Nuno Mendes is already messing with my head and he’s not even cooking today. There are caramelised onions where chocolate normally sits inside one of his pastries.
The Lisbon-born chef, who long ago decamped to London to open one of the last decade’s most talked about restaurants, Chiltern Firehouse, who recently scooped a Michelin star for his 14-seat Shoreditch restaurant Mãos, has returned to his roots in the Portuguese capital to oversee the food and drink offering in one of Lisbon’s most talked about new openings, the centrally-located Bairro Alto Hotel.
A member of Leading Hotels of the World, it’s now significantly expanded thanks to the purchase of two neighbouring 18th century properties, and completely transformed from the original by Pritzker Prize-winning Portuguese architect Eduardo Souto de Moura.
It now boasts 87 rooms including 22 suites, some light and bright with views of the River Tagus, others cosy and moody, evoking its century-old heritage, the lot incorporating some seriously covetable Portuguese interior accents, from handcrafted tiles to fine linens.
Then there’s the pastry shop, which turns tradition on its head – don’t miss Mendes’s take on pastel de nata, a painstaking re-working of Lisbon’s most famous pastry, which sees significantly less sugar and an enviable crunch.
So to the stunning rooftop-situated BAHR, as Mendes’s restaurant is called. His cooking is all about reinventing and reimagining traditional Portuguese cuisine; think light and fresh with plenty of contrasting flavours and textures. We’ve asked the kitchen to put together a tasting menu of smaller dishes because we’re struggling to narrow down the immensely appealing roster on offer, citing fish and vegetables as our ingredients of choice.
We try umami-packed ‘snacks’ of hearts of Romaine lettuce with coriander and seaweed, and smoked sweet-tasting goose barnacles on toast, then tender grilled squid with runner beans, turnip tops and seaweed (my favourite), followed by cured red mullet with roasted red pepper juice (Portuguese summer on a plate), amberjack served raw with warm braised and marinated sweet onions, and turbot with chickpeas and smoked ham, which we’re told was inspired by Mendes’s childhood weekends spent in the Alentejo, not forgetting a successful side of runner bean fritters with a lemon mayonnaise dusted with togarashi spices, learning that it was actually the Portuguese that gave tempura to the world.
Cue sommelier Alexandre Guedes, who arrives at our table sporting a wine list that instantly excites, split into flavour sections like balanced and mineral whites, and young, fruit forward reds. Largely made up of Portuguese wines from smaller producers, the focus is on organic, biodynamic, plus the odd full on natural wine, the handful of foreign wines relegated to the end of each section, listed as ‘Os Viajantes’ or ‘The Travellers’ – a nod to the golden age of Portuguese exploration in the sixteenth century. It turns out that when Guedes is not serving wine at BAHR, he’s making it – at Quinta de San Michel in nearby Sintra.
“The relationship with the diner is very interesting to me. You find out what customers are really looking for,” explains Guedes, who tinkers about in the winery before service. And that is a new generation of Portuguese wines made by young winemakers who are shaking up the industry, he explains producing glass after delicious glass to try. Highlights include a Bairrada Bical Arinto Brut Nature from Filipa Pato, a smoky, salty, grapefruity Dão made with Encruzado from António Madeira (a dream with the green bean fritters) and a full-bodied, complex, skin contact wine from Casa do Joa in Trás-os-Montes, which sang with the turbot. Thrilling, the lot.