“ Address: Rua Do Salitre 117 / 1250-198 / Lisbon / Portugal „
~Vegetarianism - not a popular lifestyle choice in Portugal~
In an era when we imagine we can find anything, anywhere, any time, there are some things that are still unexpected. One of these 'rarer than hens' teeth' finds is a vegetarian restaurant in Portugal. I know of one in the northern city of Oporto (it's called Essencia and it's excellent) and now I know of one in the Lisbon.
Apparently for a very long time this was the ONLY vegetarian restaurant in Lisbon - now there are others so it just calls itself the OLDEST vegetarian restaurant in the city. In case that's not exciting enough for you, it's also allegedly a 'Tibetan' restaurant - though I advise you to take the designation with a pinch of salt. My colleague and restaurant aficionado, Isabel, gave me two restaurants to choose from this week - one a tapas place and one the Tibetan vegetarian Buddhist place. Tapas you can get anywhere and I tend to find I can eat colossal quantities and still feel hungry, so I couldn't resist the lure of such a rare beast as a vegetarian place in Portugal.
As a fishitarian, I find Lisbon a delight and I rarely visit without large numbers of sea-creatures giving up their lives for me. Yes, I feel a bit bad about that but such are the choices we make in life. Isabel was happy with my choice because she said there was no way on earth that her husband would ever set foot in a place without meat. She had been to Os Tibetanos a few years ago for lunch and rather liked the food but hadn't found an opportunity to go back since.
We parked up on the street a couple of blocks away. There's an underground car park very close to the restaurant but it was full so we needed to try elsewhere. There were spaces closer to the restaurant but we weren't sure if the car would get towed if we parked too close to a rather imposing hotel so we played safe and parked up by the art house cinema nearby. From the outside there's nothing to give a clue of the Tibetan themes inside and the restaurant is located in a beautiful old building, painted a deep red with gorgeous old art nouveau style ceramic tiles picking out the features on the front. I thought it looked lovely.
Once inside it's safe to say that there's little risk of you missing the Tibetan décor. There's a painted wooden Buddha overlooking the cash desk as you enter and a poster of the lovely Dalai Lama. The walls are hung with Tibetan silk paintings. Not especially fancy ones, or valuable ones, but lots of them. The lights are all dressed in Tibetan painted lampshades. There are shelves with Buddhist books for sale and posters for meditation classes but remarkably there's nobody anywhere around who looks even slightly Tibetan.
The dining area is an L-shaped space crammed full of small tables placed close together. We sat at a table overlooking the covered outdoor dining area which sadly wasn't available, probably due to the March weather being a bit on the chilly side. The tables on the terrace were larger and better spaced and surrounded by pleasant raised flower beds. We arrived quite early and just a few other tables were in use but I did have the feeling that if the place was full it would be a heck of a squeeze to get everyone into the available space.
It soon became very apparent that the clientele at Os Tibetanos was by no means a standard cross-section of Portuguese society. There were quite a lot of British tourists but the local diners took me straight back to the 1980s and 1990s when my sister used to hang out at the Reading Women's Centre (or possibly wimmins centre). The words ringing in my ears were those of my disbelieving old college flat mate. "Vegan scone people" would have been his term. I whispered to Isabel that I suspected we were the only people who'd combed or brushed our hair and that quite a few people seemed to be wearing knits that had been created from yak hair or by felting their dog's moulted fur. If it had been warmer there would almost certainly have been Jesus sandals on display. I loved it - it was like going into a Portuguese hippy theme restaurant. I couldn't actually smell the patchouli but I knew it was there.
~Tibetan does not equal vegetarian~
The first thing worth considering is that Tibetans are not particularly vegetarian. Tibetan Buddhist monks are of course, and I guess some very strict Buddhists would be too but Tibetans in general are not very veggie. Neither are other Buddhist countries I've been to such as Bhutan and Sri Lanka. The second thing to consider is that Tibet is wedged between India and China so you should expect to see some dishes hailing vaguely from those sort of areas. I was hoping - naïvely perhaps - to recreate experiences I'd had in Chinese Buddhist restaurants on business trips. When I used to go to the Far East, I had colleagues who knew that sooner or later I would start to get really ratty about the food and would be brought back to life by a visit to a place offering fabulously creative and completely animal free food, usually relying on really clever use of fibrous wheat gluten or tofu-style meat substitutes. You've tasted nothing until you've bolted down a banquet of mock duck, mock lamb, mock beef and even mock king prawns which look remarkably like those pink prawn shaped sweets you used to be able to get. This stuff is made from weird fibrous wheat gluten and is utterly fabulous. As I said, I was ridiculously naïve and optimistic.
The first useful thing to be aware of is that the menu is in Portuguese and English and the staff all speak at least a bit of English. I suspect that there are more British veggies than from any other nation that's likely to visit plus, of course, English tends to be the standard second language. Don't assume though that just because the descriptions are in English that you'll actually understand them.
The menu is a bit of a muddle. There are a couple of 'deals' - soup, dish of the day, pudding of the day - that sort of thing, but since the soup of the day was celery and celery is the devil's vegetable and evil in every possible way, I certainly wasn't going near that.
