I’ve been keeping my eye firmly on Portuguese chef José Avillez since 2009, when I first met him while lunching with a friend at his newly Michelin-starred restaurant Tavares, an ornately gilded Lisbon haunt that dates back to 1784. What has always impressed me about his cooking – whether at the two-Michelin-starred Belcanto or one of his relaxed cantinho (canteens) – is how he weaves the soul of Portugal into his dishes and the lines of the great poet Fernando Pessoa into his menus, and the way he has introduced modernity into traditional dishes without losing their authenticity.
I had already tried all of his restaurants – one in Oporto and six in Lisbon, including my go-to, feel-good place Mini Bar – and was delighted when two more opened this summer, under one roof, in the capital’s vibrant Chiado district. Bairro do Avillez, as the name translates, is a whole neighbourhood housing a small mercearia (grocery store) alongside the two restaurants, Taberna and Páteo. It’s a vividly colourful world of food, decorated with bold, handpainted tiles depicting feasting pigs, as well as suspended ceramic foods – a bespoke creation from Caulino Ceramics of fried eggs, red chillies, mushrooms, yellow bell peppers and more.
The food, too, is a visual feast: the mercearia shelves abound with beautifully packaged goods – from raw honey (€11.50) from the Serra da Estrela mountains to homemade sour cherry jams (€6) to chicly boxed sardines in spicy olive oil (€3). There are heavy oak chopping boards (from €17.50) and Avillez’s own-label wine (€10) from a vineyard not far from Lisbon. The Taberna, meanwhile, offers delicious small dishes: beef croquettes with mustard (€4), spicy pork skin “popcorn” (€2) and Avillez’s signature exploding olives (€2.50). I loved all three and also couldn’t resist the little cones of spicy horse mackerel with pickles and smoked mayonnaise (€4.50), as well as the lupini bean ceviche (€3) – both zingy and fresh. I left for another time the serious dishes “on the coals”: aged beef loin steak with smoked garlic cream and French fries (€18) and tuna steak with grilled Portuguese polenta (€16).
Suitably impressed, I returned last week for dinner with my family at Páteo, which specialises in fish and seafood, and both were deliciously fresh. My daughter’s prawns with fleur de sel (€12) were warm and succulent; my husband’s grilled squid with garlic and kimchi mayonnaise (€20.50) was declared “sensational” – a true compliment from a chef sparse in giving praise. I had a wonderful dish of grilled sea bass served on a bed of creamy mashed potatoes, with green beans and dashi broth (€26). It was the broth that made it, ensuring the fish, while crisp on top, was juicy underneath. Our son went for a slab of rib-eye steak with dry-cured ham, served with a choice of two sides (€25), which was polished off very quickly, proving that the meat here is also worth the journey.
So, too, is the quirky décor. There are doorways to peer into, period family photographs hanging on the wall, letterboxes with letters inserted, and washing lines hung with replica codfish, which are all part of an art installation by Joana Astolfi. It is, in fact, a typical Lisbon neighbourhood, but the food – here and in Taberna – is straight from heaven.