We have a complicated scientific device here on the Food Desk – it’s not actually a desk made of food, though it does have quite a lot of food on it most of the time – called the Restaurant Seismograph. OK, technically it’s a computer. But let’s stick with the conceit for a while. The Restaurant Seismograph has for some time been registering tremors that our experts believe signal the burgeoning fashionability of Portuguese food.
Many Brits will have been to Portugal on holiday and may have mixed feelings about what they ate there. On the plus side: amazing fresh fish, served cheaply and in vast quantities; savorous little deep-fried nibbly things; a faint waft of the warm South in the use of paprika, olives, anchovies and so on; some fantastic cheeses; a prodigious number of salt cod recipes. On the downside: gristly charcuterie; a high stodge count; rubbery tripe (the citizens of Porto are known, not without admiration, as os Tripeiros, since they gave all their meat to an army marching on Ceuta in the 15th century and kept the offal for themselves – conversely, and rather less admiringly, the citizens of Lisbon are Alfacinhas or “lettuce-eaters”); a prodigious number of salt cod recipes.
It is, in sum, a cuisine that can be a little lacking in dash – and perhaps it’s unsurprising that for years you couldn’t find it very widely in the UK, unless you lived somewhere with a big Portuguese community, in which case the restaurants would be very squarely targeted at that community and might be quite hard for a non-Lusophone to navigate.
But still, the RS doesn’t lie, or it wouldn’t if it were really a thing. The catalyst was superchef Nuno Mendes. In 2015 Mendes, who had been doing wacky superchef food at Viajante, then fusion-tinged, celebrity-friendly food at the Chiltern Firehouse, returned abruptly to his Lisboetan roots and opened Taberna do Mercado, which served steak sandwiches, wobbly custard tarts, grills and petiscos or Portuguese tapas, all in the true lettuce-eating style, with any displays of supercheffery pushed firmly to the margins.
(If we were to stick with the seismological metaphors – which maybe it’s time we quietly stop doing – Taberna do Mercado would be Monte Nuovo, a neat little hill, but an actual hill, in the gigantic caldera called the Campi Flegrei near Naples, which came into being over a single week of quakes and eruptions in 1538).
Two’s a trend, goes the saying round here; so when a scion of the Graham’s port dynasty, or rather Churchill’s, an offshoot of Graham’s, set up Bar Douro in a railway arch not far from Borough Market, we put it on the list. (It’s a long list in London, where a new restaurant opens, to wild PR and social media fanfares, approximately every 25 minutes.)
I went on my birthday, which I hummed and haaed about doing but decided was something I might choose to do on my birthday even if I was Pipe Fitting Correspondent for the Extruded Steel Gazette, say. But I didn’t take as many notes as usual. The restaurant is small but perfectly formed, with Portuguese blue and white tiles, a curvaceous marble counter by the window, some shiny industrial kit over the bar and – on a sunny day – a general sense of elegance and lustre. It only takes up the front half of its arch, so there’s none of that slight feeling of troglodytism you get elsewhere. There are some tables outside, though the triangle of land BD overlooks is on the scruffy side.
We ordered various things, most but not all of which arrived, in no particular order and in quantities that were hard to share equitably. This was fine for us – I was with what I believe the kids are calling “fam” and, as I said above, it was a sunny day, and grazing and nibbling felt right – but you might want to take note if you mind such things.
We drank vinho verde, the tourist’s choice; but (a) it was crisp, zesty and again, just right for the day; and (b) they have a good-looking all-Portuguese list including several Churchill’s wines and ports. We’d ordered one person’s worth of a sweet lunch deal which we shared out, and several dishes from the carte. Bolinhos – little salt cod dumplings – were light and greaseless, and the fish within had a pleasing chewiness. “Chanfana rolls” were actually more like enroladinhos, a truly delicious bar snack that’s half spring roll, half Findus Crispy Pancake. These ones were filled with young lamb and served standing up in a little puddle of earthy spinach purée, made aromatic with a whisper of coriander.
“Alentejana” was slow-cooked pork, seared on one side, served with shelled clams in a rich reduction – I enjoyed this but I have to say it didn’t quite measure up to the Pantagruelian version they make at Estrela on South Lambeth Road, one of those community-orientated places I mentioned earlier, and my local restaurant for about five years. A tempting turnip top soup – hard to say after a few vinho verdes – was off.
After excellent coffee and a custard tart which was wobbly, if not quite as wobbly as Nuno Mendes’s, we lit out for a trendy Swedish furniture shop – as if there’s any other sort of Swedish furniture shop – not far away, which we had heard was having a sale. Our mood was buoyant. We’d had a good lunch in a stylish place. It was just that – what’s that phrase? – the earth didn’t move.
Arch 35b, Flat Iron Square, Union Street, London SE1 1TD
020 7378 0524; bardouro.co.uk
Lunch for two: about £70