The second-largest city in Portugal doesn't seem much affected by Covid-19 in the fall of September 2020. We escaped the gloomy and repressive Paris, with cops at each street corner ready to catch and fine whoever doesn't wear a mask, closed restaurants, and deserted hotels, to enjoy complete freedom, a lot of smiles, and much sun in Porto. An epicurean dream: bars, terraces, and most of the restaurants are still operating. More or less actively. The small, affordable bistros, patronized by locals, still echo the sounds and fragrances of Portugal; the trendy eateries can't count anymore on the wealthy tourists to fill up their elegant dining rooms.
Except for two key players on the fine-dining scene, we wandered along the picturesque streets of Porto in search of the authentic, actually much rural, not to say rustic, regional cuisine making Northern Portugal so attractive to the foodie Let's forget caviar and truffles, and rather go for Frango na Grilo, Leitão, and Bacalhau à Brás!
Our tour starts with the iconic Mercado do Bolhão, with stalls selling salt cod, sardines, and lavender in a neoclassical structure from 1914. This is a great little market with loads of fresh produce for sale - all locally grown of course. Perfect for self-caterers and all good quality stuff. It has been recently refurbished, and could look a bit touristy during the peak season; yet, we still recommend a short visit for some pictures and a few -a bit overpriced- snacks. Next door is the well established Confeitaria do Bolhao, serving the best Cachito and Paõ de Deus in town.
It has a concurrent: the iconic Confeitaria Imperio. Noisy and often jammed with students, it has the soul of Porto, though the quality of the food is inferior to Confeitaria do Bolhao. But the terrace is one of the most pleasant in Porto, and their “Bolinhos de Bacalhau” (codfish balls) and “Pasteis de Nata” (iconic Portuguese Egg Tart) are succulent: ideally textured, warm (how many coffee shops served us cold Bolinhos!), and flavorful with lots of codfish. This is the place to be at 4 o'clock, for a glass of Vinho Verde, watching the crowds passing by. Both coffee shops are fairly priced, employing young and friendly staff. Last but not least, the top-notch Majestic Café featuring 1900's fixtures, carved wood, mirrors & chandeliers, remains more than a century high society, novelists, and artists' aunt. It's Belle-Epoque glam, copied on Café de la Paix and further grand Parisian coffee shops, is well worth the visit. This is one of the Top 10 Cafés in the World. Besides the signature Codfish “João do Porto Style”, served with slices of potato, boiled egg, and flavored in extra virgin olive oil of first cold pressing, the cuisine is quite average. Moderate on the European standards (coffee / local beer costs five times more than in a regular café), it is regarded as pricey by the locals, preferring simple eateries like the basic, yet much visited O Forno Dos Clerigos. Don't mind the rustic dining room and the hurried staff: it serves succulent "Pasteis de Bacalhau com Queijo Serra Da Estrela", which is a must-try with one glass of Porto.
Cod à la Brás, Octopus Rice, Tongue Stew, Wide Boar Rice, and adventurous yet delicious Cabidela Blood Rice, is served in small «cantinas» (there is a lot concentrated in Porto Foz district). A Capoeira, A Cozinha do Manel, Antunes, or Casa Ferreira (it has the best “pataniscas” cod snacks in town) are our best tips in town for those on a budget or not.
The signature dish in Porto is the infamous Francesinha: a roborative sandwich, made with industrial sliced bread, wet-cured ham and sausage (usually industrial too), Linguiça (smoke-cured pork sausage seasoned with garlic and paprika), overcooked local steak (the Portuguese way). If this were not enough, it is covered with cheap melted cheese, and a hot and thick spiced tomato and beer sauce. Typically served with french fries, this is a gourmet's nightmare. Yet, the Portuguese consider it as national pride and a highlight of gastronomy. We waited until our very last day in Porto to courageously try it. All restaurants serve "the best Francesinha in Porto"... One of the top 10 best-established places, with the best selection of Francesinhas (there are some variations, using different kinds of meat, cheese, and sauces; yet the taste of this messy amalgam of roborative ingredients is always more or less the same), is located in the Old Porto. We visited Francesinhas Al Forno Da Baixa for dinner. Highly recommended by Portuguese friends, the restaurant was almost empty because of Covid 19. The service was courteous, the bill light, but our Francesinhas conform with the tradition: unedible. But we did our food writer duty, and experience the «must» of the popular Portuguese gastronomy.
More seriously, Porto improved a lot in terms of fine dining in just one decade. Chefs trained around the world make superb use of organic, top quality local products. Should we confess, we didn't know much about the wines of Portugal. Using different grape varieties from the French wine (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Castelão, Baga...), lots of them develop a rustic, woody nose which we didn't dislike at all. They are usually rough, and often surprisingly good. We are far from the distinction of our "Grands vins", but the pleasure is here. At that point that we only drank local wine during our stay. With a preference for the proletarian and convivial Vinho Verde (Loureiro, Arinto, Trajadura, Avesso, and Azal varietals), from the Minho region, ideally matching cod and seafood. We believed that we were familiarized with Porto wine; ignoring that there were so many varieties, so much difference between one brand and another, and such graduation depending on the vintage. We learned more seating in some of the few still open fine-dining restaurants, than visiting the on the beaten tracks, yet but must be seen, Porto caves (Calem, Sandeman, Porto Cruz, Ferreira, etc.) on the central banks of the Douro.
The Yeatman, Pedro Lemos, and Antiqvvm (so romantic, with a panoramic river view), are fine dining resources awarded some stars in The Michelin Red Guide Portugal. They were closed or partially operating during our visit. We have been impressed by soMos Restaurant & Lounge. Highly reputed inside and outside Portugal, with a branch in Neuilly-sur-Seine,next to Paris, it serves an authentic Portuguese / Mediterranean Cuisine by Chef Jorge Sousa. We enjoyed a typical lunch there, with classics like creamy “Mushroom Risotto”, “Shredded Cod with Chickpea Purée and Low-Temperature Egg”, “Roasted Octopus with Tomato, Onion, and Parsley” (from the restaurant organic urban garden), “Grilled Gambas”, and yummy desserts like “Crème Brûlée”. All paired with a local, powerful Tavedo Duro DOC 2018. Perfect for lunch, sitting at the sunny terrace.
It has one competitor at Palacio das Cardosas, where we had a memorable dinner at Astória Restaurant. It has a lounge atmosphere, in a five-star historic hotel. Bossanova-jazz piping discretely gave the impression of dining in a fashionable restaurant in Rio de Janeiro. This is the city where Chef Paulo Leite used to work for a few years: at renowned Eleven Rio. His cuisine was awarded one star in Rio de Janeiro & São Paulo Michelin Red Guide. It's all about prime quality, savor and flavor, of the ingredients: imported from the organic farms, fishing ports, and vineyards, located at a short-range (maximum 100 kilometers) from Porto.
This is the place to enjoy richly iodized “Fresh Oysters from Aveiro Region” paired with “Soalheiro Alvarinho” (a brut version of Vinho Verde), creamy “Bacalhau Kokotxas (cod tongues!), tasty “Cockles” from the Ria de Aveiro coastal lagoon, legendary “Bisaro Pork Ham”, distinguished “Alentejo Black Pork Neck” paired with “ Esporão 2016”.