AAMAS 2008

A Solo Trip to Spain and Portugal

Prologue

This is a diary of my trip to the 2008 Autonomous Agents and Multiagent Systems conference in Estoril, Portugal. This text was transcribed from a series of essays written, for the most part, in restaurants during my solo trip. I originally intended this to be a chronicle of the technical details of the conference itself, but I had so much to write about solely my travel experiences that I decided to separate my conference notes into its own article.

As the majority of this travel diary is about what and where I ate, I guess the intended audience is foodies. I only realized this trend about half way through my writing, so I tried to make the second half of this diary decidedly more narrative, albeit still thematic. In general, I think this diary is a good restaurant guide for anyone traveling through Iberia, and hopefully an entertaining read at that.

Enjoy!


In order to save money and avoid a connection (US Airways does not have direct flights to/from Lisbon before May 14th), the plan is to fly from Philadelphia to Madrid, take the night train from Madrid to Lisbon, and then fly out from Lisbon directly back to Philadelphia. I am going to take an extra two days in Madrid to see the sights and catch a day trip to Toledo. This will be my second time to Madrid, second time to Toledo, second time to Estoril, and third time to Lisbon, so I don’t really have to worry about packing in all of the “touristy” things; instead, I can focus on finding really good local food and checking out secondary sights like the local markets.

Thursday, May 8th

Arrival in Madrid

I arrive at my hotel in Madrid at 09:00 CEST, quite tired, but having had a surprisingly good flight. My room is ready one hour later, and I decide—contrary to my usual jet lag avoidance strategy—to nap. I sleep for longer than expected: until 15:00.

Spain has somewhat of a unique sleeping and eating routine. In the warmer months, when I am visiting, it seems everyone wakes up no earlier than 09:00. Breakfast is small and light, with lots of coffee. Perhaps a pastry and drinking chocolate (more on that later). None of the independent stores or businesses seem to open until 11:00, or 10:00 at the absolute earliest. The stores close again at around 14:00 for siesta. Everything closes. Lunch is the largest meal of the day, only complete with at least three courses and accompanied by wine, it seems, and taken around 15:00 (but no earlier than 14:00). Shops open again around 17:00 and stay open until around 22:00. Dinner is usually relatively light, consisting of more drinks and perhaps tapas, at around 23:00. Restaurants don’t even open until 21:00, at the very earliest. People usually go to bed around 02:00 or 03:00, and the cycle continues. It’s, in my opinion, a very pleasurable schedule.

Hungry, but a little less groggy, I hobble over to Plaza Mayor and devour a bocadillo de calamares (fried squid on a roll) from Casa Rua, a hole-in-the-wall on the Northwest side of the square. This place is surprisingly filled with locals for such a touristy area. The sandwich is great. The roll in and of itself is worth noting, as it is the most like a classic Amoroso’s I have ever had outside of Philadelphia.

After a few beers in the plaza, I head to the gentrifying (and apparently predominantly Gay) neighborhood of Chueca to try a restaurant called Tienda de Vinos (literally “Wine Store”). This is one of those places that covers its windows with sheets, has no apparent door, and could easily be mistaken for a private residence; not the type of place into which a gringo like me would venture on a whim. I did my homework, though. It turns out the place is packed. And guess who entered just before me? I swear, it’s Javier Bardem. We both are turned away. Where are your oscar and girlfriend now, mang? If this were a restaurant in Manhattan, I’m sure some hidden table would instantly materialize in a nook that, just a minute before, hadn’t even existed. I shouldn’t have been surprised that such a big movie star would be denied a table; the restaurant’s original owner is a fervent communist. The place has apparently been referred to as “El Comunista” by Madrileños since the 1930s. The dining room is circumscribed by wooden benches and communal tables.

Disappointed, I travel two metro stops South to Sol and attempt a tapas crawl. By “attempt,” I mean I was filled from my first stop, so it was really a one-stop-tapas-crawl. That stop was at Oreja del Oro (literally Ears of Gold). They specialize in—you guessed it—pig’s ears a la plancha. The portion was much bigger than expected, but excellent. The ears are chopped into bite sized chunks that are crispy on the outside, fatty on the inside, and laced with lip-smacking gelatin throughout (thanks to the ears’ high collagen content). Amazing. I really wanted to try the Mollejas (sweetbreads, apparently from Lamb), but I was too full.

Friday, May 9th

Thanks to some latent jet lag, I wake up a bit later than I had hoped and just miss the 09:20 train to Toledo. I therefore settle for a 10:20 train.

Day trip to Toledo

In what remains of the morning, I repeat the usual touristy duties that I had already checked off during my first visit: the cathedral, synagogues, &c. I also manage to rediscover a great lace shop that I had previously found a few years ago.

