There is no doubt that the Portuguese love their fish, especially Lisboners. With the capital of Lisbon located right in the middle of the country’s extensive coastline, fresh fish has been a staple in the local’s diets since the beginning of time. However, it is only in the last couple of years that the city, and its restaurants in particular, decided to showcase their passion, culminating into the annual event, Peixe em Lisboa – “Lisbon Fish & Flavors. Now in its sixth season, and growing larger every year, this 11 day gastronomic exposition, held in Pátio da Galé located in downtown Terreiro do Paço square at the edge of the river, runs from April 4-14th and is organized by Turismo de Lisboa with the help of Essencia do Vinho (Wine) and the Lisbon Story Center. The event features ten modern to fine-dining restaurants from around Lisbon offering a variety of fresh fish and seafood- themed dishes at an affordable price, along with a variety of cooking demos, wine tastings and discussions offered throughout the eleven days. For many of the participating chefs who have fish and seafood dominated menus, this event provides an excellent opportunity to demonstrate their talent and innovation. Fellow Lisbon guide and blogger Mary H. Goudie and I investigated several of these restaurants and were elated with the results!
For Peixe em Lisboa newcomer SeaMe , a restaurant with a 99.9% fish and seafood menu, it’s a wonder why this restaurant’s debut wasn’t sooner. When Executive Chef Filipe Rodrigues opened SeaMe in downtown Bairro Alto two years ago, his intention was to have a menu concept reminiscent of a traditional fish market but with a modern twist. Growing up in the rural mountain area of the coastal city of Portimão in the Algarve, he harnessed his hometown influence on seafood and came to Lisbon to specialize in the art of Japanese sushi, working at several sushi restaurants in the Lisbon area before being asked to open SeaMe. His menu is mainly a fusion of modern Portuguese and Japanese cuisine with an innovative flair, featuring both the trendy reinvention of Portuguese petiscos along with a sushi bar and a raw bar to enjoy local fresh shellfish.
Chef Filipe believes that the magic behind Portuguese fish is its simplicity and freshness. “Just fish and salt,” is the heart and soul of traditional Portuguese cooking. He keeps it “simple and have doable things” that don’t manipulate the fresh flavors of the fish. Fish dishes tend to be boneless, an uncommon trend in Portugal, while combining the shared simplicity of Japanese cuisine by fusing sushi style (currently the in-fashion ethnic food here) with traditional ingredients from both Portugal and Japan.
It was Chef Felipe’s unique style and creativity that made for a brilliant marriage on our palates. We started with codfish and sardine “nigiri” perched on sushi rice and “bruléed” with a blow-torch just before serving. Felipe said this method brought out the fish’s essential oils, giving it a wonderfully smooth and buttery flavor along with a touch of sweetness from the rice and a sprinkle of toasted almonds for texture. For the sardine, it only differed in having a pinch of local flor do sal on top and our server paired the fish with a traditional chilled red wine, the 2009 Explicit from Alentejo, which gave a nice balance of alcohol and fruit at a cooler temperature with the strong flavor of the sardine.
We followed with more fresh cod, this time marinated in lemon and made into “sliders” using Portuguese pão de Deus – a traditional sweet coconut bread roll for the bun, garnished with what looked to be saffron wisps but were actually dried malaguetas- red chilis. It was a clever and delicious combination. I loved the persisting balance of sweetness from the coconut with the acid and spice of the lemon and malagueta, who would have thought?
Though the chef’s imagination was just getting started, we were presented with a salmon and choco (cuttlefish) burger, layered with Kombu seaweed salad and tomato on a…..wait for it….Madeira bolo de caco made with alfarroba (carob), truly a mind-boggling mix! The true action didn’t hit until you took a full on bite, surprisingly mimicking a traditional hamburger in flavor – with the richness from the two types of fatty fish, giving it a meaty strength, while the seaweed acted as a relish. As for the bolo de caco bun? Pure awesomeness. It was paired with a Portuguese spumante – sparkling wine, a 2007 Murganheira Bruto Reserva whose body and strength complimented the fatty fish burger perfectly.
We finished with a black sesame seed “panna cotta”, dribbled with doce de tomate (a traditional Portuguese sweet tomato jam), extra virgin olive oil and biscuit crumbles. Definitely not your typical dessert mix, but the blend was delicious, light and not overpoweringly sweet. They left the sweetness instead for the Portuguese late harvest wine, a 2010 Casal de Santa Maria Colheita Tardia from Lisboa, made from the French Petit Manseng variety – a splendid ending to our experience.
SeaMe’s menu may have a rainbow of different ingredients, but it was clear that Chef Filipe Rodrigues preferred to let these ingredients speak for themselves by keeping them unadulterated and natural, especially with fish and seafood. “If you have fresh fish and fresh ingredients, it’s difficult to make a bad meal, even at home,” he says, and he’s made it even easier for Lisbon residents to cook their own fish by opening up a mini- gourmet peixaria- fish market right next door to the restaurant where you can purchase SeaMe’s prepped fish and ingredients. SeaMe also intends to take their concept to Porto and Madrid in the near future.
And when it comes to Portuguese wine, Filipe believes that the combination of numerous native grape varietals, the terroir and boastful sunny climate, are what make them special. He has a particular fondness for the red wines of the Setúbal Peninsula, such as José Maria da Fonsecas Periquita, as well as several other small producers.
Together with the stunning beaches, it is these unique jewels that make Portugal a fantastic destination to visit. “I love nature, the mountains and coastal terrains of Sintra, Cabo da Roca and Sesimbra, which are some of my favorite places to visit around Lisbon, especially for going to the beach and enjoying fresh fish.” And where does he like to go outside of Lisbon? “Anywhere in Alentejo Litoral (the Alentejo coast) is great for fish, especially the area of Maria Vinagre where they make a great arroz de polvo (octopus with rice).”
Chef Filipe Rodriques’ simple roots and down-to-earth perspective provide a winning combination for SeaMe’s modernization of Portuguese fish, don’t miss out on this breath of fresh air at Peixe em Lisboa or on your next visit to Lisbon.