Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Review of Alma by Henrique Sá Pessoa, Lisbon - A True Star

I just got back on Sunday night from a week in Portuguese wine country.  I can't say too much about the trip for now as I am writing an article for Epicure's July edition.  But I need to share something with you, and that is the genius of the chef Henrique Sá Pessoa, who owns the one Michelin-starred Alma restaurant in the heart of Lisbon.

Owner-Chef Henrique Sá Pessoa at Alma's open kitchen
It had been a crazy day to end a crazy week, which started six days and some 1,100 kilometres ago.  Never spending more than 12 hours (including sleeping time) in any one hotel, we toured the length, and some of the breadth, of the country starting from Porto, into the Vinho Verde region, the Douro Valley, Dao, Mangualde, Viseu, Torres Vedras, Evora and Lisbon.  With numerous winery visits, generous wine-paired lunches, gut-busting dinners accompanied by even more wines, and cheeky breakfasts which were always one of the highlights of my day, the tour was intense, often taxing on body and mind but always great fun.  But as time goes on, I find myself more moved by positive interactions with the people I meet and the friendships I make, rather than what I find on my plate or in my glass.  I don't know, maybe I'm finally growing up...  

As Julio steered our trusty dark navy Mercedes Viano into a bustling Lisbon Friday, with its crowds, its traffic, its tram cars running on hilly roads, it finally hit home that our adventure was coming to an end.  I had been doing fine on five hours of sleep a night, relying on a daily twilight run and black coffee to wake me up.  But all the road-tripping, robust Portuguese wine and rich food finally got to me, I am ashamed to admit, and I spent our final lunch together in a sullen silence, my spirits sinking faster than the Donald's popularity ratings.  I badly needed something good to pick myself up again, and fast.

I knew our magnanimous hosts had lined up something special for our farewell dinner, and our chaperone Cátia had mentioned something which sounded to my uneducated ear like "En-reek Sharp-shoe-er".  Now I fancy myself a rather cunning linguist, but Portuguese is waaaay beyond my ken.  So I asked Cátia if she could just spell it out for me, and she did, carefully and slowly as if to a rather dim-witted child.  The woman is nothing if not patient.

So when Cátia was called away that afternoon on more important business, her assistant Miguel (a fellow MMA enthusiast, I was glad to find out) took over her chaperoning duties.  After an emotional visit to the Jeronimos' Monastery and the tomb of Vasco da Gama, he brought us to Alma by Henrique Sá Pessoa, the "En-reek Sharp-shoe-er" of earlier fame.  Singapore also has its own Michelin-starred Alma (the word simply means "soul" in Castilian Spanish and Portuguese, and the two restaurants are not affiliated in any way).  But there the similarities end.  Whereas Singapore's Alma manages to consistently bore without disappointing its diners outright, Portugal's Alma is a study in excellence, whether in the kitchen or front-of-house.

We are told that the chef would like to prepare the five-course Alma menu (90 euros) for us.  As he is in the kitchen, we timidly agree.  

The meal starts off with a series of snacks.

First Canapé: Tapioca and Seaweed Crisp with Oyster Mayonnaise and Seaweed, Green Gaspacho


During his session as tour guide leader, Miguel had taken us to see the famous Belém Tower, on the banks of the Tagus River where it emptied into the Atlantic.  A keen fisherman, Miguel remarked on the fine iodine and saline smell in the air as we admired the Tower.  I detect the same olfactory notes here, due to the seaweed in the crackers.  Evocative and delicious, washed down with a lightly tart but ethereal tomato water.

Second Canapé: Clam Bulhao Pato; Pepper Tempura in Vegetable Charcoal, Spicy Tomato and Red Pepper Purée


The clam is thin and crunchy as a fresh clam should be, layered and lifted by the flavours of lemon juice, garlic and coriander.  The tempura is lightly crispy, only the teeniest, tiniest bit greasy, and I can actually taste the red pepper within.  Very good.

Amuse-Bouche:  Prawn and Prawn Foam, Dehydrated and Fried Prawn Head with Garlic

Regular readers know that I hate foams with a passion.  I hate anything that puts technique before flavour and texture, that seeks to massage the chef's ego before pleasing the customer.  This is not such a foam.  In fact, this foam is ridiculously good.  It is basically a distilled essence of prawn, given the form of foam so it glides across your palate effortlessly, inviting you to take another mouthful.  Again, it is so evocative that I can do nothing but stare at Miguel across the table.  Brilliant, and perhaps the best thing I have eaten all year.

