Lisbon; where to eat in one of the world’s sunniest & most delicious cities…

‘You’ll love it!’

‘It’s great for food!’

‘Best city break ever!’

To say I heard these declarations of love for one of Europe’s sunniest cities once or twice during the weeks leading up to J’s and my much needed holiday in Lisbon would be something of an understatement. The glorious sunshine, the gorgeous food, the dreamy tiles, the kitschy gifts, the pastels de nata – all these things were raved about to me in sentences heavy with near fanaticism for Portugal’s capital and every single one of them raised my expectations to nigh on stratospheric levels…

…luckily Lisbon knows a things or two about making a gal happy so consider every expectation exceeded.

There are a lot of places to stay in and around the city centre; J & I are somewhat rather very a teeny bit antisocial when it comes to holidays. We’re not fans of cloud scraping hotels with all-you-can-eat buffets at 8am, fights for the sun-loungers at 1pm or traditional British pubs that vomit drunken tourists onto the pavements outside at 2am. Small, gorgeous, friendly places are more up our street which is exactly what we found in Palacio Ramalhete, a 10 room boutique hotel (barely 15 minutes walk from the legendary Time Out Market) which boasts a rooftop pool & the nicest staff in Lisbon.

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Clean, cool & pretty rooms come dressed with the loveliest little touches – complimentary homemade chocolate covered fruit & nuts on the dresser or a creamy roses in the bathroom anyone? – while the communal rooms are a beautiful blend of modern and antique and that aforementioned rooftop pool was ours alone for most of the week.

There’s no restaurant on site at Palacio but the breakfasts are a little bit special and there’s a small but decent snacks menu that’ll see you through the day. Cheeseboard and local beers by the pool, you say? Well chaps, I didn’t fly all the way here for green juice and broccoli.

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First day exploration of the local neighbourhood revealed a hidden gem of a restaurant – Le Chat, named after one of the owners’ semesters in Paris. A modern construction of glass, chrome and white parasol shaded terraces, this was a gorgeous place to stumble across, sink into and enjoy the first of many local beers and dishes at. FYI, as someone totally uninitiated in Portuguese beers, it may well be that it’s actually the Stella of its market but we loved the super light & refreshing Superbock.

Codfish shredded with chickpeas & pink pickled onions was light and gently herbed…

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…while chubby pink prawns lazed gently in a pool of paprika spiced oil from slices of food of the gods, chorizo. Top tip 1 – Le Chat’s homemade focaccia comes fat & fluffy in hipster approved kilner jars and is pretty perfect for mopping up every last golden slick.

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A wheel of goats cheese looked like it was about to win first prize in a ‘vegetables masquerading as creme brulee’ competition but tasted tangy and soft against crisp greens and earthy walnuts…

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…and eating everything al fresco on the terrace which slowly filled up with locals-in-the-know and lucky-to-find-it-tourists was the perfect way to watch a setting sun paint the sky around us with flushes of candyfloss colours.

Top tip 2 – save room for dessert. Like a heaving bosom in the court of Louis XIV, Le Chat’s decadent yet elegantly simple chocolate mousse is piled high in ridiculously soft & velvety mounds while sprinkles of popping candy stop it from being too serious and grown up a dessert.

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£10 steaks & cleaver cutlery; the joy that is Flat Iron…

It’s no secret that London can be an expensive place to eat. For every Michelin starred restaurant that’s worth the splurge but requires a re-mortgage of your house, there’s a hidden gem where you can fill your face for under a fiver but often, if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. This quandary between eating well and having a roof over your head is what makes Flat Iron such a head-nodding, back-slapping, applause-giving winner in the value, the taste & the experience stakes. Yep. Believe the hype and get in line now. ‘But it’s only Monday’ I hear you cry…’but it’s amazing steak for a tenner in London…’ I holler back.

There are now 3 of these steak meccas in central London making any one of them a great shout for meeting up with friends but the newest incarnation on Henrietta St is especially worth a visit. Whereas the others are intimately small (great for dates, lousy for queues), this is the biggest and hopefully, the one that’ll boast a quicker turnaround of tables. Arriving at 6pm on a Friday night, tables for 2 were hitting the 60-minute wait mark – any more in your group and you’re looking at nearer 90-minutes but let’s be honest, it’s not like you’re in a barren wasteland devoid of refreshment. Fling a cocktail umbrella into the street and it’ll land on the doorstep of any one of a dozen spots bidding for your Happy Hour custom as the weekend kicks off so put your name down at the restaurant, give them your number then go get involved with something bubbly to wash away the work week.

After only 45 minutes wait, we were led through the snugly lit and packed restaurant to a cosy table near the back. Staff were Friday-vibe cheery as they explained the menu – which TBH doesn’t require much brain power given its brevity – and delivered mugs of beef dripping popcorn with a smile. Yeah, you read right. Beef dripping popcorn – a near perfect snack for soaking up the drink or two you’ll have already had without filling up precious steak room in your stomach.

As I mentioned, the food choices are short. No, really they are. This place boasts the Danny DeVito of menus. It’s basically steak. There might be a burger on the specials board but if you’ve come here and queued here and got excited to be sat here, then I know you’re here for the meat. Drop your veggie friends off at nearby Mildred’s, tuck a napkin in your collar and get ready for the meat.

