Last week I was invited to the launch of a new Portuguese restaurant called Caco & Co. The invitation got me thinking about Portuguese restaurants in London, where are they and which is the best? To answer the question, I took my Portuguese bestie and my father with me to try out three of London’s most talked about Portuguese restaurants. Here’s what I found…
Portuguese food needs a new brand manager
The first thing a person who visits Portugal will tell you when they get back is almost always about the food. Oh the food! The pasteis de nata, the seafood! The steak, the bread! Even the bread! Yet, outside of Portugal, good Portuguese restaurants are few and far between.
Even in big cities like London or New York, famous for their representation of the best food from around the world, there are just a handful of Portuguese restaurants. Aside from the pastel de nata (custard tart), which has recently achieved Beyonce-level fame around the world, Portuguese food is about as well known – and appreciated – as Portuguese Fado. Excellent in a fado club in Lisbon, less so in your living room.
In Portugal’s defense, and letting the half Portuguese side of me talk for a moment, it’s not just us. Greek food is also a general disappointment outside of Greece. Every time a Greek friend tells me about a new souvlaki place in London and I ask them so, how was it? The reply is often the same, shit.
So what is going on? Why is it that the Spanish and Italians have no problems exporting their food, but not the Portuguese and the Greeks? Even the Brazilians have done better than us. I have several different theories. About history, politics, timing, population and immigrant sizes, relative costs and availability of the ingredients, marketing and entrepreneurial success…
Whatever the reason, that’s the bad news. The good news is that things are finally changing.
Old vs New Portuguese Restaurants in London
It’s important to recognise that the three most talked about Portuguese restaurants in London today only opened within the last two years. Before these, there was Nando’s, which always annoys the Portuguese because it’s actually South African, and a few restaurants in Stockwell.
The problem I have with Stockwell, places like A Toca, O Cantinho, Grelha D’Ouro, is first the location. Stockwell may well be where the majority of Portuguese are, but that isn’t going to attract London foodies. And second the quality. While they each do some dishes very well, it’s still not as good or consistently good as in Portugal. Part of the problem is that their menu is too big for restaurants their size. They would do much better if they specialised rather than offering every Portuguese dish under the sun.
The key difference between Stockwell and the latest three to open, that is Bar Douro, Caco & Co and Taberna do Mercado – and I should add a fourth to this list, Londrino, which opened last week – is that they cater to totally different markets. The Stockwell restaurants aren’t trying to bring Portuguese food to Londoners. They primarily serve Portuguese food to the Portuguese. And that’s a huge difference.
I’ve also observed that while the Stockwell haunts stick to traditional Portuguese food, the new places are much more contemporary and innovative. Portuguese food with a twist. This is a trend that started in Lisbon, think Time Out Mercado da Ribeira and popular places like 100 Maneiras or Leopold, which are all experimenting with contemporary Portuguese-inspired cooking.
Finally, Portuguese cuisine is evolving from grandma’s kitchen, challenging and rebuilding the Portuguese food brand both at home and abroad. The Portuguese elements are a fine start. But I’m still left wishing for a Solar dos Presuntos equivalent here, classic Portuguese fine-dining in somewhere like Marylebone or Green Park.
Bar Douro, Flat Iron Square
Bar Douro restaurant is located at the Flat Iron Square food market between Borough and London Bridge. They definitely have the trendiest location and the best interior design of the three, it’s beautiful inside. I loved the atmosphere of the place, coming on a busy Friday night, my reserved seats ready and waiting for me even as I arrived early. The restaurant do counter seating only, either facing the open kitchen or the street, with a private dining option. We sat facing the kitchen, watching the chefs cook and prepare dish after dish at impressive speed. Overall we loved the food, my favourite dish being the Bacalhau à Brás (cod with potato and egg). Our only stickler was the price. We know, we’re in London not Portugal, but still, £4.50 for a single pastel de nata just didn’t feel right, even if it was the best one we’d ever had.
The verdict: If anyone asks where to go on a date for a nice Portuguese dinner, this is the place I’ll recommend!
Taberna do Mercado, Spitalfields
I arrived at an empty Taberna do Mercado at noon on a Sunday with my 100% Portuguese father. The location is great, inside the trendy Spitalfields market in the city. It’s also part-owned by famous Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes in partnership with an old friend of mine, so I really do want to like it. But when it comes to food, I won’t lie. I’d been here before two years ago and recall leaving disappointed. Quite frankly, I didn’t like it because it wasn’t what I love about Portuguese food.
Coming back on a Sunday, I was surprised to find an alternative menu placed before us. This would have been fine if there were some Portuguese lunch specials but instead, there was only a bifana (pork) and prego (steak sandwich) to choose from. We went for one of each and shared. We also ordered 2 pineapple Sumol (like Fanta) and a coffee each. The bill came up to £40 (rounded up and what we paid), an astronomical amount for what my dad says was the worst bifana and prego he’s had in his life. But don’t worry, if Nuno ever reads this, it’s the kind of criticism I suspect he enjoys. We just didn’t get it. We expected the recipes we grew up loving, and got something totally different instead.
The verdict: It’s a divisive, marmite-esque restaurant and the least Portuguese. I don’t love it, but you might.
Caco & Co, Shepherd’s Bush, Blackfriars
Last but not least, the restaurant that inspired this post is Caco & Co, which I attended on a Wednesday night. I hadn’t heard about this place until an invitation showed up in my inbox for their Blackfriars launch party. I looked them up and saw they have another restaurant in Shepherd’s Bush. The concept is like a Portuguese tasca, an informal space to come and enjoy Portuguese food and wine with friends any time of the day. Although I think the fantastic quality of the food and wine here is deserving of better interior design, I like where their priorities are focused.
The specialty here is pregos sandwiches, using a type of bread from Madeira called bolo de caco. The bread also doubles up as the perfect base for brunch favourites like avocado on toast and eggs Benedict. I love this Madeiran spin on Portuguese cuisine, such as their delicious bread and passionfruit poncha! I had never heard of a tuna prego before and now find myself craving it. They also do the most gorgeous cheese and charcuterie boards I’ve ever seen and various espetadas (spits) of moist grilled meats. Coupled with a superb selection of Portuguese wine, I see a third Caco & Co opening in the near future!
The verdict: Great for casual group dining and authentic Portuguese (and Madeiran!) food and wine.
“Calling Portuguese Food”
I discovered the video below on Caco & Co’s Facebook page. It opens with general manager Jorge de Jesus saying that now is the best time for Portuguese food. I couldn’t agree more. The video shows a gathering of owners and chefs from the restaurants mentioned here talking about their common goal to increase the exposure of Portuguese food in London.
It’s extremely refreshing and encouraging to see these restaurants talking and working together as part of the same initiative and not as competitors. Check out the video below, set inside Bar Douro.
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