I was originally planning on having lunch at La Perdiz but I am turned off by (1) what appears to be a prepubescent child’s private, 20+ person birthday party (complete with balloons and noisemakers) around 13:00, and (2) the fact that the restaurant is completely empty (yet fully staffed) at 14:30. I instead decide to go to La Abadia. Although I had been there on my last visit, it is still highly recommended on the Internets. By the time I trek across the city to get there (around 15:00), the restaurant is packed. I thankfully grab one of the last seats in the house, down in the smoking section (i.e., a subterranean vault). Somehow on my previous visit to Toledo I had neglected to try Perdiz Toledaño (partridge), which was what originally interested me in La Perdiz. Luckily La Abadia has Perdiz on the menu and it is divine (albeit very bony, which is expected). The partridge is falling off of its tiny little bones into a dark, allspice flavored broth thickened with natural gelatin. I start off with a salad of sautéed goat cheese and pine nuts, which is quite good also, but not nearly as memorable.

After lunch I visit a three-fingered sword smith/engraver, eat some marzipan at Santo Tomé and head back to Madrid.

Back in Madrid

I decide to give Tienda de Vinos another try, this time attempting to arrive a bit earlier to avoid the rush. I arrive at about 21:30 (an hour or so before the typical Madrid dinner rush) and score one of the last seats in the house. Now, I’ve been to a handful of restaurants that have the same type of setup/philosophy as Tienda de Vinos, and they invariably turn out to be some of the best meals of my life; this one was no different. The telltale signs of an awesome place include:

  1. completely inconspicuous from the street (as discussed above);
  2. primarily local patronage (and the occasional look from the waiter as if to say, “How did you ever find out about this place?”);
  3. no menu, or possibly a general menu that may or may not have any intersection with what is available that day;
  4. no wine list;
  5. traditional, grandmother-style, home-cooked food (preferably prepared by an actual grandmother);
  6. thick, wooden tables covered in paper; and
  7. the final bill having a higher correlation to one’s age and dress than what one actually consumed.

I order (in my no doubt heavily-accented Spanish) the sopa de ajo and Callos a la Madrileña, upon which the waiter just smiled and whisked away to get me my wine and water. I was, for a moment, tempted by the Sesos (fried cow brains), but recommendations for the Callos (not to mention fears of bovine spongiform encephalopathy) swayed me otherwise. The soup is surprisingly subtle and delicate, tasting more of unicorn tears than garlic. Amazing. The Callos is the best tripe I have ever had.

Saturday, May 11th

Around Madrid

Even though deep down I believe it to have passed, I’d like to blame my jet lag for how long it took me to wake up this morning. I could also blame the weather, which is piss poor. I shower, dress, and step out on my balcony to survey an animal rights protest in front of one of Madrid’s only McDonalds outposts in the plaza seven floors below.

It’s cold and I’m getting wet. I lucked out yesterday in Toledo with overcast skies and, once in a while, a spot of sunshine, but today it’s really raining. I’m told that this is very unseasonable weather; it would normally be 26°C and sunny like the weather forecasts predicted as I was packing my bags three days ago. Instead, I’m in my damp hoodie huddling under the almost-big-enough-for-one-person hotel loaner umbrella. It’s all good, though, as I’m set on getting churros for breakfast.

A churro could very easily be mistaken for a device of the Pennsylvania Dutch: a doughnut-like batter that is deep fried in either strips or an oþal shape, somewhere between the diameter of a Dunkin’ Doughnuts (or “Dunkin’ Coffee” as the chain is called here) doughnut and the diameter of a funnel cake strand.

My research has led me to a seemingly unlikely place called Chocolatería Muñiz in the gentrifying (although not quite as gentrified as Chueca) barrio of La Latina. The place consists of a long bar, a hand-operated churro maker, a fry-o-lator, a few gambling machines, smoke, two huge beer kegs that are built into the wall, a menu consisting almost exclusively of pork products (many of which are offal), prices that would barely be sufficient to post a letter, and lots of trash on the floor (despite the fact that small waste baskets have been thoughtfully scattered around the bar). These are all good signs. Half of the patrons are there for the deep fried confections, while the other half are pensioners wisely investing their hard-earned government handouts in tippling tepid tumblers of tasty, twopenny turps. I order the churros con chocolat (drinking chocolate for dunking). The churros are the best I have ever had, however, I have to admit that the chocolate, while good, is not as divine as my beloved Naked Chocolate back home.

A couple blocks away from fried dough nirvana, I discover La Latina’s covered market. I must admit that there is not really anything to immediately impress, which, however, is not to say that it is not a nice market. The one stall that does catch my attention, though, is a meat purveyor who appears to be specializing in offal. He has an entire case devoted solely to livers: beef, veal, pork, and lamb. There’s a tray full of lamb sweetbreads (i.e., pancreas), tripe, kidneys, and some other internal organs I fail to identify. My Spanish isn’t fluent, but I swear there is a tray that is labeled something like “Assorted Organs.” The Pièce de Résistance, however, is a an assortment of lamb cabezas (heads). The best way I can describe them is that they are opened like a book: bifurcated lengthwise (between the two hemispheres (do lambs have two hemispheres?)) and neatly held together in the middle by the brain stem and the still-attached tongue. Es muy delicioso! I would have so much fun if I lived here. Does the stupid FDA even allow sale of whole animal heads in the US?

