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Notes from Portugal: Campo de Ourique | Lisbon

Restaurante Verde Gaio, in the heart of Campo de Ourique, in Lisbon, is the kind of place I’d been hoping to find with David: a hole-in-the-wall where food-savvy Lisboetas eat well. Really well. Granted, there are plenty of places, tucked away in the city’s crooked travessas, that feature good, simple food, but I wanted a place so wonderful, we had to beat the locals to the tables.

At 2:00 p.m., the peak of the mid-week lunch hour, the closely packed rooms in Verde Gaio are filling fast. But thanks to Nuno Correia, a Verde Gaio regular and the photographer of David’s upcoming book, The New Portuguese Table, we’re led through a tiled archway to a corner table in the back, where the clatter of plates and the din of conversation drop a few decibels, and there’s less danger of elbowing your neighbor’s glass of vinho verde.

The waiter sets down a selection of nibbles that practically covers the table: a basket of three breads, green and black olives, fresh white cheese with a saucer of excellent pumpkin preserves, a plate of chouriço, and chamuças, the Portuguese take on the triangular Indian savory pastry called samosas, which I encountered often while traveling in Goa. Nuno insists menus aren’t needed and gives the waiter the nod to let the chef have his way with us. We share a starter of ensopada de borrego — slowly stewed, meltingly tender lamb, served with crumbly cornbread, along with a bottle of white table wine. As a main course, David is presented with pork — the only meat that really seems to matter in Portugal — where the full-flavored, succulent porkers have no desire to impersonate that other white meat. I’ve enjoyed the pleasure of pig flesh in its every conceivable form since accepting David’s invitation to join him to pursue my research into Portuguese colonial cuisine. I’m especially fond of cured pork sausages, such as the dark and robust morcela (blood sausage) and the more approachable farinheira, surprisingly tasty sausage filled with seasoned flour. Today, though, I’ve accepted Nuno’s offer to share his favorite dish, and a specialty of the house — grilled fish heads.

The dourada (gilt-head bream) is served family-style on a large fish-shaped terracotta platter, drizzled with fruity olive oil, and sprinkled with chopped parsley and slivers of garlic. Alongside is a dish of Portugal’s marvelously nutty boiled potatoes, carrots, and green beans. The secret to enjoying the heads is to forget the visual impact and, instead, to focus on the texture of creamy flesh, crispy skin, and the rich taste of what many consider to be the best part of the fish. Apologizing for his breach of etiquette, Nuno abandons his knife and fork, picks up a head, and sucks out the tender morsels of fish cheek. I follow suit. My punishment for such indulgence? Tackling some of the near-vertical becos (stairways) in Alfama. Ah, the price of research.

Restaurante Verde Gaio | Rua Fransisco Metrass, N°18 | Lisbon, Portugal
Tel: +351 213 969 579
Hours: Lunch, 12 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. | dinner 7:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m. | closed for dinner Sat. and Sun.

Photo © 2004 Jaime Silvia. All rights reserved.