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A £10 cut of beef from the shoulder is your only option but unlike other ‘one dish’ places in London, this one knows what it’s doing. Our steaks came medium rare as suggested, and within what felt like minutes of ordering. What’s extra nice about Flat Iron is that despite service being prompt, once it arrives, you’re very much left alone with no constant ‘how’s it going?’ which can often imply more of a concern with when you’ll be giving the table back as opposed to how you’re enjoying your meal. We were never ignored but we didn’t feel rushed for a second and as this was a girly catch up of the red wine fuelled variety – alarmingly quaffable Malbec FYI – it was appreciated.

The steak itself was superb. Flawlessly cooked and served in plumply blushing slices on a board unfussed with anything else, it was juicy, pink & tender. The quirky cleaver that comes with your fork – and a plea not to be pilfered at the end of the meal – sliced through with the minimum of bother and a generous pot of accompanying house salad was fresh, crunchy & tangy with mustard.

Sides of creamed spinach and broccoli were deliciously creamy & firm and ‘Sophie’s Salad’ was generously peppered with chunks of blue cheese, candied pecans and lemon dressing. Getting any cut of steak right is something that’s befuddled dozens of other places in London but a confident streamlining of the menu here shows exactly how you should get it right.

If anything can make me love a place more than a perfect slab of meat, it’s the bestowing of a free salted caramel ice-cream cone at the end of the meal. Creamy, sweet and speckled with chocolate shavings, it’s literally everything you want when your belly is full of cow but your second – and entirely separately – stomach is open for business and open for dessert and it finished girls night on just the right note.

It’s brave to only sell one thing in a restaurant and a lot of the time it’s foolish, pointless or downright annoying. For every Smack Lobster or Balls and Company (yay), there’s a Cereal Killer Café or a Hip Chips (yawn). You gotta pick what you’re cooking carefully and then you’ve gotta actually make it worthwhile paying for. Luckily Flat Iron has done both and long may they continue to do so – the capital’s steak scene is all the better for it.

 

Covent Garden gets a taste of France with Mamie’s beautiful crepes & cider…

Hot Dinners is something of a bible for me when it comes to what’s new on London’s edible landscape and ever since they announced way back in April that a new crepes & cider based restaurant was opening in Covent Garden, I’ve been one of those ridiculously annoying jolly enthusiastic people who hang around shops first thing in the morning waiting for them to open. A little Twitter following here, a little Instagram peeking there and maybe even a hopeful visit while the poor team were still installing the chic copper fittings & minimal branding made me something of a Gallic stalker but what can I say? I like crepes, I like cider, I like Covent Garden and thankfully I can now say that I like Mamie’s. I really like it.

Tucked away down Catherine St, this is a sweet little place with a curiously charming mix of the traditional – French galettes & crepes made to order – and the modern – ordering via iPad at the table. The last time I had to order my dinner via the legacy of Steve Jobs was at Inamo where the whole experience was as enjoyable as root canal surgery; here it was simple, uncomplicated & fuss-free with no waiter coming over to read back your order and no need to check in half an hour later as to where your supper was due to a frozen screen. img_9166

Inside on a crisp December evening with the Christmas lights twinkling outside, it was romantically dark & cosy with small ‘date night’ tables for two, larger spots for groups of friends and stools in the window, perfect for people watching on the eternally busy streets outside.

Service was friendly & sincere and the food, quite frankly, splendid. Galettes here are crazily light & crispy and also gluten free thanks to their buckwheat base. Ours came beautifully folded over a generous filling of goats’ cheese & honey and rolled around sausage, onions & wholegrain mustard. Both were spot on in terms of flavour, texture and appearance plus at under £8 each and amply sized for sharing, they were a pretty-close-to-perfect price point.

You have the option for personalising anything you order so if you fancy a bit of blue cheese, pear & walnut ‘Edith Piaf’ atop your wafer thin, burnished gold & ham-cheese-and-egg stuffed galette, well then you go right ahead. The French are refreshingly unapologetic when it comes to what they want so channel that spirit here.

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With a waistband already distinctly tighter than it had been twenty minutes before, dessert was contemplated, mused and mulled over…then duly ordered. Please. As if there was ever any real doubt.

Crepes here brought to mind dreamy reminiscencs of past summers holidaying on the French coast where a post-dinner stroll along the seafront to have dessert was a highlight of each salty, sun drenched evening. Beautifully thin & soft, go ultra classic with an understated sprinkling of lemon & sugar, indulge your inner 12 year old with chocolate & marshmallows or simply copy me and dive face first into La Magritte, which comes with home cooked apples, vanilla bean speckled ice-cream and one of the best caramels I’ve ever had. Sweet, sticky and liberally draped over the pancake, I’d happily have bought a bucket full to bathe in. Messy? Sure. Worth it? Hell yes.

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Tangy, sweet & cloudy ciders from Brittany and Normandy hit the spot for us although there’s also a succinct yet decent looking cocktail menu that I’m pretty sure would lure me back again without too much effort on a cold evening in January when the charm of the festive season is long gone. To be fair though, the cider is only one of the things that will bring me back to Mamie’s and even that will have to wrestle with those crispy galettes and THAT caramel sauce for the top spot in my list of reasons to return. If you need nourishment of the stomach and the spirit in Covent Garden, Mamie’s is exactly the place you’ve been waiting for….just not as long as me.