The city of Porto and the surrounding Douro Valley is slowly transforming into Portugal’s new culinary capital.
The food of Portugal is best described as hearty and comforting, with a focus on rich, bold flavours and local and seasonal ingredients. Mediterranean influences abound, in the form of seafood like octopus and prawns, olive oil, garlic, and spices like saffron, cinnamon, chilli and black pepper. You’ll also find plenty of preserved foods, from salt cod and tinned sardines to chourico, a type of pork sausage that’s similar to the Spanish chorizo.
Over the last several years, top Portuguese chefs have challenged themselves to turning these traditional and well-loved ingredients into stylishly modern dishes that taste as refined as they look, and yet are still distinctly Portuguese. They must be doing something right—at the end of 2016, Portugal bagged nine new Michelin stars in a total of 23.
But the country’s dining scene extends well beyond the capital, Lisbon. Foodies are now flocking to other parts of the country for exceptional dining experiences, particularly the wine producing region of Douro Valley and the city of Porto.
Portugal’s wine country
The Douro Valley in northern Portugal is beautiful all year around. Even in winter, the historic wine producing region—24,000 hectares of it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001— looks scenic, with the terraced grape vines taking on a mysteriously dark hue and transforming the lush green valley. If you’re lucky, you might even chance upon some snow. The end of the year is also when the Douro Valley’s most full-bodied wines taste deeper and richer, making them the perfect companions to the season’s hearty and intensely flavoured dishes.
For centuries, the Douro Valley was known for its port, a strong, sweet, dark-red fortified wine that is typically enjoyed after a meal. But today, the region is also famous for its excellent, mostly red, unfortified wines, made mainly from the Touriga Nacional, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo in Spanish) and Touriga Francesa grape varieties. Less common but equally good are its white wines, produced mostly from the Rabigato, Codega, Viosinho and Gouveio grape varieties.
Douro Valley Dining
In the last decade or so, the Douro Valley has also witnessed an expansion of its culinary scene, with the opening of many eating establishments offering everything from simple Portuguese dishes to trendy café fare and upscale fine dining cuisine.
The multi-award-winning DOC was opened in 2007 by Michelin-starred Portuguese chef, Rui Paula. (DOC stands for Denominacao de Origem Controlada, which, loosely translated, means ‘taste of certified origins.) Located right by the Douro River, and with splendid views of the surrounding vineyards, DOC turns ordinary seasonal ingredients like octopus, cod, lamb, mushrooms, chestnuts and smoked eel into healthy creative dishes that incorporate elements of Portuguese cuisine. Chef Paula says that memory and emotions are his main sources of inspiration and that his food is meant to awaken the senses. As expected, DOC also boasts an award-winning wine list.
For more great food with glorious river and countryside views, head to The Rabelo Restaurant, located in the Vintage House Hotel. The award-winning menu here showcases flavours unique to the Douro region. Expect regional fusion cuisine that uses typical Portuguese ingredients like codfish, quail, pork belly and veal.
Set in an up-cycled railway shed in Peso Da Regua is Castas & Pratos, which incorporates a restaurant, a wine bar, a lounge and a wine and gourmet shop. Opened by a pair of cousins, this trendy establishment features affordable, tasty dishes made from produce sourced from around the region—think deer medallions on pumpkin purée served with chestnuts and olives, salted cod encrusted with almonds and ham, asparagus risotto and a range of desserts.
The Vale De Abraao Restaurant is housed at the Six Senses Douro Valley and also makes use of local ingredients that are in season. The fish, for example, is obtained from the Atlantic Coast and the Douro River, while the red meats come from grazing animals in the area. The restaurant has its own organic garden too, where most of its herbs and vegetables are obtained. The food here, described as healthy fine dining, draws on national traditions and products, and is simply prepared to show off the original flavours of the ingredients.
For down-home Portuguese cuisine, book a table at Restaurant Varanda da Regua in Loureiro. The dishes here are classic and hearty—imagine seafood rice, grilled octopus served with fried potatoes, stuffed trout, veal cutlet and steak. The wine list is comprised mainly of local reds. As the restaurant is located on the fourth storey, you can expect panoramic views of the river and vineyards.
If you prefer a more leisurely way to experience the Douro Valley, book yourself a river or a private yacht cruise. These cruises, which travel along the Douro River, give you scenic views of the vineyards and many even stop at selected wineries along the way.
