Those who ask "why did you go to Portugal" far outnumber those who don't. Which is odd to me, because our thought was "why not go to Portugal."
A while back, during a lazy lunch at Dylan Prime in Tribeca, we decided it was time for a vacation, pronto. Portugal as a destination came up, for no particular reason, and we did some quick research on the iPad. Within minutes of getting home we were booking the flights. In 6 quick weeks we landed in the fabulous city of Lisbon, pretty much having no idea what to expect, and certainly in a foreign land with strange food, not to mention a somewhat baffling language (tip: forget the very little Spanish that you think you know. Italian and French won't help, either). Hell I couldn't even figure out how to open the trunk on the rental car. But off we went, around a roundabout twice, with reckless abandon, to the stunning Pestana Palace for a night or two. A hotel that lives up to its name.
Lisbon is fabulous, but I'm here to tell you about restaurant Meste Zé, in Cascais, which is about a 30 minute drive due west of Lisbon. With cliffs overlooking the Atlantic, this old fishing village happens to be one of the westernmost points in mainland Europe (the westernmost being just north in Cabo da Roco, Portugal).
Well, Cascais is 30 minutes from Lisbon if you drive directly from Lisbon. We, however, took the scenic route, and stopped at Pena National Palace, situated on a mountain top in Sintra. Pena National Palace is a magical sort of place, with views from the ocean to Lisbon and beyond. Fairytale stuff. Well worth a visit. Quite a little hike up to the palace from the parking, I should note.
From Pena National Palace, Meste Zé is a 25 minute drive down the hill and through the forest.
Arriving by noon, as Americans do, we were greeted by an empty restaurant. We weren't even sure if it was open. But the gentlemen took care of us and made us feel comfortable, even if it felt like we were the only people on the planet (in the best possible way). We took a window seat with panoramic views of the Atlantic, which looks a heck of a lot like the Pacific from this vantage point. In fact every seat has a great view in this bi-level restaurant. Hard to beat the scenery.
Having done some research, I knew we were here to eat the cataplana de marisco, which is a traditional Portuguese seafood stew, named after the vessel in which it's cooked.
But first I had to have octopus. I think I ate octopus every day in Portugal, often multiple times a day, and for good reason: the Portuguese know octopus.
Room temperature chunks of tender octopus, in some olive oil, a bit of acid and some herbs. As close to octupus perfection as you can get.
The star of the show was certainly the cataplana de marisco, with its dramatic and beautiful presentation in the cataplana, chock full of various foods from the sea.
Every morsel of fish was cooked properly, with none over-done. No rubbery nonsense here. The tomato based sauce was deeply flavored, but not as overly rich as it appears. Was there a touch of cream? Nothing heavy-handed here. Just a very simple and delicious dish. I suspect it is a point of pride in Portugal to be able to make this dish so perfectly. Something so simple, yet so spectacular. When I think of what passes for "mixed seafood" here at home, I want to cry.
Before heading off to Porto, we had another meal or two in Lisbon proper, which were no slouches, either. And on the way to Porto, there was a very memorable spur-of-the-moment meal in Mealhada. More on them later, if the spirit moves me.
Meste Zé : Estrada do Guincho : 2750-642 Cascais, Portugal : (+351) 21 487 02 75
The restaurant is hard to find with maps and GPS. It's next to the Hotel Fortaleza do Guincho