It can be hit and miss when you arrive in a new city late in the evening without a dinner reservation. You could either stumble upon a great restaurant, or a disappointing one. On my first night in Porto, both things happened.
By 8pm, we’d already been rejected from two restaurants. When we finally found a third (sadly, mediocre) place that could take us, we stumbled upon Almeja.
Situated on the quiet Rua de Fernandes Tomas, a stone’s throw from the busier main streets of the historic city, Almeja is so softly lit from the inside that if you blinked, you might miss it. I almost did, my eyes drawn instead to the brighter carvery just two or three doors down.
We ultimately decided on the latter after seeing another couple turned away without a reservation. Perhaps, we thought, the restaurant didn’t take walk-ins, but after a quick search online, we discovered that it had found its way onto the Michelin Guide and received scores of great reviews.
With nothing to lose (and quickly realizing you need to make reservations if you’re going to eat anywhere decent in this city), we managed to get the only booking left on the website for the next evening. Score!
Clam, which translates into “to crave or long for”, offers a 10-dish tasting menu or a la carte options for dinner. Whenever I visit a new place, I want to try everything, all at once – how very “clam” of me.
In lieu of ordering everything on the menu, a seasonal tasting menu seemed to be the best bet. The one at Almeja has been widely lauded for being creative and exciting. I didn’t need much convincing.
To whet our appetites, we were presented with two teacups of steaming broth, one seafood and one chicken consomme. The seafood consomme was the clear winner here, a sweet, creamy-scented hug that my pescetarian dining partner said he could have drunk a whole pint of.
What followed was experimental delight after experimental delight. A perfect portion of pig’s head terrine with sweet apple for me was trumped by my partner’s enoki mushroom with black garlic sauce and fermented banana, which was an explosion of sweet vs. savory that was bowl-scrapingly delicious.
A warming bowl of caramelized onion puree topped with crispy fried bread was wonderfully jammy and moreish. A slice of pure white turbot with endive grapes and sauce reduced from the fish’s head – how did they get the skin to be as white as its flesh? I had never seen anything like it before. The waiter tells me the fish is steamed with fresh herbs, which could have resulted in rubbery or slimy fish skin, a tragedy. Instead, I am pleased to discover that it is neither, but instead a melt-in-the-mouth delight, sharpened by the bitterness of the endive.
Next is a dainty plate of wood pigeon, the deep pink slices accompanied by cubes of amaretto jelly and almonds. Rice and wood pigeon gravy are also served in a separate personal-sized saucepan, a wood pigeon croquette nestled alongside. The bird is perfectly cooked, its almost-too gamey flavor pulled back by the surprising amaretto jelly. A delight to devour.
However, among the many diamonds was but one coal of a dish, a rather unexpected and dismaying circumstance. The house-baked sourdough bread, served with butter with toasted milk powder sounded like it would be a joy, my interest piqued by the unusual caramel-brown dusting on the butter. But both bread and butter were soft, as though both had been made without a grain of salt between them.
There was a smattering of salt on the butter, but if you happened to slather the bit that didn’t have salt on the bread, it was like stodgy nothingness. It was certainly a strange thing to experience, and something my partner and I talked about for at least two days afterwards, so disappointing it was.
But don’t let one sorry dish out of the nine-course tasting menu put you off. Bread is easily improved, and so is butter. As a whole, Almeja served up thrilling food, with exciting and unusual flavors that were a joy to eat. The dessert, a coconut sorbet with delicate layers of filo pastry on top and dusted with curry powder, was a joyous, playful way to end the meal.
Literally stumbling across Clam on a poorly-planned night felt like fate. It set the bar and tone for the rest of my visit to Porto, and I’m certainly glad I didn’t just walk on by.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.