First Entrée: Mackerel with Escabeche Sauce, Mussels and Barnacles; Apple, Barnacle and Mussel Water


Another superlative dish.  The barnacles taste of nothing but the ocean, adding their lovely seawater tang to the subtle "mussel water".  The seafood is all cooked beautifully, but as one would expect, the oily, fishy mackerel wins over all.  And it is here that I see a Portuguese wine, an Alvarinho Deu-La-Deu Vinho Verde DOC, really come into its own. Its lemony acidity cut the richness of the mackerel like a laser, leaving my palate clean and refreshed and ready for the next bite, while vibrant citrus complemented all the seafood elements perfectly.

I know we talk a lot about food and wine pairing.  But how often do you get an utterly perfect, I repeat perfect, communion of the two?  Eating the mackerel and washing it down with a sip of the Alvarinho, was (to quote a better writer) as if I had been swimming underwater with my eyes open, and suddenly someone presented me with a pair of goggles.

At this point, I need to say a word about our sommelier, the very friendly and helpful Gonçalo Patraquim.  Miguel had brought a selection of five Portuguese wines to accompany our dinner, meaning Gonçalo wasn't going to be selling any wine to us tonight.  However, Gonçalo took it upon himself to present each wine and introduce it in detail (producer, variety, region, vintage, etc) to the table, as if it was his personal recommendation.  It is a tribute to his professionalism and pride in the local product that he took the trouble to further educate us when he had nothing to gain financially from doing so.  Could you imagine a Singapore sommelier doing the same?  Superb, superb service.

Second Entrée: Seared Foie Gras, Granola of Apple, Beetroot, Pistachio and Coffee Foam

After the various tributes to Portugal's maritime heritage, the menu veered temporarily into "classic luxury ingredient" mode.  It is actually a pretty good rendition of the old seared foie gras: the interesting addition of granola providing crunch, chewiness, and tart notes from the dried fruit, instead of clogging one's palate with an overly sweet/tart, over-reduced sauce as is rather common in restaurants these days.  The coffee foam, with its roasted, slightly bitter notes, accentuates the cereal in the granola.

A good dish, although not one of the strongest of the night for me.
Fish Course: Red Mullet with Toasted Prawn Legs, Calderaida Broth, Sea Lettuce, Red Mullet Liver Emulsion 


Mind-blowingly good.  The mullet is top quality and cooked a point.  The toasted prawn legs (see the little reddish-orange bumps camouflaged against the mullet skin?) are an inspired addition, contributing a lovely light crunch and the lightest of prawn flavours.  Again, the use of seaweed adds that clean yet wild ocean flavour while the calderaida broth, inspired by a traditional Portuguese seafood soup, cries out to be mopped up with a slice of bread.

Did I mention bread?  The service here includes pão de Mafra (the lightly sweet, soft-centred bread originally from the outskirts of Lisbon), two types of gluten-free bread, smoked butter with smoked salt and an extra virgin olive oil from Alentejo.  No one at our table was on a gluten-free diet as far as I knew, but it is gestures like this which show the restaurant's concern for its guests.  Excellent.

Meat Course: Confit Suckling Pig, Sweet Potato Purée, Pak Choy, Sauce of Orange and Pork Juices


In A Cook's Tour, Anthony Bourdain joked to his Portuguese boss that "Hey José, Portuguese food is nothing but pork, bacalhau, pork, bacalhau and more pork", to which José replied "Yes, and what is wrong with that?"  I must have been doing something wrong because despite having more than my fill of salted cod, this is the first pork dish I encounter all week.  

Is it worth the wait?  Abso-bloody-lutely.  The meat is so tender it yields at the slightest tug, and it has a lovely meaty taste that makes you feel sorry for the antibiotic-crammed, factory-processed "other white meat" which you find in the supermarket.  This pig lived a dignified (albeit very short) life, and I give it the farewell it deserves.  Sublime.

