Old School, New School Cantina da Estrela: Restaurante de Bairro
The first thing you notice about the Cantina da Estrela is its youthful energy. Young waitstaff smile infectiously as they cheerfully greet you and escort you to your table. Looking around, you begin to get the sense that you’re back in school, but obviously not the school from which you graduated. No, there once was a real school here and, in fact, the roots go back deeply in history. But you’ve not come to a visit a pedagogical relic. The Cantina da Estrela simply evokes past associations and nostalgic memories when being young meant a time of hope and optimism. As the softly rhythmic guitar music drifted across the restaurant, a beam of the setting sun caught the silver candlestick in the middle of our table, marking the beginning of a bright evening filled with lovely gastronomic surprises.
There’s no pretense here. In fact, for a restaurant in a hotel listed as one of the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, there is a remarkable humility about this establishment that is wholly and wonderfully uncharacteristic of restaurants in this class. Permit a couple examples to suffice. In the introductory portion of the menu, Cantina da Estrela is described as a “neighborhood restaurant serving authentic food made everyday with the freshest ingredients…which our cook Artur Carneiro uses in his creations.” Notice: Not “executive chef” but “cook.” Next, putting itself on a level of “pay what it’s worth,” the restaurant says, “we believe that the price should be decided by each person, so please take your own bill and pay according to your satisfaction.” Now that is unmatched humility—albeit with a confident underpinning. Where have you ever been given the choice to pay more—or even less—than the actual value of a fine restaurant meal?
Of course Cantina da Estrela has nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, its menu is bursting with creative expressions of traditional, well-known Portuguese dishes. Let our meal serve an case in point. A distinctively Portuguese welcome drink was served soon after we were seated. A tall glass of freshly-squeezed and lightly pulpy orange juice blended with port wine was brought to each of us. Then an amuse bouche called “Recheio de Sapateira” was served, consisting of a toasted bread cracker topped with a deliciously seasoned dab of crabmeat in a savory sauce. A basket of fresh, mouth-watering rolls served in an aluminum camping can with folding handle came next. Then our young server Marta brought a small black, student-sized writing chalkboard to our table, used as a tray, upon which were dishes of butter, green olives and a serving dish of oil and balsamic vinegar.
As we munched on our appetizers and drank our refreshing welcome beverage, we looked about the room to see the familiar school-theme used throughout. Stark white walls were adorned with the ubiquitous black chalkboards and chalk-written words. The solid black flooring of large tiles—30 inches square—contributed to the simple scholastic charm. Part of the chain of Thema Resorts & Hotels or “themed” hotels, the Cantina da Estrela fit its pattern well. Our menu was a binder of pages (like a student might use) and a pair of golf pencils was placed next to a solid silver candlestick in the center of our table, to be used to fill out the menu. Three columns were found to the right of each menu item: Two suggested values—a minimum price and a maximum price–followed by a blank line for the diner’s “chosen price.” Thus, if one ordered Grilled Octopus, one would see the minimum value of 12 euros, a maximum value of 24 euros and a blank line where the diner would write down the amount he or she thought was appropriate. We asked our server, Marco, how he thought the 5-year old system had been working. He smiled and thoughtfully answered that most people offered to pay somewhere between the two suggested values.
The “Starters” portion of the menu was subtitled, “The meal’s kindergarten.” My wife chose the Roastbeef carpaccio with aged mustard sauce. There was a tasty hint of horseradish added to the sauce, bringing out a slight but welcome tanginess to the beef. I began with the Cantina Salad, loaded with cashews tossed over a bed of lettuce that, in turn, was surrounded by a baked and lightly breaded disc of chevre cheese, lovingly topped with a strawberry compote. Looking back, I think this particular item, as well as my dessert, stood out particularly strongly as candidates for the “hit of the evening.” Though there were four meat offerings (baked lamb, cow cheeks, baked suckling pig with a citrus salad, and slow-cooked duck leg with vegetable mille-feuilles), we opted for 2 of the four seafood choices. We shared the Grilled octopus with sweet potatoes (“our top seller” noted the menu, momentarily eschewing its humility in a moment of self-congratulation). Our second choice was the Tuna Steak Portuguese style with a mounted (hardboiled) egg. The latter was served over a bed of spinach and sliced potatoes. Our server brought it to our table in an aluminum pot with a paperback book used as a hot pad. The huge chunk of tuna was only slightly cooked and fresh as if it had just been caught. The octopus portion was also ample and tasty in the buttery sauce that accompanied it. Other choices included codfish with smoked ham and onion crust or braised salmon over vegetable linguini served with homemade angel hair fried potatoes. The last dish sounded so wonderfully unique, I promised myself I’d have to order it next time.
Seven desserts wait to tempt you at the finish. Although my wife opted for the simple caramel ice cream (a sweet gelato that captivated the memory long after the last spoonful), my Vanilla crème brulée with Moscato wine ice cream was a sensational pièce de résistance to finish the evening. It was a unique combination that capped a delightful dining experience.
Cantina da Estrela
Hotel Da Estrela
Rua Saraiva de Carvalho 35
Lisboa 1250-242 Portugal
Phone. (+351) 21.190.0100
Fax (+351) 21.190.0199