Based on a recommendation from a US expat., I have my hotel make a reservation for me at La Repanocha. The reviews of this place seem pretty good; most I’ve found online are from locals. A reservation is essential, I’m told, as the restaurant has barely a half-dozen tables. I reserve for 14:30, which I’ve found to be the beginning of the lunch rush in Madrid. Frankly, I’m surprised that the reservation was available as it’s a Saturday. A brief 15 minute metro ride out of the center of the city and I am in front of the restaurant. There is a prominent sign, but all of the windows are frosted glass and I cannot see the interior. Deep breath, and I push through the door ... to find an empty dining room. There are only a handful of tables, but it is much more spacious than I had anticipated. White tablecloths, nice stemware, and a relatively modern interior: this is the first place on my trip thus far that, pending transport, would blend in with the myriad similar-looking restaurants back home in Philadelphia. The sole waitress, whom I am guessing is the owner and/or wife of the chef, sports a surprisingly excellent handle on the English language (which is surprising in Madrid). Upon entering she immediately welcomes me, assuming that (1) I am the rube that made the reservation, and (2) both her and my English are collectively better than my Spanish. I needn’t tell you that she was correct on both accounts. She takes my umbrella and shows me to my table, which has already been set for one. While deciphering the Spanish menu, she reemerges from the kitchen to give me her suggestions: as a starter, the green salad with sautéed goat cheese accompanied by tomato and tomatillo coulis, followed by the oxtail as the main course. Aside from the pen and paper of this diary, accompaniment during my solo meals on this trip has been provided by Anthony Bourdain’s book, Kitchen Confidential. If you haven’t read the book, Tony devotes an entire chapter to revealing to the cooking laity the devious tendencies of restaurant staff with regard to pushing recently expired (or soon to expire) food onto their unsuspecting customers. One such technique is for the chef to impress upon his waitstaff the importance of, for example, hyping the goat cheese salad to a stupid American tourist because the cheese is mouldering in the back of his reach-in and if it doesn’t sell soon then it will be a threefold loss on his initial investment. I trust the waitress, though, so I resign to her suggestions. I request a half-bottle of Rioja to wash it all down. It turns out the “half bottle,” which would normally be 375ml, is in actuality a “two thirds bottle” at 500ml. The salad, which is very similar to that which I had had at La Abadia in Toledo, is excellent. The oxtail, however, is divine. I’ve had a lot of oxtail in my life, and this is definitely in the top three. Stuffed from the large portions and nicely sedated by consuming 50% more wine than I had initially anticipated, I forgo desert for a coffee. Along with the coffee the waitress kindly pours me a shot of a golden spirit which she informs me is a specialty from somewhere in the North. As I am never one to offend with the refusal of such hospitality, I graciously oblige. The spirit tasted subtly of anise, almost like liquid fennel. It is wonderful. My only regret is that I cannot remember the name.

From lunch I take the metro directly to the Atocha station to see the Reina Sofia museum; I’m told it has free admission on Saturday afternoons. I had visited the museum on my previous visit to Madrid, but it really is one of my favorites. Apparently I am not the only one with the bright idea of saving a few Euros on admission: the queue is huge.

It ends up being a 30 minute wait, in the rain, under my flimsy little hotel loaner umbrella. It is worth it, though.

After a few hours ogling the likes of Dalí and Picasso, I zip over to Sol to try and find a famed sherry bar called La Venencia. Unfortunately the bar hasn’t yet opened, so I walk another few blocks with the intention of completing my tapas crawl from two days prior. The tapas places haven’t yet reopened after siesta, though, so I am out of luck. The single eatery that is open is the Museo del Jamón. Despite its name, it’s really more of a franchised bar/restaurant than a museum. It’s a very touristy, but I am hungry for a snack so I enter and order a plate of Iberica. The Japanese businessman next to me is just finishing a plate of his own and wishes to ask for the bill. He whips out his Madrid tour guide, studies it for what seems like five minutes (all the while with the waiter standing in front), only to produce in heavily accented Spanish, “Ra kyu-en-ta poor fu-bor” (Spanish: “La quenta, por favor.” English: “Check please!”). The waiter gives him the check and replies, in what I believe to be a fairly decent Japanese accent, “ありがとうございます。” (Romanization: “Arigatou gozaimasu.”).

The Night Train

The train from Madrid to Lisbon departs at 22:45. It’s an eleven hour journey. Due to extenuating circumstances including—but not limited to—the perihelion of Mercury, I have somehow scored a first class cabin all to myself, which automatically gets me a reservation and meal in the dining car. I settle into my tiny cabin, the only “first class” aspect of which is that it has the luxury of an ensuite bathroom.

I am the only unaccompanied person in the first class car, and seemingly the only one below retirement age. The other three cabins are all likewise occupied by non-Europeans. My neighbors, I learn, are a couple that live in Jamaica. The husband, one Clinton P. Chin, J.P. (which I assume stands for “Justice of the Peace”) is the chairman of the Chinese Twinning Commission for Hangzhou ↔ Montego Bay and Zhejiang Province ↔ St. James. Apparently, the Twinning Commission oversees relations and commerce between the aforementioned regional pairs. I do not discover this until His Worship, the Honourable Mr. Chin gave me his business card, so I do not have a chance to ask him what types of commerce occurs between Hangzhou and Zhejiang and their respective Rasta relations. The major exports of Jamaica are sugar, coffee, rum, bananas, and yams, all of which, it would seem, China would be able to produce itself.

