Green Rooms: New Hotels, Chocolate, and Style in Lisbon
Since my room at the Lisbon Short Stay was not ready when I arrived in the Portuguese capital, I asked the receptionist to describe it to me. "Well," she said, "I can tell you that it's green."
I like hotels. I'm always curious about them. Sometimes I travel just to try new ones. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I read The Hotel New Hampshire when I was a kid and liked it. Maybe it's because—despite a common misperception—I'm really a homebody and I prefer comfortable pajamas and a quiet night in to just about anything on offer at the local bar.
But since the green room was not yet ready for my exclusive engagement, I would have to head out onto the lusophone city streets. Lisbon businesses and residents were nearly imperceptibly gearing up for tomorrow's Cinco de Outubro holiday, which the Portuguese celebrate with as much ambivalence as Mexicans celebrate Cinco de Mayo. The tourist circuit I took involved a funicular, two cable cars, a sixteenth-century castle into the ruins of which the rising moonlight cast eerie shadows, several panoramic views of the ocean, and just as many other hotels in about ten hours.
When I rang the bell at the Monte Belverdere (an enormous rattling old house that until a few years ago was occupied by a single old lady), Luis, a former TAP airline crew member, quickly arrived. In fact there were no unoccupied guest rooms at this newly renovated inn but Luis played the perfect butler. We wound our way up a couple of wooden staircases and he invited me to join him on the roof. The Belverdere is perched at the highest point of Santa Catarina, a tiny parish whose borders were drawn in 1559, which is itself perched at the highest point of the larger, modern neighborhood known as the Barrio Alto. "You have a great view," I said. "It's a weird view," he said, motioning toward the shipyards below—once the headquarters of the world's most astonishing global maritime operations, Lisbon's shipyards are now repair shops for cruise ships from other countries. A great, weird view.
Before I left, Luis bundled up a collection of maps, on which he marked various viewpoints and points of interest with a pink highlighter, and handed them to me. I didn't need any of them, though, to find the Pharmacia, a kitchy, foodie outpost in another repurposed old property with a lawn of asphalt out front—it was right across the street. I've wanted to go to this red-cross-bedecked bar and restaurant since last summer, when a couple of us trekked all the way up the nearest steep hill late on a Saturday night to find that the kitchen was already closed. I was out of luck, again, though, since this pharmacy is closed on Mondays.
I continued downhill toward the Largo de Camões, free associating about my proximity to the sea and thinking about sushi. At the border of the Barrio Alto and Chiado neighborhoods, I wandered into the five-star Barrio Alto Hotel and asked the concierge where I might find what I was looking for. He marked a spot on the map, and then lead me out the door and pointed me in the right direction. SeaMe, just around the corner, was not what I expected but exactly what I needed.
There is something California modern about SeaMe's airy space and the ever so slightly slight snobbery about their (superb) market-fresh seafood. But they don't worry about calling their soft-shell crab, avocado, and roe maki (quickly dredged in—what was that? panko?—and fried just until the seaweed is crispy) a California roll. The bartender João poured an invitingly large class of a phenomenal alvarinho, easy to drink and at the same time full of earthy, mineraly flavors. João, a transplant from the celebrated contemporary dining room at Tasca da Escina, told me that he tried to treat people the way that he liked to be treated, I told him I did the same, and for the next half hour we did just that. A French journalist on assignment then joined me and ordered the special of the day. He started up a conversation and as if by cinematic coincidence (a coincidence that would have been absolutely artificial in any film version of this moment, since I had volunteered no information about myself, my blog, or anything else) told me that he had just eaten the best chocolate cake in Lisbon, in a DUMBO-like post-industrial neighborhood. The New York Times' requisite "36 Hours in Lisbon" piece corroborates his story, urging travelers to try the gâteau de chocolat at Landeau located inside LX Factory in the Alcântara neighborhood. But João looked dubious. Maybe he preferred the more meditative conversation that we had been having about hiking nearby in Sintra. Or maybe I was projecting. Either way, I'd finished my sushi and my vinho verde, so I decided to leave both João and the journalist at the bar and make my own fun.
Equally cinematically, two of the best chocolate stories in Lisbon materialized in front of me as I followed the scribbles on Luis's maps. A block away from the park in Principe Real, another neighborhood perched on a hilltop, 21PR Concept Store (at Praça do Príncipe Real, 21) has been selling reimagined kids clothes, men's fashion, one-off jewelry pieces, and locally sourced culinary indulgences just since Vogue Fashion's Night Out took over this neighborhood a couple of weeks ago. But even in this apocalyptic economy they all plan to stick around for a while. Casa Grande Chocolatier—21PR's resident Portuguese chocolate company using Venezuelan couverture—is unfortunately yet another "artisan" company with lots of hype and good intentions but only a "good" product. (Listen! Here's how you make chocolate truffles—whisk chocolate and cream together until the mixture is glossy, smooth, and wonderfully emulsified. Form the truffles by hand and drag them through cocoa powder. That's it, and it should be delicious. What is this dense, chalky stuff you're serving me?) I suggest you stick with the charming Loja Real kids' clothes and the traditional Portuguese espadrilles that the same company makes for adults, and then seek out the real artisan chocolate across the street. That's precisely what the effusive and optimistic Tiago (former director of the forward-looking Portuguese art space O espaço do tempo and husband of the Loja Real's designer) took me aside and told me that to do. "You'll like it," he said. "And Claudio Corallo is a family business, so you can meet them and talk to them." This was exciting, puzzling news.
Claudio Corallo is one of the best and most independent-minded tree-to-bean-to-bar chocolate makers on the planet. But last I heard he and his family were living on São Tomé off the coast of Africa. Last I heard was a while ago, though, and the Claudio Corallo company now has a couple of stores in Europe and the US. The retail business is the domain of Bettina Corallo, whom the shop attendant described as Claudio's "ex-wife." And it's a smart little retail business—locals come in and stand at the tiny counter and drink strong cups of coffee (from the island, too), as Portuguese locals are wont to do. At the same time, anyone can come in and buy an espresso-sized Claudio Corallo hot chocolate for just one Euro and learn a little bit about how this truly artisan product with a miraculously balanced fruity and earthy (never bitter, never sour) flavor is made, which is exactly what I did. The experience was the exact chocolate equivalent of my earlier blissful moment with the Portuguese alvarinho.