I could almost mark the length between the trips I make from the sunny Algarve to Lisbon by whether or not Jose Avilliez has opened a new restaurant. He is certainly Portugal’s most prolific chef, if not the most talented. New for my visit at the end of June was Avillez’s first gourmet bar, housed in the old 19th-century São Luis Theatre in the chic Chiado district.
I can’t think of a better stage for Avillez’s culinary theatrics: built in 1894 and renovated in 1928, the wood-panelled room now features beautiful art nouveau lighting, with frosted glass dividers and the bar’s name spelt out in lights above the counter. A whirl of activity surrounded us when we visited, as bartenders vigorously mixed cocktails and one dish after another came out from the kitchen – all looking delicious and amusingly creative. Our evening kicked off with a seemingly authentic Ferrero Rocher that revealed itself to be, in actuality, foie gras with hazelnuts (€5), followed by bright-green spherifications of caipirinha “shots” (€3).
We opted for the tasting menu (€39 per person), which runs to six courses but guests can opt for à la carte, or merely order a couple of mini snacks. Avillez’s dishes are mostly designed to be eaten with your hands – only one dish came with a fork, and most had no plates – enhancing the informal atmosphere of this buzzy, of-the-moment bar.
Whilst some dishes have gained fame in other Avillez restaurants, new inventions were no less impressive. My favourite was the tuna tartar temaki cone with spicy soy (€5). It sang in the mouth - so fresh, so full of flavour, so perfectly balanced. The presentation also delivers a special mention: our ceviche of Algarve prawns (€6), for example, was presented on half a lime, which sat on a slab of slate. We just tipped it all into our mouths. The “last act” was a chocolate cone in three textures with fleur du sel and pink peppercorn – a dazzlingly sophisticated Cornetto.
And whilst the food definitely took centre stage, the friendly staff, excellent local wine list and vibrant mix of music were a more than excellent supporting cast. From Thursday to Saturday evenings, a DJ plays until 2am while during the rest of the week, Lisbon’s famed Vitor Silveira’s fabulous playlists set the tone. Mini Bar is a hit – the talk of the town and more than anything, enormous fun.