While conjuring the proper way to formally address a Justice of the Peace, I slip a sport jacket over my t-shirt to complete my transformation into a haut-classe gentleman of leisure and parade to the dining car. One of the vital pieces of trivia any traveler to Iberia must know is: Most types of pork lard have a melting point just below average human body temperature. So, even at this early stage in my trip, I begin to notice oily secretions emanating from all of my orifices, including skin pores. I’m therefore relieved by the fact that, since train food is only a notch above airplane food in quality, I would not feel bad by “wasting” this opportunity of a meal on something healthy as opposed to something authentic. I have a smoked duck salad and a lean piece of grilled porco (the train staff are apparently Portuguese). I do forget, however, the rule that the letter “c” is only pronounced as the voiceless alveolar fricative (i.e., like the letter “s”) if followed by an “e” or an “i.” Therefore, I order some delicious por-soo ([poɾsw]) instead of por-koo ([poɾkw]). The waiter understands. Stupid gringo. I nurse a glass of port, reading my book, as the train sways to-and-fro into darkness.

Sunday, May 12th

The capitol of Portugal and I have an interesting relationship. About four years ago, on our first date, I treated her “by the book” (I believe it was Fodors, or some reasonable facsimile thereof). Desensitized to this approach—in no doubt thanks to countless previous experiences with men such as myself—, she accepted my museum visits, gift shop purchases, and restauranting with a choreographed smile and only the slightest hint of a foreign accent. Given the nature of her temperament and physique, my first attempt toward love was akin to courting Manhattan in the confines of Time Square.

Lisbon and I had a day long tryst affair two years ago, after I had spent a week meeting the rest of her family (i.e., Porto, Lagos, Évora, &c.). By that point I had a much deeper appreciation for her inner beauty and an ever evolving personal travel philosophy that was becoming decreasingly reliant on (and trusting of) “the book.” I wasn’t looking for Mrs. Right; I was looking for Mrs. Right Now. We had a blast. But this second trip was rather like reading a long, complex, enjoyable novel and, with only ten pages to go, you realize, “Wow, Mr. Pynchon, if I hadn’t both a working knowledge of the 13th century postal system and a rudimentary appreciation for œnology, I would have never noticed that last allusion. I wonder what else I’ve missed?”

Now, beginning our third tryst, I’ve at least a handle on her native language, along with it’s complex set of phonetic pronunciation rules, and a newfound appreciation for her culinary tastes (read: blood sausage, salt cod, all things pig, and lots of tripe). I’m ready to choke back her touristy façade, peel away her thistly layered leaves of defensive cultural repression (at least from tourists’ eyes), devour what little substance there is on the way (possibly employing some clarified butter), and fall in love with her true heart.

Lisbon

The train arrives early in the morning and I take a cab to my hotel. As is standard in many socialist countries, virtually all taxis in Portugal are Mercedes Benz sedans piloted—in large part—by hardened, arthritic, chain smoking, got-nothing-to-lose septuagenarians. Oh-tyel Khay-ahl Pah-lah-syu, por fah-vor. Despite being a romance language, inheriting many rules from Vulgar Latin, Portuguese’s phonology and syllable stress have many similarities with Slavic languages—at least to my Anglophone ear. I speak a bit of Russian, and used to know a bit of Polish, so I think I’ve hit the pronunciation spot on, albeit with a bit of a Brazilian accent due to years of weaning on a healthy bossa nova diet of Jobim and Gilberto. All this does not prevent the driver from responding to my Portuguese request with a hearty, “Hotel Real Palacio? No problem.” Apparently all English language TV shows and films are dubbed in Spain. They’re all subtitled in Portugal.

My room isn’t yet ready so I hit the town. My first stop is what’s called the “Collector’s Market” which is only open on Sunday mornings. I don’t really know what to expect, but have a feeling it will be a flea market. It’s not. It’s a bunch of stamp and coin collectors with their three-ring-bound philatelic and numismatic tomes, most of which are just for show and not actually for sale. There are a few guys selling vintage post cards and a table or two with piles of knick knacks. On one such table I find a couple fountain pens—which I do collect—however, they are in a bad condition. I walk out and head to the shopping districts of Baixa (Buy-sha) and Chiado (sh-yah-doo). See what I mean about Portuguese pronunciation?

My room isn’t yet ready so I hit the town. My first stop is what’s called the “Collector’s Market” which is only open on Sunday mornings. I don’t really know what to expect, but have a feeling it will be a flea market. It’s not. It’s a bunch of stamp and coin collectors with their three-ring-bound philatelic and numismatic tomes, most of which are just for show and not actually for sale. There are a few guys selling vintage post cards and a table or two with piles of knick knacks. On one such table I find a couple fountain pens—which I do collect—however, they are in a bad condition. I walk out and head to the shopping districts of Baixa (Buy-sha) and Chiado (sh-yah-doo). See what I mean about Portuguese pronunciation?

