Gary O'Hanlon guides us through a trio of Lisbon's Finest: Mini Bar, Leopold, and Belcanto
We’re headed to Jose Avillez’s Mini Bar.
We take a seat at the bar in ‘Mini Bar’ and I highly recommend you do the same. We sat right in front of one of the barmen doing his thing. Actually, calling this dude a barman is an insult. I’m not one for terms like ‘mixologists’ and so on but this guy was that and more. For 3-4 hours he never cooled making cocktails and various other drinks, whilst at the same time talking us through the menu, as well as recommending some local favourites. This guy was invaluable to the business.
The chefs have a wee station also at the end of the bar we sat at, so we got a great view of the finishing touches being made to every dish. Highlights here were the mini burger, cod tempura with raspberry, chicken skin, avocado tempura and the drinks.
DO NOT MISS MINI BAR. This place was my idea of heaven. Everything was perfect from the décor to the drinks, food to the service. Top top drawer stuff.
I’d kept the next free and wanted a reservation at their sister Restaurant, Belcanto. It's the 2 star flagship of Jose Avillez and, having just eaten in Mini Bar, I now really wanted a seat. But it was booked up for months. Out comes the chef though, to say hi, so we had a wee chat and some craic. He goes away for 10 minutes and returns to tell us we’ve the best seat in Belcanto reserved for lunch on Thursday. Giddy up. Some Chef love.
Leopold was our next stop.
Leopold is different. Very different. Would it work in Ireland? I’m not so sure. It sits 10 people and is run by a lovely husband and wife team. This is the type of place chefs drool over. Small, quaint and very unique. The food, though, was a mixed bag. First up was a turnip purée with wild spinach and mixed seeds. I know a few chefs who’d have loved it. I hated it and Frankie Fish wasn’t far off my thoughts. We rolled through ok course after ok course but it was when we got beef with kombu that we both were taken aback.
It was quite simply, one of the best tasting dishes I’ve ever had. Incredible doesn’t do it justice. Bread with lamb’s butter and orange honey was certainly different. Can’t imagine getting away with a bread and butter course in Ireland but, then again, we weren’t in Ireland. Dessert of curd and strawberries was good but like most dishes seemed to be one or two ingredients away from incredible, if that makes any sense. I feel odd critiquing a restaurant. Actually, I’m not doing that. I’m just throwing out a brief summary on these gaffs. I highly recommend Leopold but I do feel you’ll come away having enjoyed yourself but at the same time trying to figure out why. You’ll love the people, you’ll love the place, you’ll love the wine but the food will divide opinion.
It’s Belcanto time. It looks closed but we push the doorbell and out appears a full posse to take us in. “Jaysus, they even open doors for ye” says Frankie. All hands are wearing white gloves and there’s a slightly stuffy edge to the dining room but, once the boys get a few Espresso martinis and some bubbles into them, I kick off the craic with the table next to me and before long all hands are chatting a tad louder and the buzz is much better. “They’re in a top drawer restaurant man, about time they cheered up” says I.
I’m not sure how many courses we got here before our ‘starter’ arrived but I’m going to hazard a guess that it was 4-6 at least. The Ferran Adria olive sphere seemed to be everywhere but in saying that, it wasn’t that these guys were copying the master: the chef had spent many years in El Bulli so it was a nod to the great man.
The staff are incredible, the food is simply next level. Highlights included a carrot and Parmesan dish, chicken skin (again), sea bass in sea water, suckling pig and one of the best desserts I’ve ever seen or tasted, mandarin with mushroom. Sweet baby Jesus, it was something I’ll never forget. Chef David (our brotha from Mini Bar) was on duty as they had a new menu starting that night. All us chefs know what that means: Organized Chaos. All the chefs are wearing peak caps. I lost count at 17 in the kitchen and I’d safely say there was that and more again.
Lunch went on for 4 hours give or take.
Go to Lisbon, it’s the business.