Sweet Courses: Lime Meringue, Basil Sorbet and Green Apple Dice; Mango, Passionfruit, Coconut and Black Sesame Dessert


Miguel is very excited when he learns we are having a mango dessert.  "I love mangoes!" he exclaims.  As do I.  And I knew that Portugal had access to some superb examples of the species, having gorged on them a few days earlier at the magnificent Six Senses Douro Valley, so I was really looking forward to this.

After such a strong savoury progression, I must say the sweets are disappointing.  The pre-dessert is exquisite, the perfume of the basil delivering a massive, fragrant, sweet-herb hit directly into my brain.  The mango dessert, however, is a let-down, not so much bad as unmemorable (a mere 84 hours later, I honestly couldn't tell you what I had, apart from some clumsy spherifications which had much thicker skins than they should). Don't tell that to Miguel, however, who was still raving "I love mangoes" every couple of minutes between mouthfuls.  

Petits Fours: Pralines and Chef's Interpretation of "Pastels de Nata"


Good.  I particularly enjoy the cinnamon-flavoured pastel, reinterpreted here as a thick cream rolled in crispy biscuit crumbs.

Conclusion

There is genuinely something special about this place, a certain undefinable X-factor.  Alma is a fun place, minimalist, with exposed wooden furniture, no carpets and no tablecloths.  The aspiration is on the plate, and it delivers in spades.  With the appropriate nod to Portuguese tradition, flavour combinations are splendid and vivid, plates are gorgeous, and service (especially from Gonçalo) informal yet world-class.

I won't talk about any comparisons between Alma and the "Michelin"-starred restaurants we find back in Singapore, except to say that what I had here would put any of our two-starred restaurants to shame, with the possible exceptions of Andre and Les Amis.

And what is that X-factor?  Dare we call it soul?  Alma?  I like to think so.  After all, there are enough mindless zombie "celebrity chef" restaurants wandering around collecting stars, but without a tenth of the passion, heart and genuine hospitality that I found here.  Budget permitting, this is the kind of place you could return to, and the kind of real, hearty, fulfilling food you could eat, time and again.  Bravo!

ALMA - HENRIQUE SÁ PESSOA
Executive Chef-Patron: Henrique Sá Pessoa
Head Chef: Daniel Costa
Score: 16.5/20

Rua Anchieta, 15, 1200-023 LISBON
TEL: +351 213 470 650.  
www.almalisbon.pt
Reservations highly recommended.

Thank you to Henrique Sá Pessoa and the Alma team for the kind invitation to dinner.  And of course, HUGE thanks to Cátia Moura, Miguel Vicente and the other fine folk at ViniPortugal for their gracious and boundless hospitality over the whole week.

6 comments:

  1. So now we have to get the IWFS to do Portugal. And now we have just the man to lead the tour!! Excellent write here, J, one I be happy to read and re-read. Nicely personal yet spot on with the food and people detail. But I know how you feel - after these belly busting tours, is nice to get home and not have to eat for a day, hoh? Looking forward to the Epicure article!

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    1. Thanks for the very kind comments, Brian. Inspiration has been particularly hard to come by of late, so I had to strike while I still felt a flicker...

      You won't believe that the food on Turkish Airlines' economy class back to Singers was virtually inedible, so I was feeling utterly, insatiably ravenous by the time I arrived at Casa Teoh. You win some...

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  2. Hi! I stumbled onto your blog accidentally while looking for reviews on Imperial Treasure's Super Peking Duck. I just wanted to say your review of Alma was spot on. I was there with my family last December after a trip up to the North, cooking and taking in the wines of the Vinho Verde region (Quinta da Soalheira makes some breathtakingly good Alvarinhos... 5 different renditions I recall). The best part of the entire experience at Alma's? My 3-year old got to dine there and got the full attention of the sommelier, serving her different types of sparkling water.
    I'll be following your blog faithfully from now on! :)

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    1. Hi Jeffrey, thanks very much for reading, and the positive comments.

      I didn't visit Soalheira, but thanks for the tip, I will make it a point to visit on my next trip ;)

      Isn't Alma great? And accessible at all ages and levels of formality as well. It's almost like a DIY night and they work around what you want; I'm sure your daughter loved the sparkling water experience! How refreshing that a Michelin-starred restaurant puts the customer first and the pomposity aside.

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  3. Lovely write up and makes me want to visit immediately!! Glad you enjoyed the trip :)

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    1. Thanks Tori, it was awesome. Can highly recommend! :)

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