It’s unfortunate that my harsh mistress is a devout Catholic … strictly speaking from a tourist’s perspective. It’s Sunday so everything is closed. I’m not just talking about the museums; virtually every single shop in the entire city, including international chain department stores, are closed. It’s like the days of my childhood when US capitalism was still tempered by the lack of a full-blown Starbucks + Credit Card culture. Virtually all of the restaurants I had wished to try are closed.

It has been overcast and misting all morning, but now the skies open up and it starts to pour. I hop into Rossio station, in the heart of the touristy—and, needless to say, non-residential—center of the old city, to escape the rain. I forgot to borrow an umbrella this morning. It’s pushing on 12:30, the Portuguese lunch hour, so I have to find some place to eat. I sit down and, for the first time this trip, open my tour book with the intention of finding a restaurant. It’s hard enough finding a good restaurant in a tourist district on any day, let alone a Sunday! I scan the listings desperate to corroborate any with a recollection of a positive review I had previously found in my online research. There was one such place, open for lunch on Sundays, and only a few hundred meters away: Bon Jardin on nearby Travessa de Santo Antão.

I wait for a break in the rain, walk over, and start conducting reconnaissance. Two couples outside on the terrace, at least one of which is obviously a tourist. There are tables indoors, but it’s hard to see if anyone is in there, and I’m guessing not. I take a stroll around the block to see if there are any other places that look enticing, and find none. Back at Bon Jardin I decide to take the plunge; it’s cold and drizzling off and on. I don’t want to be outside. I walk in the door. The dining room is empty, but I don’t care. I’m hungry. A waiter, busy setting up a long table for an as of yet nonexistent banquet, greets me without lifting his head. Had he taken the time to see that (1) I am alone, (2) I am wearing a backpack, and (3) I am not a pensioner, he probably would have addressed me in English. “Oosh may-zash ehsh-tah’w deesh-poe-nee-vaysh new pree-mayee-roo ahn-dahr.” I should really have taken my Latin more seriously back at the old Alma Mater. Let’s see … “mesas” is easy as it has the same root as the land formation in English: tables. Next is “estão”. Thank Jupiter for rote learning of Latin declension: sum, es, est, summus, estis, sunt. The verb to be. “Disponíveis” I know from French: available. “Primeiro”: must mean primary or first. Finally, “andar”. Here I’m stumped. So far it’s obvious that he’s trying to convey the availability of tables. Perhaps he’s trying to tell me that indoor tables are on a first-come, first-served basis? Or maybe he’s just trying to crack a joke, saying that I’m the first person to want to sit inside? As I’m standing there, temporarily paralyzed by routing all of my brainpower to the language centers of my cerebral cortex, another waiter bursts from the entrance behind me and runs up a previously unnoticed flight of stairs with a plate of food. There must be another dining room upstairs! Portugal—like most countries whose name does not start with “United” and end with “States”—refers to the first floor above ground level as the “first floor,” not the second; the ground floor is the zeroeth floor. As a computer scientist, this makes sense to me. Andar must mean floor in Portuguese. I timidly walk up the stairs to find another, larger dining room that is nearly filled to capacity, and apparently all with locals filing in directly from church. The thick walls of 18–19th century construction really do provide great sound insulation.

I choose a small table, sit down, and am immediately given a menu. To my delight, although the menu is the same, the prices inside are a bit cheaper than the prices if one had dined outside. I am also served a series of couverts: appetizers served at the beginning of the meal, like olives, cheese, bread, &c. Although at one time these were complimentary, they nowadays all carry a price. Take a piece of bread? You are charged for the bread. Eat a single olive? You are charged for all of the olives. I usually refuse the couverts, not because of the money, but because the waitstaff recycle the uneaten couverts from table to table. I’m guessing this is legal in Portugal, but I don’t believe it’s legal int he US. According to Tony Bourdain, though, it occurs all of the time in the US with bread. Based upon my recollection of some suggestions online, I order the house specialty: frango (roasted chicken). I accompany it with some mandatory French fries and a much needed spot of green: a salad. The chicken was very good. Not the best I’ve ever had, but good enough to conspire with the convivial surroundings to create a thoroughly delightful and memorable meal.

Back to the hotel to take a nap. Portugal is only one timezone west of Spain, but Spain’s protracted eating and sleeping schedule makes it more like a four hour difference. After the nap I prepare a bit for tomorrow’s conference.

19:00 and it’s time to head out for dinner. This time, with the luxury of an Internet connection in my room, I won’t be needing my tour guide. As I take the metro over to Restauradores, I notice that the automated announcement in the very modern and impeccably clean train proclaims, “Prook-see-mah esh-ta-sown khesh-tao-ra-dah-resh” (Proxima estação Restauradores), meaning “Approaching station Restauradores.” Last time I was here it said “puh-rah-zheng” (paragem) instead of “estação,” meaning “stop.” I wonder why they made the change. Maybe it’s because “paragem” doesn’t share a common root with many other languages, whereas most other European languages have a word for “station” similar to “estação,” thus improving the chances of tourist comprehension. With that type of mentality, maybe in a couple more years they’ll switch to Interlingua.

