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Essencia Vegetarian Restaurant (Porto, Portugal)

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Address: Rua de Pedro Hispano, 1190, 4150-123 Porto, Portugal

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      13.02.2012 07:36
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      Loved it! So unusual and refreshing to find a veggie restaurant in Portugal

      ~Brown, Grey and Beige? Not here~

      My sister was a vegan for many years. I remember taking a boyfriend (who was also vegan - it was a strange time in my life) home to meet my family one Christmas. My sister had made the mince pies and he politely declined a second helping saying "I don't think my spoon is sharp enough". Despite not having eaten meat in over 20 years, I still live with a small fear at the back of my mind that any vegetarian restaurant might just have got it's recipes from the same weirdie cookbook that my sister so loved.

      Typical veggie restaurants do still tend towards the macramé and sandals 'vibe' - wholesome in their earnestness with a tendency to serve food in the grey-brown area of the colour spectrum. Essencia is very different - a lot more 'Elle Deco' and a lot less 'Spare Rib' in it's appearance. The place looks like it should be really expensive and very trendy - not like it's a haven for the tiny minority of Portugal's population that eschew the local delights of chorizo and salt cod in favour of face-free food. I suspect that back in the days of the Portuguese Inquisition, not eating steak would probably have got you burned at the stake as a witch. The Portuguese love meat and I've been subjected to far too many evenings of so-called Brazilian Barbeque (meat on a skewer followed by more and more meat on skewers) so when my lovely colleague Caroline told me she'd found somewhere really special for dinner I was understandably excited.

      ~Stylish Surprise~

      The dining area is a high-ceilinged room with square black tables neatly lined up and decorated with crisp cotton runners. The cutlery is elegant and slender, clusters of giant lampshades hang from the ceiling and the place looks like it ought to be very noisy but wasn't. Sadly the quietness was due to the restaurant being almost empty - a combination perhaps of Monday night and the economic recession. The waitress later told us that they have an outside terrace for when the weather is good but sadly we were too late in the year to take advantage. I rarely check out the toilets but had a feeling these might be worth seeing. The highlight was the 'sink that wasn't a sink' - a tap pouring water onto a flat sloped surface. Piles of neatly folded coloured towels gave a splash of colour to the toilets.

      For those who are used to having very limited choice, the menu is exciting and a bit overwhelming. To be honest I quite like not having too many dishes to choose between. There's a full page of starters and several pages of main courses and two whole pages of desserts. It's mind boggling.
      The menus were delivered along with a set of small dishes containing pineapple chutney, a garlic-herb-tomato blend and a hard herb butter. Two slices of different home made breads came with these. The pineapple chutney was outstanding, intensely fruity and juicy and really rather special. These bits and bobs for nibbling come with a rather reasonable Euro2 per person cover charge. I've been ripped off too often by the stuff that Portuguese restaurants sneak onto the table in the hope of exploiting diner hunger and I wasn't offended by this charge.

      ~Face-Free Food Frenzy~

      For my starter I ordered a mixed mushrooms and chestnut soup which tasted better than anything that looked so grey deserves to. It was smooth, rich and intensely flavoured. Caroline ordered a goat cheese and walnut salad with a bright green basil dressing which was so large that she seemed relieved that for her main course she'd ordered a second starter.

      Of course things don't always work out quite the way you expect and the waiter turned up not with the mushroom soup but with a mushroom 'souffle' - he'd misheard Caroline's order. He offered to take it back and change it but the soufflé was beautiful and I persuaded her to keep it. I had a tofu curry in a thin creamy sauce with lots of tomatoes, spinach and courgette which was served with a bowl of rice. It was tasty, subtle, and not too filling. The tofu wasn't my favourite sort and was a bit bland but I enjoyed it nonetheless and the vegetables were perfect - retaining enough of their original flavour and not being overwhelmed by the light curry sauce.

      With the meal I drank a bottle of Superbock and Carol had a pot of herbal tea. She's Brazilian but lived and worked in the UK for a couple of years and blames the tea with dinner habit on the UK which I find strange since I can't think of anyone I know who has hot drinks with food. After we'd finished I orderd a pot of peppermint tea - that's when you have tea, AFTER your food. Will these foreigners ever learn?

      ~Smiley Server~

      The waitress who brought my tea had a chat with Caroline about Brazil and then asked if I was 'really actually English' which I thought was quite charming. She told us she's not a vegetarian but she eats at the restaurant every day and loves the food. She said that she'd love to eat that way but thinks it's too difficult to cook veggie which seemed odd to me as I'm sure I'd have killed myself and plenty of other people with poor food handling and storage if I ate meat. And speaking of meat there is one page, hidden away at the back of the menu, for fish and meat dishes. Clearly Essencia know that it only takes one person in a group of diners to refuse to go if they can't get meat for the restaurant to lose a whole table booking. It did seem strange to me, but I guess they have to adapt to their local setting. Another strange thing I noticed was that there didn't seem to be any wine on the menu - there was beer, port and spirits but despite looking twice I couldn't find any standard unfortified wine.
      The bill for two of us came to Euro38.

      ~Location Location~

      The restaurant is at Rua de Pedro Hispano, 1190 which is not far from the Casa da Musica and the Rotunda do Boavista which, if I remember correctly, is the big roundabout with the tall pillar in the middle and the statues of lions. The nearest Metro stops are Casa da Musica or Francos. It serves lunch between 12.30 and 15.00 and dinner from 19.30 to 22.00 Monday to Thursday and until midnight on Fridays and Saturdays. The restaurant closes on Sundays and bank holidays.

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