The menu runs to many pages but once you've actually got the hang of the layout, ignored the booze, the tea and the soft drinks, there aren't actually all that many dishes on the menu. Sadly (or possibly fortunately) the menu isn't available on their website so I can't bore you with long lists of everything on offer. Everything is - without exception - obviously vegetarian and some of the dishes are vegan. Despite all the Buddhist iconography, the food is 'world food' with a mix of Nepali, Indian, Italian, and even Portuguese influences. Starters were rather uninspiring - garlic bread, cheesy garlic bread, samosas, pappadoms and the like. We ordered a portion of poppadoms and some 'minatures' which were mini spring roll, mini samosa and mini money bags. So a bit of Indian, a bit of Chinese.
For main I got quite excited to see momos on the menu. If I ever went totally insane and opened a restaurant (which is very unlikely) it would serve momos and probably have a cheesy momo-based pun for a name. Every time we get near the Indian Himalayas, my momo-radar kicks in and I start running around trying to find somewhere to get them. We ordered a portion of steamed momos and a portion of vegetable curry with 'seitan'. Other main course specials included a pasta gratin (boring), seitan steak (that's the wheat gluten stuff) with mushrooms and cream sauce which we spotted on an adjacent table and I thought it looked lovely, a tofu steak with pesto and goat cheese and Quorn fillets, fried or with gravy.
~Lovely Lassi - Meaty Momos~
To drink we ordered two glasses of passion fruit lassi. Their lassi options are mango, guava, passion fruit and another fruit which I can't remember. I love passion fruit and the lassi didn't disappoint, delivering intensely passion fruit-y impact. We guessed it was probably made with frozen passion fruit pulp because it had all the impact of fresh fruit without any of the pips. It was probably one of the best glasses of fruit lassi that I've ever tried and the highlight of the meal.
Our main problem with the restaurant was the tiny tables. If you only ordered your own dish, never tried to share or needed any extra crockery, then you might just survive. We wanted to put the dishes down the centre of the table and serve ourselves from them. There really wasn't enough space and it's a wonder we didn't send something flying. With the main courses we were particularly strapped for space and ended up dropping used dishes on other empty tables just to free up space. I couldn't help thinking that the tables really were just too tiny
The poppadoms were actually pappads - by which I mean they were grilled, not fried. They had done the very clever thing of bending and twisting the pappads into cones. I have no idea how to do that and I'd love to know. If you have a pappad-origami tip please let me know. Serving pappads with thin yoghurt sauce was a bit disappointing - I thought they could have tried a bit harder with some kind of chutney. The plate of miniatures had two money bags so we had one each and I split the mini samosa and mini spring roll. These were served with soy sauce and I couldn't help thinking sweet chilli sauce would have been much better. The samosa was tiny but lovely whilst the money bags and spring roll seemed to contain exactly the same mix of vegetables and seitan. It was a case of 'good effort' but a bit of chutney and some chilli sauce would have made all the difference.
Just in case anyone's still scratching their head about momos, they are half-moon shaped 'dumplings', usually filled with meat or vegetables and served with eye-brow curlingingly severe chilli sauce. They can be steamed or fried and I prefer them steamed. The dish came with five good sized momos, a pile of delicious baked butternut squash (or similar - not so easy to be sure with small pieces) and a mound of cabbage. I was so impressed by the squash that I was willing to believe they might have worked magic with the cabbage but they hadn't - it was just cabbage. We split the momos and the squash and tucked in. The filling was mince-style seitan with some spices. I think it would have been better if they'd mixed the seitan with some vegetables as texturally it was bit on the heavy side.
The curry also came with a mound of cabbage. I didn't get the cabbage vibe at all and there was no way I was eating a large chunk of the stuff. I'm fine with cabbage IN things but on its own, it's only slightly less awful than celery. The curry came with a small mound of rice which Isabel rejected on the grounds that she would rather 'save her carbs for cake' and have a pudding. There was also another origami pappad so she ate that with the curry. The curry was allegedly with Tibetan spices but I'm not sure what they were. It looked like cubes of seitan mixed with a portion of frozen diced veg to which a spoonful of cheap curry powder had been added. It wasn't awful but it wasn't curry.
Against all odds, Os Tibetanos has some amazing desserts. I resisted and ordered a ginger and lemon tea whilst Isabel chose a 'dolma tarte' which was a crisp, almost biscuit-like base with a mousse of chocolate and chestnut on top. She also requested two spoons and tried to force-feed me with a lot of it. I did have a few forkfuls and it was extraordinary in both texture and flavour intensity. I was impressed, but not enough to eat too much of it.
The total bill for two small starters, two lassis, two mains, a pudding and one tea was Euro35 or just under £30 at current rates. It's certainly one of the cheapest dinners we've had in Lisbon but also one of the most odd. The food was fine but not particularly exciting and I was disappointed that a place so dripping with Tibetan décor couldn't run to a more Tibetan menu. I guess whilst it was the only place in Lisbon serving a vegetarian menu, it must have been tempting to spread the 'love' a bit more worldwide and to not stick to a menu that was in keeping with the theme. It's nice to know that it IS possible to find vegetarian food in the city but I can't help thinking that on balance I'd rather live off coffee and custard tarts.
Rua do Salitre
117 1250-198 Lisbon
Tel - 21 314 20 38
Open for lunch until 3.30pm and for dinner from 7.30 pm. Closed on holidays and Sundays. Probably a good idea to book.