Although my target is at the top of one of Lisbon’s famously steep hills, I intentionally get off at Restauradores, lying at the foot, to take the ever-so-touristy but fun (and included in my one-day-metro-pass) trip up the Gloria funicular to Barrio Alto. This area of the city is famous for its mostly touristy Fado bars and small restaurants. The restaurant to which I’m headed is perhaps the smallest. I and my now wife (girlfriend at the time) tried to eat at this place on our first visit to Lisbon. We didn’t read about it in a book; we just passed by, saw that there was a huge line, and figured it must be good. Perhaps it was fate—or perhaps Lisbon being jealous—but a half hour wait later with absolutely no progress and we decided to eat elsewhere.

46 Rua do Norte. Corner of Travessa da Espera. A picture I found online (available here) explains it all. There’s no sign, other than graffiti.

The place is called O cantinho do Bem Estar, which I believe means something like, “The welfare corner.” Sure enough, this place has many similarities with El Comunista in Madrid past their Marxist names. This place is tiny: only five or six tables, most of which are currently combined to seat parties of four. Sitting down at a table is a commitment, because future extraction from the table will in no doubt require at least five people at two other tables to stand up to make room for your exit. The tables are covered in the requisite paper. There are no windows. There is an open kitchen divided from the dining room by a refrigerator filled with fresh seafood and homemade deserts. The place is full to capacity, but I am lucky in that there is only one couple standing in line in front of me. Immediately after I enqueue another couple files in behind me. Every once in a while a young Portuguese man will confidently bypass the queue, enter the restaurant, and speak to the Maître d’/sole waiter/most likely owner and chef’s husband, pleading to hook him and his girlfriend up with the next available table. The maître simply points to the queue. Various people walk by, look intrigued by the small place, stand in line for a bit, and then leave from impatience. This time, however, I’m sticking it out.

When I am finally beckoned to a table, I am surprised (although somehow comforted) by the fact that the waiter does not appear to speak English. I haven’t had any seafood yet on this trip, and this place specializes in seafood, so I order the seafood soup followed by their shrimp in garlic. The waiter has an interchange with his supposed wife in the kitchen. Não mais. He promises, though, to get me a reasonable replacement, or so I believe. With that, my order had been placed. A Jarro of the house wine and water promptly follow.

The soup is a wonderful, typically Mediterranean (yeah, I know Lisbon is on the Atlantic) bisque with generous amounts of prawn brains for body and flavor. Perhaps this is to where all their shrimp disappeared.

My mystery main course appears next: tiny clams and cockles. I have to be honest and say that I am bit disappointed; not only does Tony explain in his book the dangers of trusting others in the cookery of bivalves, but these shells are so tiny that I am going to have to work pretty hard for my meal. All reservations are lost, however, after my first taste. The broth in which they were cooked appears to be the irresistible combination of olive oil, butter, garlic, coriander, onion, and the delicious natural liquor. After transforming my dish to a heap of empty shells, the waiter reemerged to see if I wanted desert. He didn’t bring a menu because the deserts aren’t on the menu (or, if they are, they probably aren’t the same deserts that his wife decided to make and put in the refrigeration case last night). I once again lay my fate in his hands, this time with a bit more well-deserved trust. Oo kee voh-say khek-oh-mehn-dah-ree’uh (O que você recomendaria)? He simply replies, “Shoo-koo-laht!” What arrives seems to be some sort of divine, pudding-like, seemingly flourless chocolate cake. Delicious.

Monday, May 13th

It’s the crack of dawn and I’m headed to the station to hop a train to Estoril, a small Atlantic beach town once known as a vacation spot for Victorian-era European royalty, but know known mostly for its glitzy casino. I’d briefly visited Estoril on my first trip to Portugal; I was staying in Cascais, the neighboring city, which is only a fifteen minute walk (or five minute moped ride, as it was) down the coast. In some strictly relative respects, Atlantic City is to Las Vegas as Estoril is to Monte Carlo; however, such an analogy is in large part degrading to both Estoril and Monte Carlo.

I check into my hotel, across from the Casino, and rush over to the conference venue which, on the outskirts of Cascais, is only a ten minute walk away.

Cascais

The conference, a bit surprisingly, decided to have a catered lunch for the attendees for all but one of the days, which is quite convenient. Given that Cascais and Estoril’s economies are driven almost solely by tourism and gambling, there aren’t many of my type of restaurants available for lunching. (Marx probably wouldn’t have been very keen on the gambling!)

After an all day workshop on Optimization in Multiagent Systems, head thoroughly turned to mush, I meet up with a group of a couple dozen graduate students—some of whom I know from previous conferences, others of whom I know peripherally from reading their work—and I’m invited to go with them to dinner. Now, twenty people is a hard number to accommodate without a reservation (and given the sizes of previous restaurants on this trip it might even be impossible), but I decide to go because it could be at least be the first meal in which I might have a conversation.

We walk into the center of Cascais and deep into its touristy underbelly. We’re all graduate students, so not only do we need to find a place large enough but also one that is not too hard on our per diem alms. We finally find a place. It seems to be styled after an English pub. Ever since the Methuen Treaty of 1703, it seems, the English have been making an increasing habit of holidaying to—and often retiring in—Portugal. They must all be trying to get away from that awfully nice fellow, the Bishop of Norwich. The restaurant doesn’t have enough room inside for us, so we all have to sit on the terrace. I was originally planning on going back to my hotel before dinner and grabbing a jacket, which obviously didn’t go as planned. It’s cold, so I order some beer. It seems like a foolproof core-temperature-boosting plan.

