“ Address: Rua dos Canastreiros 40/42 / 4050-149 / Porto / Portugal / Tel: + 351 222 006 418 „
~Show me the honey!~
When Winnie the Pooh went to visit his friend Rabbit's house he got a bit carried away, ate all Rabbit's honey and got stuck in the doorway. He had to stay there until he lost enough weight to get out again. When I went to Rabbit's House I did a bit better but still came away feeling very full. Of course the Rabbit House I visited wasn't the same one and the door was naturally larger at the Chez Lapin restaurant in Porto.
The waterfront along the river Douro in central Porto has always been a tourist trap but that's not necessarily a bad thing. I've had good meals there and also been royally ripped off by restaurants on that stretch of river and it's pretty much impossible to tell just by looking what you're going to get. On a recent trip to our factory in northern Portugal, my colleague Kai had booked a rental car and offered to drive me and my boss, Kerstin, from the little town of Santo Tirso to Porto for dinner. The three of us hopped in the car and headed off for the bright lights of the big city. Anyone familiar with Porto will know that there aren't too many bright lights and it's a far from big city but compared to tiny Santo Tirso it's a very exciting place.
~First, catch your rabbit~
We parked up in the underground car park by the Palacio de la Bolsa and foolishly chose the exit with the steps instead of the lift so we were absolutely exhausted by the time we climbed out of the subterranean car park. It was just a few minutes walk to get to the waterfront and to stroll towards the restaurants. When the bridge over the river and the castle on the opposite bank are floodlit, this is a lovely sight to behold. Unfortunately the weather wasn't quite warm enough for us to want to sit outside so we went looking for a restaurant with an indoor area.
Faced with many restaurants to choose from and no knowledge of whether they were good or bad my only concern was to not go back to the place that ripped us off last year. Kai proposed to go for the busiest of the options. To me that seemed a bit perverse but he had a good point - it wouldn't have been so busy if it wasn't good. The place he chose was Chez Lapin (The Rabbit's House). The outdoor terrace was heaving with diners and there were no spare tables available even if we had felt like dining outside. There appeared to be several buildings which were all linked to the same restaurant. When a waiter grabbed us and started taking us to get a table I did wonder if we'd been kidnapped and were being lured to a different restaurant but it turned out that all the dining areas were linked to the Chez Lapin. And if we needed any proof of that, there were two hutches with friendly little bunnies sitting outside the door. Of course I stopped for a chat and to rub their noses.
~Inside the hutch~
Our bit of Chez Lapin was a funny looking place with its walls decorated with - of all the bizarre things - hats. Some were signed, some were fancy, but many were just common or garden hats. Next to our table hung a couple of dolls dressed in what looked like Polynesian straw costumes and the odds and sods hanging from the ceiling included a large fisherman's sock. It did rather look like a jumble sale had exploded. Researching the place when I got home I learned that it used to be the stables where the horses that moved the unloaded freight from the river craft were housed. It subsequently became a tavern which was popular with French people and hence it got the French name.
The waiter - a very busy and smiley chap who seemed to be handling our area of the restaurant single handed - bounced over with a big smile and a leather-bound menu which offered the restaurant's small list of dishes in an abundance of different languages. There was just the one menu so we took it in turns to have a look. Dining with two Germans I naturally read the German menu before realizing it really wasn't necessary to make my life so difficult. Whilst we chose our dishes the waiter dropped a plate of mixed nibbles on the table and a small bucket of bread. In many Portuguese restaurants this can be a way to part you from a king's ransom of money before you even get started on your main food but it appeared that these were all included in the Euro2.50 cover charge.
We received a dish piled high with juicy black olives, another with a strange shredded carrot salad and the third was a delicious concoction of chickpeas with cod fish which was so good that I could have ordered an enormous dish of it all to myself. Since the bread arrived when we were already well into the nibbles, we got the bread to nibbles ratio completely wrong and were left with a lot of dry bread and nothing to put on it or eat with it.
We has suspected that we'd get some nice things to nibble on before our main dish so we skipped starters and it was definitely the right way to go. The menu is not overly long so you can order with confidence that they won't have a ton of food going off in the kitchens because they're stocking too many different ingredients. Kai ordered sea bass and Kerstin and I both went for octopus with bean rice. I had been tempted by several other fish dishes but I find it hard to pass up the opportunity for fresh octopus and the bean rice (a sloppy local dish of kidney beans mixed with rice swimming in tasty stock) is one of my favourites. After checking with the waiter that there was no meat in the rice - many restaurants think they can 'improve' the dish with a load of chopped chorizo - I was persuaded to go with my octopus instinct.
The restaurant was very busy and the waiter had to bring every dish, drink or bill from a kitchen somewhere else outside our building. We had a bit of a mess up on bottled water - he only had still water and we wanted sparkling and he could only find one tiny bottle for us to share - but the cheap bottle of red wine helped us to forget the lack of water. It's rare I drink red but in Portugal the whites aren't great and my colleagues wanted red so I went with the flow. If you are looking for fawning service and lots of attention then this probably isn't the place to choose but we were more than happy with the slightly abrupt but entirely non-intrusive service.
By the time our food arrived we were more than ready for it. Kai's fish was a real plate-filler, stretched across the large dish with head and tail still in place. As is typical in Portugal or Spain if you order fish that's pretty much what you get and any salad or vegetables seem to be a decorative afterthought. Luckily this wasn't the case with the octopus. The giant platter for two of us was piled high with large strips of lightly battered and fried octopus and a mountain of salad which was particularly heavy on raw onion. We also received a large bowl of the bean rice which could probably have fed a small village. The waiter served us a few strips each as well as some salad and brought spoons for the rice.
I have never tasted octopus that came close to the quality of the dish we received at Chez Lapin. It was cooked very simply but the tenderness of the juicy cephalopod shone through. It's very easy to overcook octopus so that it gets rubbery and chewy. It's also not unusual to get a mound of suckers which can be quite off-putting. In this case they must have got some really big octopi (or octopuses) because the slices were large, mostly rather smooth and very soft. The batter was very think and lightly seasoned. I loved every mouthful but there was no way that just two of us could get through so much food. The salad wasn't exceptional - especially due to the massive amount of onion which rather over-powered everything. The bean rice though was exceptional and left me thinking that it shouldn't be legal or physically possible to make kidney beans and rice taste quite that good. I will be googling recipes at the weekend to see if I can recreate it at home.
There was no way we could have tackled any pudding and the choices weren't very exciting. It was basically a variety of mousses or ice-cream. Kai had a coffee and the waiter pushed glasses of complimentary Port wine on us. I once got horribly sick on Port back in my student days so I tend to steer clear these days but the sip I had was smooth and warming.
~Show me the money~
I didn't see the bill but I overheard Kai asking the waiter to take 73 Euros on his credit card which I assume included a small tip on top. For the super nibbles and bread, two giant octopus dishes with the best ever bean rice, a full large sea bass, a bottle of red wine, some water and 3 glasses of port, that seemed to me to represent excellent value and I'd definitely choose to return next time I have the opportunity. It wasn't a fancy place, the food was hearty and the choice somewhat limited, but on my list of Porto dining experiences, that octopus fired Chez Lapin straight to the top of my recommendation list.
I stopped to chat to the bunnies on the way out, slightly more disturbed than on the way in because I'd seen 'rabbit' on the menu. I'm still not entirely sure if they were pets or potential dinners.
Rua dos Canastreiros 40-42