When we arrived in Lisbon, we knew our appreciation of Portuguese cuisine was stunted.

We were primed for Portuguese tarts.

We knew about salt cod and we were blindly hoping to find scads of Portuguese chicken. (NB much to The Hungry One’s Bondi-Burger-loving-disappointment, it turns out that flattened breast with a peri peri sauce is more frequently found in chain chicken restaurants than in Lisbon proper).

But we knew we wanted great food. So we turned to one of our oracles. He’s the chef who sent us to Matbaren in Stockholm. He ensured our Christmas turkey was a work of beauty. And he’s proving  a darn handy source on where we to eat in a variety of cities.

“Assinatura”; that was what the email said.

So on the Saturday night of The Hungry One’s birthday we made our way up the Ave Liberade, where the treetops stretch out to greet each other to the restaurant of Chef Henrique Mouro.

Assinatura is a smartly  modern room that has a splash of hipster hotel to it. There are supportive chairs bound in taupe and red, cerise glassware that’s  positioned carefully on white clothed tables. You could be anywhere in the world, from Sydney, to Singapore to London. Except  the back wall is dressed it looks like an atmospheric Portuguese fresco.

The room is empty when we arrive at 7.30pm (just like in Spain, our early eating habits sit a little awkwardly in Portugal). Any self consciousness fades away within seconds.

“Ola” is the greeting. “I hear you are celebrating an anniversary? Congratulations on you birthday. We too are celebrating our first birthday. Can we pour you some complimentary  prosecco to celebrate with us?”

“Yes. Yes you can”. The Hungry One is liking how his birthday dinner is working out already.

There’s a large menu to wade through, with eight starters and eleven mains divided into fish and meat. Prices skip between €7 and €18 for starters and mains potter between €24 and €29.

Then there are some tasting menus. A five course menu paired with five wines is €65.  It’s an offer too good to refuse.

We’ve left ourselves in the hands of the kitchen. There’s not a lot we won’t eat, so we’re happy to go where the ride takes us.

An amuse bouche of horse mackerel is battered and fried, served draped over the top of a soup bowl of tomato concasse the colour of a streaked sunset. We’re instructed to crunch into the whole fish; tail, head, spine and all. The bones stick and prick and there’s a glistening oiliness in the flesh.

‘Pretty as a picture’ doesn’t quite do our first proper course justice. It’s a shallow pond of artichoke puree. Floating in the centre is a devilishly clever combination of a disc of set and solid egg white, topped with the muskiness of ewe’s milk cheese. It’s a riddle of texture with a faint tang of flavour. Near it is the yolk – it has been slow cooked and rolled in crumbs of jamon.

But it’s the gentle edible flowers and its pairing with a  glass of  white Douro that’s tinged with smokiness that take it all to a higher level. It’s a beautiful, beautiful combination. Pure class.

The menu at Assinatura gets reinvigorated to reflect the seasons, and despite the sun high overhead,  we’re being served the last echo of the Spring menu. This helps explain the preponderance of flowers on the plate.

Next is soft shell crab that’s battered and splayed over a puree of coriander (which renders the exterior a little soggy).  The dish is brought to life with little nubs of a flower that we learn is known as ‘kiss of death’. For something so aggressively titled, the flavour is fairly mild.

The botany lesson morphs into a geography class as the seafood theme continues into the next course. A fillet of Black Cardinal comes on a smooth blanket of pea puree. There are small chunks of jamon for additional salt and slivers of abalone for silkiness. The abalone is sourced in the Azores Islands in the Atlantic, an archipelago 1500 km west of Lisbon. Turns out it’s one of the two autonomous regions of Portugal.

The savoury dishes come to a close with a blushing slice of veal, rosy like the cheeks of an embarrassed school girl. Underneath is a muddle of rice, stock, carrots and snails (caracóis in Portuguese) . The snails bring a counterpoint of chew and density against the softness of the veal. 

Dessert is the epitome of spring. It’s like a wedding bouquet on a plate. They’ve even titled the dish ‘flowers flowers flowers’. Beyond the rose cream, as lurid as a melted lipstick;  violet mousse and square of jasmine jelly, there’s something a little extra. Looking closer, I see it.  It’s a gentle dusting of edible glitter over the petals.

It’s a little bit like getting lost inside a Rainbow Brite cartoon. Looking beyond the twee showmanship of sparkles is the wine pairing.  Matched with a pale madeira, which has the pale stickiness of a botrytis the flavour profile is pretty darn perfect.

By 9.30 pm the other tables are full of well heeled locals celebrating, birthdays, anniversaries and imminent babies. Everyone is saying yes to complimentary prosecco, even the woman across from us who may well give birth at any moment.

To close the night there’s  a café duplo ( a double shot espresso) which comes with madeline style cookies, still warm. There are suggestions of where we might go for a nightcap (down to the Dockas). There’s a taxi ordered for us. There’s a bill, which is entirely reasonable for a six course feast.

And beyond that there’s a great sense of satisfaction. Beyond the food we’ve  also been party a whistle stop lesson in Portugese wines that stretches us way beyond port, Mateus Rose and Duouro.

There’s a sting that comes on the tail of quick 36 hour segues to European cities . So often I fly out pickled with frustration. Beyond a clear desire to go back, there’s a sense that we’ve skimmed over so much of what a country has to offer. 

In this instance it couldn’t be further from the truth. We leave Lisbon, vowing to one day to return to Portugal. But after a meal like this, we’re also pretty confident we’ve sampled some of its best.

Assinatura
Rua do Vale de Pereiro 19
1250-270 Lisbon, Portugal
213 867 696