwich Village. Mendes returned to fine dining two years later as executive sous chef at the three-star Lespinasse in Washington, D.C., working under Sandro Gamba. During his year and a half at the D.C. restaurant, Mendes traveled to France and staged at Le Moulin de Mougins under the legendary Roger Vergé, and at La Bastide de Moustiers under Alain Ducasse. The Bastide menu, which changed daily, relied on the adjacent garden for all vegetables and herbs. Mendes enjoyed the challenge and reward of working in an environment that emphasized the freshness and seasonality of the ingredients. Following these experiences, he returned to New York to help his friend and fellow Bouley alumnus, Kurt Gutenbrunner, open his Austrian restaurant, Wallsé.
In 2003, Mendes headed overseas once again to stage with highly acclaimed Basque chef Martin Berasategui at his eponymous three-star Michelin restaurant in San Sebastian, Spain. He introduced Mendes to the culinary avant-garde movement, teaching him to add personal flair to traditional recipes while remaining true to the ingredients. Mendes retained this philosophy and would later utilize it to craft ALDEA’s menu.
Mendes returned to New York and spent the next three years at Tocqueville as chef de cuisine, before leaving to finally pursue his own restaurant venture.
The menu at ALDEA, the Portuguese word for village, is the culmination of Mendes’s Iberian experiences and Portuguese heritage. The influences of his varied career are apparent in the rustic yet refined dishes. He prepares a variety of seasonal shellfish, rice dishes and Iberian-cured hams that have been adored by diners and critics alike.
Mendes’s first cookbook, My Portugal, was published in October 2014 by Stewart, Tabori & Chang. In his home kitchen, Mendes prepares simple dishes such as fish, pasta and roasted chicken. When he’s not cooking, Mendes enjoys dining at his friends’ restaurants and frequenting cookbook stores for inspiration.