7th Junuary, 2018
The sprinkling of Michelin stars on Portuguese soil gets ever thicker, but there is a restaurant that the inspectors have missed thus far, which I feel, very much, vaut le détour: Mesa de Lemos, in the dazzling Quinta de Lemos in the Dão Valley of northern Portugal.
First impressions certainly count here: I found the Quinta’s design dazzling. The architect behind it, José Manuel Carvalho Araújo, has given nature the upper hand: the building weaves sinuously through vast granite boulders in the landscape, while all around are the vineyards and olive groves that provide the delectable Dão wines and olive oil at your table.
The Quinta itself was built to showcase the wares of the Celso de Lemos textile company, known for its sumptuous silk and cotton towels, rugs and bed linen, and the international buyers who flock here leave with an understanding of what Portugal can offer not just in terms of beautiful fabrics, but also fine wines, excellent produce, majestic landscapes and generous hospitality.
Chef Diogo Rocha, who has been at the helm of the restaurant since it opened in 2014, draws on regional produce from all over Portugal as well as from its own garden for his seasonal menu. When I ate there recently, he had just introduced a new tasting menu (€75 for five courses; €25 supplement for wines) named after Celso de Lemos, the founder of the textile company.
The starting point was a tiny dish of eggs cooked at a very low temperature with creamy potatoes, full of comforting savoury flavours and paired with an aromatic 2015 Quinta de Lemos rosé, called Manuela (all the wines are named after members of the de Lemos family).
There were miniature oxtail pastry parcels, followed by delicate crayfish from the Algarve dotted with avocado, yoghurt and pomegranate seeds; and a deeply succulent belly of tuna from the Azores with citrus butter sauce and fried beans.
Typically Portuguese codfish was elevated to a dish fit for kings – with, of all things, the help of the humble cabbage. It lay on a jus of red cabbage and was topped with crispy green cabbage and Brussels sprout leaves, and every mouthful was sublime. The final act was the finest local veal accompanied by pumpkin from the garden. It met its match in the 2009 Dona Georgina, a dense red brimming with notes of black fruits.
As usual I had no room for dessert, and although the chocolate plates looked as pretty as a picture, I didn’t feel the need to add anything more to an enchanting evening that had already laid the best of Portugal and the Azores, from top to tail, on my plate.