The waiter comes by and I ask what fishes are good (i.e. freshly caught) today. He replies that all of the fish are fresh today. This is an omen. You see, I am now an expert on omens and portents, thanks to John Hodgman. Blind trust has led me well previously on this trip, though. He khekomends the whole sea bream, so I go with that.

Poor choice. Poor choice. The fish, which was fresh … from the freezer, had obviously not even been properly thawed before being slapped on the grill. It wasn’t properly flash frozen, for that matter, as its soupy flesh is a telltale indicator of the slow cooling that leads to cell-puncturing crystallization. As a final blow, the fish is accompanied by a single, boiled, skinned potato and a dead piece of broccoli. Perhaps my palate has grown accustomed to everything being slathered in pork fat, but for such a lean piece of fish there’s no sauce, either. I should have ordered the hairy lobster.

I hobble back to Estoril with a full stomach, empty appetite for conversation, and a sore throat.

Tuesday, May 14th

Another full day at the conference, this time on Distributed Constraint Reasoning. Another catered lunch which, all in all, is pretty good. I somehow (perhaps subconsciously) avoid all social obligation and invitation to a group dinner tonight, so I am free to hit the town myself. This time I brought a jacket, just in case. After the last session of the day, I steal away on my laptop to finalize my plans. It turns out one has to trek relatively far to find a decent place to eat in Cascais/Estoril.

I walk out of the conference venue a bit apprehensive, but determined. It’s already dark, and I’ll be walking through an unknown, residential part of the city. Judging by my highly accurate hand-drawn map, I estimate that it will be an 18.27 minute walk. Three minutes in, I have a choice: turn left and head for the brightly-lit tourist playground, or turn right and head up the dark, deserted, unfamiliar road. I turn right. There are typically European flats on my left: concrete construction, clothes lines hanging out of windows, and wall-mounted HVAC units. On the right there is what appears to be an old graffitied convent. Five minutes in I hit a large roundabout. Either the restaurant is within sight or my cartographic career has met an early end. Ten minutes later and I’m rationalizing whether or not the Boy Scouts have authority to revoke my Orienteering merit badge. The road, which had originally carried a constant stream of motorists, now only supports a car or so every minute. The signs of civilization have likewise dwindled. Finally, after a good twenty minute walk, what’s that? A taxi stop‽ A square? Largo das Fontainhas, I believe it’s called. This is technically still a part of Cascais, but it feels miles away. There aren’t any restaurant hawkers pushing menus in my face as I walk by here. There are a few nice looking restaurants, filled with locals, which is a comforting fact since I have no idea if my destination will necessitate a fallback. One such restaurant even has tablecloths, a modern interior, and crystal stemware!

I finally arrive at Rua de Alvide 366: Ginginha Transmontana, which I believe means something like, “Ginginha Transmontana.” Reconnaissance time. The restaurant is situated in a squat single-story building that some might call a concrete shack. There is a window air conditioner permanently installed in the wall. The door is open, but it enters directly onto a takeout window manned by a twenty-something-year-old waiter; the dining room is through another interior door and out of sight. I can see back into the kitchen to a woman cook, most likely the waiter’s mother. There is a menu posted outside which I am disappointed to see has an English translation. Do they really get that many non-domestic tourists this far off the beaten path? There are some small windows just below the roof line, but they are all translucent; all I can see are flashing multicolored lights inside, however, I can hear no sounds emanating from the dining room that would indicate a rave is in progress. I didn’t come this far to walk away, so I enter.

The rectangular dining room is circumscribed by wall-mounted benches and has a half-dozen tables. Each table sports a meter tall organic-looking mound of wax topped by a burning candle. I later find out from the waiter that they have been burning candles on the tables for the past 30 years, one on top of the other, and never clean up the wax. I should have brought my camera with me. The walls are adorned with all sorts of knick knacks that I assume are collections of the owners. A corner is occupied by a rather impressive collection of alarm clocks. The ceiling is draped in seizure-inducing strands of multicolored Christmas lights. There are two other occupied tables, one with a Portuguese couple and another with a group of three Americans accompanied by a Portuguese native. Later on another Portuguese couple arrives, easing my fears of having too late a meal.

The waiter arrives with the couverts: bread and, unusually, a plate of steamed mussels. I had read about this, and supposedly the mussels are delicious. They look delicious. They’re huge and smell temptingly wonderful as I peruse the menu. I’m by myself, though, and the single (large) plate of mussels would have alone satisfied my entire appetite, not to mention Tony’s admonitions of restaurant-prepared bivalves being portents for gastrointestinal distress. I politely (yet admittedly a bit longingly) refuse the mussels.

There’s no wine list. I ask the waiter if he has any meia garrafa (half bottles), to which he replies in the negative, so I order a jarro of the house wine. I had anticipated that he would bring me the equivalent of a half bottle (375ml) or at least 5cl, but he instead brings me what looks like a full liter. It’s going to be a long night.