Modern Portuguese Dining in Porto
Nearby Porto has also been gaining a reputation as a major food capital. Portugal’s ‘second city’ after Lisbon is famous for traditional dishes like caldo verde, a soup made from kale and garlic and thickened with potatoes; francesinha, a sandwich filled with various meats and covered with cheese and a beer-based sauce; and bacalhau com natas, a dish of codfish baked with cream. Two days are sufficient to explore this vibrant city—walk the cobbled pavements in the old Ribeira district, past historic buildings and monuments, stroll the magnificent bridges, or go on a relaxing boat tour along the Douro River. Porto is full of restaurants, cafes and bars, many of which open till very late, so you’re never too far away from a good meal or drink.
DOP is another signature restaurant by Chef Rui Paula. The acronym stands for Degustar e Ousar no Porto, which means ‘daring and tasting in Porto’, and that’s exactly what Chef Paula’s menu invites guests to do. Housed in the 14th century Palace of the Arts building, DOP offers an a la carte menu and two multi-course tasting menus featuring plenty of fish and seafood, and traditional meats. Here, guests can look forward to unexpected pairings like tripe and salted cod, and pork neck braised in sparkling wine. The restaurant’s wine list is extensive, with hundreds of varieties from some of the world’s top wine regions.
Another chef who’s shaking up the Porto dining scene is Pedro Lemos, who left his job as a civil engineer to pursue his passion for food. In 2010, after spending some years working and studying under top chefs in Lisbon, he opened Pedro Lemos. The restaurant went on to win one Michelin star in 2015 and has kept it ever since. Chef Lemos’ inspirations are none other than his grandmothers: one worked in the fields and the other sold fish at the market. The restaurant’s ever-changing menu embodies these influences, with its focus on meat, fish and seafood prepared using modern and innovative techniques. Dishes might include foie gras-stuffed ravioli, farm-raised quail with mushrooms, asparagus and apples, and snapper with chanterelle mushrooms.
The Yeatman’s Restaurant at The Yeatman Hotel is another of Porto’s gastronomic gems. Helmed by chef Ricardo Costa, it offers contemporary interpretations of traditional Portuguese dishes. Dishes like crispy cauliflower pastry, cuttlefish cannelloni, and suckling pig with chanterelle mushrooms and fermented onions feature on the tasting menu. The restaurant also boasts a wine cellar housing 25,000 bottles of Old and New World wines, and panoramic views of the Douro River and Porto. The restaurant was awarded two Michelin stars in 2017.
The contemporary reinterpretations of traditional Portugese dishes at The Yeatman RestaurantOver at Antiqvvm, chef Vitor Matos serves Mediterranean-influenced cuisine made from fresh seasonal ingredients from the region. In winter, for example, the menu may feature dishes such as smoked salmon with textured apple and beetroot foam and chicken stuffed with chestnuts and local ham.
Housed in the InterContinental Porto – Palacio das Cardosas is Astoria Restaurant, which specialises in traditional Mediterranean and Portuguese cuisine with international touches. Inspired by the seasons, the menu presents a combination of classic and unusual dishes, from crispy suckling pig and lobster bisque to oxtail risotto and foie gras fried in port wine. To accompany your meal, make your selection from the range of Portuguese wines.
Where to Stay
Set high on a hill in a 19th century manor house, and overlooking the valley and the Douro River, Six Senses Douro Valley makes for the ultimate getaway for wine lovers.
Relax with a grape inspired body treatment: Try the spa’s Complete Grape Rejuvenation, an antioxidant-rich body treatment that makes use of the region’s iconic fruit. The 90-minute treatment includes dry skin brushing, exfoliation with grape pulp and grape-seed oil, followed by a vineyard soak wrap and a scalp massage.
Sip on your favourite vintage: Before dinner, make your way to the resort’s Wine Library & Terrace, which serves a selection of tapas and sommelier-picked wines.
Meet the winemakers: Spend some time with the owner of Quinta do Mourao, the estate neighbouring Six Senses Douro Valley. His cellar stores huge wooden vats of ageing port wines, some of which are more than a century old. Let him guide you through an hour-long tasting session, during which you’ll get to try port wines that have been ageing for 10, 20, 40, and even 100 years.
This was first published in Wine & Dine’s November 2017 issue – Happy Hour, ‘Travel’