As mentioned last week, I made it to another restaurant thanks to the one week extension of Lisbon’s first Restaurant Week. And I’m elated I did, because what a completely different experience I had! This was our second attempt to dine at the much acclaimed Restaurant Gemelli, which I have seen consistently listed in the top 5 of Lisbon’s Top 20 Restaurants in Blue Wine Magazine for the past year and whose namesake chef, Augusto Gemelli has been featured in several popular food and wine events around the city such as the Gosto de Lisboa (Taste of Lisbon) and Peixe em Lisboa (Fish in Lisbon). Consquently, Lisbon Restaurant Week has of course been a huge hit for Gemelli, completely selling out for dinner and very close for lunch as well. But fortunately, we provided a late lunch reservation that the Chef personally said he could squeeze in on the last day of special. Needless to say, my faithful dining partner @jnogueira and I were anxiously looking forward to taste for ourselves if Gemelli was indeed everything that it has been hyped to be!
Italian native Chef Augusto Gemelli originally opened Galeria-Gemelli at the end of 1999 in a cozy little space he found on Rua de São Bento near the neighborhood of Principe Real and just up the street from the Portuguese Parliament. After his formal training in Milan, working with several of Italy’s top chefs, he decided to pursue his love of traveling by living and working in several countries around the world before settling in Lisbon in 1996. After 2 laborious years, he saw a clear opportunity to present his modern Italian cuisine specifically for the Portuguese palate; whereby bringing to life Galeria-Gemelli. But it wasn’t until November 2007 when he relocated his business to the larger space, filled with bright natural light, above the São Bento market. Reopening under the new “Gemelli”, Augusto felt his eight years of effort was fully accomplished.
The restaurant itself, is a warm and welcoming sensation to the eye. A winding staircase leads to a bright and elegant dining room that gently wound around the street corner like a giant bay window and decorated with a simple yet modern elegance. Greeted with both professionalism and kindness, we were escorted to our table where a waiter pulled out our chairs, paying extra attention that I was comfortably seated. A plate of warm, bite-sized mixed artisanal bread was placed before us, with a narrow dish arranged with triangular slices of Parmiggano Reggiano. Extra virgin olive oil was drizzled into a little white saucer, adding that perfect dash of flavor to both our warm bread and sharp Parmiggano – clearly, a heavenly way to start lunch! There was no need to choose our dishes as their Restaurant Week menu was set, however I was happy to be presented with their very extensive and diverse wine list! With a lengthy table of contents, the layout of the menu itself was simply organized and easy to read. The list included a significant amount of Italian, Portuguese, French and Spanish wines in red, white, sparkling, sweet and fortified. In addition, there was a smaller selection of reds and whites from around the world, specifically from Australia, Argentina and Chile. The most exciting aspect of this menu, is that the selections were offered by the glass, a rarity in these parts. Gemelli goes further to offer a “Bacchus” wine menu, which they selected upon our request to pair a glass to go with each of our courses; essentially 3 wines for 15 euros total.
At the very beginning of the meal, I had sheepishly asked our waiter if we could meet Chef Gemelli in the flesh. And to our astonishment, not 15 minutes later, he arrived with a smile. Chef Gemelli is warm and personable, not to mention quite candid about his cooking when I took the opportunity to ask him a few brief questions. “To be honest,” he said, “My cuisine is neither Italian nor Portuguese. My cuisine is my own style, a mix of techniques and flavors that I have gathered from my travels and experience, using the freshest local ingredients in season around me.” He mentioned Â that he would like to see Lisbon’s restaurant industry become more open and diverse to various other cuisines and flavors, especially when they mixed with their own traditional methods. Despite his restaurant being successful, even during the recession, he still says the most challenging part of having a restaurant of that caliber in Lisbon is convincing the locals that there is merit in going out to eat at a fine-dining restaurant despite being surrounded by the obvious abundance of inexpensive family places serving fresh grilled fish. “I understand why those places are so attractive but I want to get people to venture out of their comfort zone and experience a quality, high-end restaurant that serves innovative food and great service, making it worthwhile spending a little more money.” Being a huge fan of those tiny family fish restaurants, I also hoped our meal would prove that sometimes a little extra cash can create a memorable and mouthwatering experience.
Fortunately, I can happily report that it did. Our lunch was one of the best meals that we both have had in Lisbon! Our appetizer was a delicious, a Veal Carpaccio over a bed of creamy wild mushroom tapenade with arugula and shaved Grana Padano drizzled with olive oil. Alongside, we were served an interesting Italian white made from 100% Sylvaner that was reminiscent of a German Auslese. As for our entrée, it couldn’t have been a better fusion of Portuguese and Italian cuisine. We had creamed Bacalhau with aromatic herbs and sundried tomato sauce matched with a red and green bell pepper risotto flavored with basil and lemon zest. The Bacalhau was divine, and Â now ranks as one of my favorite preparations of the fish. Equally true, the risotto was also prepared in a very unique and innovative manner. Normally, I don’t care for bell peppers, but in this case, they perfectly blended with the various other ingredients, making the dish itself both light and refereshing – a rare description of risotto. Our wine pairing for the entrée was just as innovative, a glass of 2006 Casa de Mouraz Private Selection, a biodynamic wine from Dão made from Touriga Nacional, Jaen and an almost forgotten grape called Agua Santa. This wine didn’t taste like a typical Dão red, falling on the drier side with gripping tannins and a blend of both red and black fruit, but the contrast paired beautifully with our creamy risotto and Bacalhau. For dessert, we savored a tropical semifreddo with caramel sauce, crunchy cookie crumbs and spicy dark chocolate shavings and it was so incredibly good! Again, the refreshing iced fruit with the creamy sauce and a hint of spice was a wonderful fusion of flavor, and our Italian “Moscatel-like” dessert wine couldn’t have been more perfect of a match.
Our experience at Gemelli not only showed me that there are restaurants who consciously go out of their way to market themselves with both style and authenticity during Restaurant Week in Lisbon, but also that there is hope for Lisbon’s fine-dining industry to improve and expand outside tradition, bringing a breath of fresh air to the city. Innovative cuisine has always been welcomed in restaurant industries around the world, and I think Chef Gemelli’s mix of old, new and different flavors has had enough familiarity to entice even the somewhat skeptical Portuguese diners out of their comfort zone and will hopefully continue to increase business with happy, satisfied customers like myself!
*Note: While researching the Casa de Mouraz red wine we had at Gemelli, I came across the Casa de Mouraz’s producers António Lopes Ribeiro and Sara Dionísio’s very own wine blog: http://casademouraz.blogspot.com/ which has been added to Wineblogger.info under “Regionally Focused English Blogs”. So please check them out!*
R. de São Bento 334
1200 Mercês, Lisboa, Portugal
+351 213 952 552