On top of one of Lisbon’s seven hills, looking onto the domed Pantheon and the wide Tagus River beyond, there is an 18th-century house that opened as a gorgeous boutique hotel a few years ago. Santa Clara 1728 is a slice of authentic Lisbon, far removed from the tourist hustle and bustle. With just six sparingly furnished suites, and vast bath tubs cut from the local pink limestone in one tactile swoop, it’s somewhere I love to stop at on my journeys in and out of the city – and now even more so with the addition of its new restaurant, Ceia, which in Portuguese means supper.
Owner João Rodrigues wanted to provide a dining experience for both guests and non-guests (by reservation only) without detracting from Santa Clara’s intimate atmosphere of a small, private home. His solution was 14 seats around one 6m-long oak dining table, an elegant setting designed by the house’s architect Manuel Aires Mateus and illuminated by the delicate Symbiosis chandelier courtesy of lighting designer Davide Groppi. The dishes that come out of the kitchen are well deserving of this spotlight; my meal there in December was a genuine pleasure.
I had heard good things about Ceia’s Porto-born chef, Pedro Pena Bastos (whose CV includes a stint at London’s The Ledbury), but none of them prepared me for his dazzling cuisine. Personally explaining each of the menu’s 10 courses, plus three initial snacks and three petits fours at the end (€100 per person; €150 with drinks pairings), Bastos brims with a passion that flows into his dishes; they were punchy in taste and beautifully presented. We started with Jerusalem artichoke, cockles on French toast, and venison tartelette, a combination that made me sit up with excitement and was deliciously well balanced. I realised I was in for a treat. Each and every dish was a delight, from the oyster with asparagus, to the grilled Hokkaido pumpkin and black trumpet mushrooms in a vivid green swirl of Indian cress, to the melt-in-the-mouth pork jowl with carrots and bitter orange.
As the courses flowed with their skilful wine pairings, so did the conversation among the guests. By the time we got to the Portuguese Minhota beef, aged for 90 days and accompanied by turnip, beans and lemon-thyme oil, the atmosphere was familiar and convivial – exactly what Rodrigues had aimed for. So enraptured was I by this stage that while I normally refuse all sweet things, I happily continued with not one but two puddings: citrus and lovage, followed by a mushroom custard with cacao and quince. I didn’t regret one mouthful. If you are planning a visit to Lisbon, book without delay – it will be the highlight of your trip.