I’ve read that this place specializes in grelhado na telha: meats grilled on terracotta roofing tiles. The table across from me has some type of meat sizzling away in this preparation. It looks like a lot of food and it’s not quite tickling my fancy. I’m not very hungry and none of the starters look particularly enticing, so I only order the Bacalhau com Gambas or “Cod with Prawns.” Twenty minutes or so later, it arrives. It smells amazing and tastes even better. The cod, which I had assumed to be salted, appears to actually have been fresh (I think). It was first fried in a batter and then baked, in an earthenware bowl, along with the prawns, potatoes, and spicy slices of chouriço. I am amazed that every single item in the dish, each requiring a drastically different cooking time and method, is perfectly done. The prawns have been shelled and de-veined, but the heads have been thoughtfully left on for the delicious God-sauce to be sucked from within. I am stuffed, but I can’t stop eating. This meal is hitting the spot. The mother (or perhaps she’s the grandmother?) comes out of the kitchen to greet me. Mwee-too bo-ng! Mwee-too del-ee-see-ah-soo! I decline desert in favor of an espresso and am presented with a complimentary shot of a spirit called Ginja, a Portuguese cherry liquor, that must be the namesake of the restaurant. I graciously accept. I’ll be making use of that taxi stand in a few minutes…

Wednesday, May 15th

This is the first day of the conference proper and I had a presentation to give in the morning. The presentation is accepted even better than I had hoped, so it’s time to celebrate over lunch. This is the only day in which the conference, for some reason, is not catering, and I only have a little less than an hour free before I have to be back to set up a poster that I will be presenting in the afternoon. And it’s drizzling. I run over to the nearby modern multi-story mall with a colleague, head up to the top level food court, and queue up at what appears to be a Brazilian fast food establishment. I order feijoada: the national dish of Brazil consisting of beans stewed with all sorts of delicious pork offal. It’s apparently so delicious that it has become quite popular back at the colonial motherland, too. Unfortunately, it’s so popular that they’re fresh out. I instead get some beef and beans, which are quite good (for fast food).

The poster session goes quite well, after which I politely decline some dinner invitations on the grounds that I need to go back to the hotel to prepare for tomorrow’s demo session. Which is true. But Shakespeare got to get food, son. So I’m off to another solo dinner. I whip out my laptop and start searching. I’m a bit desperate as I believe to have already exhausted all known Internets of their sources; it was hard enough finding last night’s venue, and that was a long way out of town. Finally, after a good half hour of searching, egullet.org to the rescue! There’s even a description of how to walk to the place. And it’s not far! I’m off.

Three minutes in and I have the familiar choice between left and right. Unlike last night I turn left. Past the train station, down the hill, and into a landscaped square. It’s at this point that I regret not drawing a map; I can’t find the small street that’s next in the directions. Twenty minutes of wandering later, almost resigned to another dinner of delicious sea bream, I spot the street. There it is: Rua da Bela Vista number 92. The restaurant is called Pereira.

Here’s the intel.: The menu outside is in Portuguese. There are a generous number of people inside, but it’s a rather large restaurant, so it’s not full. There’s a football game playing on the wall mounted TV. A portable refrigeration case in the foyer lovingly displays the day’s catch on a bed of crushed ice. I walk in and choose a table. The kitchen is partially open, and I can see two or three older women scuttling around in aprons and hair nets. This is about as excited the sight of a sixty-something grandmother has ever made me.

The waiter must have seen my backpack, though, as he hands me a previously unseen English language menu. I am comforted, however, by the fact that he doesn’t seem to be able to read the menu. I already know what I want to order, anyway. Based on my online research I am to order whatever is the special of the day. It’s Thursday, so the special is… “Typical Stew.” At least I think that’s what it was called. The waiter arrives to take my order and I point to the mystery dish. Esh-tah coo-see-doo? I want to know if this is the traditional Portuguese stew, cozido. The waiter looks at the cryptic English menu, is confused for a moment, and then realizes that, yes, it is Thursday and the special is cozido. I order that and a half bottle of Monte Velho by pointing to it in the wall-mounted lineup of empty bottles that serves as the restaurant’s sommelier. I’ve been waiting to try cozido all trip long.

When the dish arrives fifteen minutes later I am instantly disappointed. It looks dead. Really dead. Like a spent chicken carcass after extraction from a thick stock. All of the colors have been leeched out of every ingredient. Let’s see… blood sausage, blood pudding, chouriço, an unidentified other type of sausage resembling bratwurst, pork knuckles/trotters, cabbage, potato, beans, and rice. The first taste, however, and I’m hooked. Totally hooked. They must have spiked this stew with crack rocks. Despite the lack of color, this mélange of perfectly cooked ingredients has a divine seasoning, spice, and perfume that must have been imparted by the cooking liquid as there is no other evidence of chefly intervention. I eat until my stomach almost bursts, and there’s still more to go. I have to force myself to stop in order not only to avoid the dreaded aforementioned gastrointestinal distress, but also to reduce the risk of future dependence and withdrawal. The cessation I cannot force, however, is my smiling.

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