We have not made a reservation. Two other restaurants will not have us, because they are full, so Prado is just a place that I read about that someone else really liked and it’s nearby and we’re not famished just yet. They don’t have a table available, but do we mind waiting? We can order a drink at the bar. And since we are not famished just yet, and there are lots of plants inside the lofty space and because we like plants, we say, okay, and order the kombucha that’s on tap. We’ve taken perhaps one, perhaps two sips of the slightly sour and tingly drink before our table is ready. And maybe it’s because service in Germany is so far removed from this level of consideration, but I fall a little bit in love with the kindness of the waitstaff, their friendliness and clear knowledge about the menu and what to order, their patience and solicitude, the way they make us feel like we are at home, like there is no right or wrong way to be or eat.
So it is a wonderful thing when the food is remarkable. We order cockles – because – cockles! They’re minuscule and translucent and poised within a sweet, creamy broth tempered by the mineral dampness of spinach. We soak up every last bit of sauce with the bread, honey-brown and crusty, served with both a whipped, garlicky lard and a smoky goat’s milk butter. It is a good tartar, because it comes from a good and confident cut of beef. There are beautiful ceps with swaths of creamy pimiento and sprinkles of crunchy buckwheat and a lovely fish. And then there is the mushroom ice cream, which we have to order – because – mushroom ice cream! And oh, it is earthy and cold and just sweet enough, and there is the rustic chew of pearl barley and a swirl of balm-like caramel.
And this, we say, is what the best dining is. It is food that is delicious and exciting. It is the absence of pretension in a place whose menu could command it. It is the vaulted ceiling and the warm lights and the green breathing of giant plants. It is the kindness and the comfort and the details. It is everything just so. It is a place you want to go back to as soon as you leave it to do it all over again.
It is late and we are tired and we are very famished. The Airbnb we have rented is damp and in January, Lisbon is bone chilly and the clothes we’ve packed have left us feeling ill-prepared. All day, we have been hungry at odd times and have eaten sporadic, strange meals. Too many pastel de natas (if it is possible), too much coffee, and now it is almost midnight. We have been saving some things for breakfast: soft, white rolls, because it is remarkably hard to find bread in Lisbon, and three tins of sardines, beautifully wrapped in a brown paper package and tied up with string, that we decide to eat for dinner instead. Everything feels wet inside this space, our skin, our socks against the stone floor, the cutlery; the walls drip condensation, the wooden table seems to warp as we sit breathing in the damp. Under the neon glow of the overhead light, we peel open a can of sardines, fat, shimmering bodies wedged together like – sardines. The fish flakes off on the fork, oil puddles yellowly onto IKEA’s cheapest line of white plates, but the bread is so soft and spongy and there is a chili suffusing its gentle heat into the oil that the bread is soaking up so generously. It is a simple meal, it is not a beautiful meal, but it is a perfect meal.
III. On the water
I have always lived in land-locked places, but my heart is freest on the water, where waves breathe in ripples up against sand and rocky shores. We are sitting on a terrace overlooking the ocean; it is so blue it is unreal, and the pinkish sand-colored houses of Lisbon lean into it like it is life. Someone is playing music nearby, the drumbeat and the swirl of guitar billowing out the white canopy beneath which we sit, still in light jackets, because even though this is the south, it’s January after all. For a breakfast so late it’s nearly lunch, I have ordered strong black coffee and a chickpea salad with hard-boiled eggs and bacalhau, the famous dried salt cod of Portugal. Lisbon is beautiful, and everywhere there is water that calls you close to whisper something liquid in your ear. The coffee is wonderful and as strong as I had hoped; it is alchemy to drink it and look at the blue stretching away before me; what luck, I think. The salad, when it arrives, is lackluster. But the parts have so much potential that I vow to make a better version when I get back home. Which I do.
Chickpea Salad with Bacalhau and Hard-Boiled Eggs
This dish is stupidly easy to assemble and easy to adapt based on whatever you have on hand. Chickpeas are a generous template and, in my mind, call for vibrant flavors, like bright, bursting citrus, salty parmesan, and bitter parsley. For this dish, good-quality olive oil is a must. Serves 2.
½ cup shredded, poached bacalhau
½ cup diced pickled red onion (lime/salt/sugar)
2 hard-boiled eggs
1 can chickpeas
1 cup coarsely chopped parsley
¼ cup shredded parmesan
Juice of ½ lemon
Extra-virgin olive oil, to taste
Salt & pepper, to taste
Smoked paprika, to garnish
Because bacalhau is cod that has been dried and salted, it needs to spend at least 24 hours (and up to 36) soaking in tap water before it is poached. Be sure to change the water every 8 hours. After poaching the fish, allow it to cool before shredding the meat off the bones. (If you have more bacalhau than you need for the salad, it tastes great for breakfast the next morning in scrambled eggs – with some leftover pickled onions on top.)
Speaking of pickled onions, to make mine, I dice 1 large red onion and soak it in the juice of 1 lime, ½ tsp. salt, and ½ tsp. sugar for about 30 minutes.
To hard boil my eggs, I place two eggs in a small saucepan of water and bring it to a boil. As soon as the water starts boiling, I set a timer for 5 minutes. When the timer goes off, I remove the eggs from the hot water and hold them under a cold tap.
With those steps of prep work out of the way, all that’s left to do is assemble. I like to start with chickpeas, parsley, parmesan, lemon juice, olive oil, salt, and pepper to get the acid and salt content right. With this recipe, it’s all about adjusting the quantities as desired to taste (the measurements above are only a guide to get you started). Once you’re satisfied with the seasoning, add the shredded bacalhau and toss thoroughly to combine. Serve and top with hard-boiled egg halves (or quarters) and a sprinkling of smoked paprika.