JThe waiter’s late dinner offer at Lisbon had all the characteristics of the leader. “Nuno would like you to try the pork fat custard with port caramel,” he said, in a way that suggested chef-patron Nuno Mendes, the kitchen’s benevolent-eyed troublemaker Portuguese in Britain, left me with no real options.
I didn’t want pork fat custard. I wasn’t quite sure earlier in the meal that I wanted the clam and blood sausage on toast – it tasted like musky armpit – but either way I found myself nodding the head as a sign of acceptance, because the restaurants of Mendes are always wild and educational walk. He has become famous and beloved on the British culinary scene over the past decade for a shaggy, avuncular charm that masks a fervent mischief in his kitchen, plus a noble craving for chivvy Britain beyond Portugal’s piri piri and pastel de nata approach. If Mendes ever snapped and just served spicy chicken, croquettes and octopus, he’d probably be richer than god, but instead he persists with room-temperature dried amberjack slices topped with orange and lemon. onion, or wild mushrooms. in an egg yolk bread sauce alongside plates of tangy Serra da Arrábida sheep’s cheese.
And lest everything, for the British palate anyway, is a little wonky and unstructured, there’s the Coombeshead Farm bread with bright pink whipped pork fat to mop up its plate. Each Lisboeta dish comes with a story from each waiter about their mother, grandmother, or great-aunt who cooked that very eggy sauce or lamb. chanfana stew every Sunday, because Mendes has created a deeply personal slice of Portugal here, and the staff can’t help it. So when you start the chanfana – a dark bowl of lamb shoulder slowly cooked in red wine with turnip greens and chunks of bread – they come up to tell the stories of their childhood. The emotion is a little exhausting, but Grace Jones and the Clash were playing hard in the bathroom, so I hid there from time to time.
On a Monday evening in the middle of spring, Lisboeta was packed, because wherever Mendes goes, the food crowd follows. He was once the chef of the Chiltern Firehouse, a kind of celebrity safari park, which I always thought was a peculiar choice because Mendes really cared about the cooking and the clientele only cared about looking at each other at the table and to hope to see Romeo Beckham or Lindsay. Lohan. Mendes brought the intensity of Ferran Adrià – whom he cites as an influence – and his clientele shoved salad leaves around the plate while uploading toiletry selfies. Mendes then opened Viajante, where diners first saw his true passion for showcasing Portugal, but with Japanese, Iberian and South American influences. Later, at Maos, he served an intense three-hour seasonal tasting menu to just 16 people at a time. Lisboeta, by comparison, feels like a more airy, down-to-earth space. It’s not remotely cheap: this very delicious and deeply satisfying lamb stew costs £44, to serve two, though one hungry person could easily tear it down; a side of charlotte potatoes is an extra £6. A delicious, crumbly Goan spiced pork pie is as big as a baby’s palm and costs £3 a bite.
However, as rents and bills go up in restaurants, I’m getting used to dishes being stretched and styled and outlined to feel a lot bigger than they are once you take the leaves off and the filling. In Lisboeta there are successes and failures, but I certainly left more information about authentic Portuguese cuisine. Do I like wonky, porcine, milky egg yolk custard on a bed of blood-red port caramel? Not especially. It tastes exactly as it sounds: like a bacon bird trifle. But do I support Mendes’ tireless need to serve him? Yes. With all my heart. It’s tough for mavericks right now, and we have to applaud them. Even if the bacalhau with arms – candied cod with caramelized onion and potato – tastes like one of those 1980s portions of cod we used to boil in bags.
Despite all these things, Lisboeta is an intimate and mildly thought-provoking attempt to bring the vibrant traditions of Portugal to British palaces, with Mendes at the helm delivering his signature twinkling-eyed tricks. There are far worse places to order a white, tonic port and half a dozen pork pies while you watch the London food scene waltz. The service is lovely and quick, the music is great, and Mendes will likely be behind the collar because there’s no doubt that when it comes to his restaurants, he cares deeply. Its cream of pork will most certainly be cited in restaurant roundups at the end of 2022. And rightly so. It was unforgettable.