“ Address: Rua Marechal Saldanha, 1, Lisbon, Portugal „
~Dinner on Prescription~
My colleague Isabel had narrowed down two restaurants for our evening out in Lisbon. One was in the city centre with fabulous views and the other was a quirky place located within the building of the Museum of Pharmacy. It was a tough decision. She'd been to one but not the other and said she always likes to go somewhere new so I agreed to go along with the place with the views but they had no space for the next evening. I was quite pleased because I had preferred the idea of the Pharmacia restaurant but didn't want to influence her choice.
We booked a table for eight o'clock which is unfashionably early by Portuguese standards and then turned up 20 minutes late and were still the first diners in the restaurant. This place is extraordinary and the best example I've seen of a high concept restaurant. Situated inside the Pharmacy Museum in the Santa Catarina district of the city, the owners have completely put themselves into the mind-set of a pharmacy, surrounding diners with old pharma and hospital furniture, serving food and drink with pharmaceutically inspired names, and presenting your food with pharma bottles and even specimen jars on the table. I'm told in the colder months all the waiting staff wear white coats but with the thermometers edging close to 40C last week, they'd been relieved of the extra layer and were wearing t-shirts with inspirational pharmaceutically inclined messages including one which I translated as 'Laughter is the best medicine'.
~Attention to Detail~
Looking around the room we were fascinated by the attention to detail that's gone into the design of the restaurant. There are old display cupboards filled with odd medical implements mounted on the walls and the wall paper is a gorgeously retro pharmacy inspired design that reminded me of Robin and Lucienne Day designs. A shelf on one wall had big old medicine bottles and an old set of baby weighing scales and there is an old folding screen in one corner which screens the entrance to the kitchen from view. The tables and chairs are mostly mismatched items from the 1950s or 1960s and each table has a small pharmacy stand next to it which contains a brown glass medicine bottle marked 'H2O' filled with water. If you order wine, the bottle goes in the other half of the stand. I don't recall these from my childhood but Isabel said every doctor and every school matron in Portugal had such a stand filled with antiseptic and bandages and all the other first aid paraphernalia.
I'm not sure if it was just my imagination or not but I swear I could smell a faint whiff of TCP-like disinfectant in the air.
~What's on the Prescription Pad?~
We were taken to a small table by the window and Isabel offered me the choice of the small chair or the window seat. Whilst the window seat would have been good for some people watching, I opted for the more comfortable options. Many of the smallest two people tables were so narrow that the diners were offset from each other because the tables weren't wide enough for two plates in the same line. Luckily we didn't get one of those as I thought they looked very unfriendly.
The waitress came over with the cocktail and drinks menu and explained the system with the food. You can either order just a few dishes, in which case they may encourage you to eat outside on the terrace, or there's a 6 course 'taster' menu which costs the very reasonable sum of just Euro28 and includes pudding and coffee. That was what we wanted so we asked if she could do it for us in a meat-free version. Isabel does eat meat but not very often and prefers fish so when the waitress offered that I could have different food than her (which I thought was a lot of extra trouble for the kitchen) she said she was more than happy to have the same.
From the drinks menu I spent a long time trying to decide what to have. Most of the cocktails are named after pharmaceuticals so there were drinks called 'aspirin' and 'placebo' but I opted for one called 'morphina' - a blend of pineapple juice and sparkling white wine. It was a toss up between that and the 'placebo' which was 'ginga' and sparkling rose. We couldn't work out if 'ginga' was ginger or ginseng so I opted for the one I could understand. It was surprisingly strong and I couldn't work out how it could taste that way if it was only white wine - perhaps a shot of spirit snuck in there when I wasn't paying attention. Ever the more grown up of the two of us, Isabel went for a glass of red wine.
Once service started it moved very quickly. The first mini-course was a cold melon soup which came to the table in a small plastic measuring cylinder which was fun with a hunk of bacon on the top which wasn't what we expected. The waitress headed back to the kitchen and came back with a bacon free version. The melon soup was cool, smooth and deeply flavoured. It's not something I'd ever consider doing to a melon but it was certainly a nice little palate cleaner before we moved on to the next course.
One thing I found a bit odd (keeping in mind that there were PLENTY of odd things to choose from) was the plates on which the food was served. Most of these had ugly chips out of them or noticeable cracks. I explained to Isabel that in the UK we'd not use chipped crockery on the grounds that it's not very hygienic. She explained that she really liked the crocks because they were typical of the 1950s and 1960s and she felt that the restaurant was keeping old styles alive by using them. I'm not entirely convinced by the argument but it might be worth being aware of this so you don't freak at the state of them.
The second course was a combination of three small dishes. The first was a type of fried cornmeal - a bit like a polenta cake - served in chunks on a tomato cream base. The second was a small pastry basket filled with cod fish, finely chopped salad vegetables and raisins. The third was a meat rissole which we had to send back and which was replaced five minutes later by two small heaps of salmon on cream perched on top of sweet potato. The cornmeal was the sort of thing that I can eat in a small portion but would reject if there was too much and the sauce helped to give it more taste and help to distract me from my polenta prejudices. The pastry baskets were delicious, the delicate fish contrasting with the sweet juicy raisins. But the surprise was the third dish. Isabel had assumed - not too surprisingly - that the white mass between the sweet potato slice and the smoked salmon on top would be cream cheese. It wasn't. I refused to tell her what it was because I'd been so surprised and I didn't want to spoil it for her. It was sweetened whipped cream. All logic says that it ought to be an ugly combination but it worked.
The fish course came next and comprised a couple of large meaty chunks of a fish called 'corvina'. Googling has not given me any understandable translation of this fish but has taught me that it's a big sea fish. The flesh is white and firm and Isabel said it's one of the most expensive fish you can buy. It was served on a bed of finely chopped veg with a lemon and lime sauce and the whole lot had been baked in the oven. The fish was delicious and the vegetables were cooked to perfection with the individual tastes still distinguishable.
Our meat course was substituted with a rice dish which I didn't really like very much. It consisted of a risotto-like base (but with longer grain rice than you'd expect in a risotto) with razor shell clams. For me this dish was too salty and the stock the rice was cooked in was a bit bitter. I didn't hate it, but over half of it was left in the dish and it was a bit of a disappointment. Isabel explained that a 'rice' is not supposed to be the same as a risotto. The sad thing was that 'not the same as' was really more of a 'not as nice as'.
Puddings were stunning and plentiful with three to taste. One was a pear crumble with lots of cinnamon which I loved despite much preferring apple to pear. Next was a cocoa cake, so crumbly and so bitter that it felt like it would suck all the moisture out of your body if you didn't combine it with a little bit of the sour cream and berries that came with it. The final looked and tasted like a meringue-free Eton Mess - so whipped cream and red berries. I don't like to mix up the flavours so I ate the crumble, then the mess and finally the cocoa cake although I found the last of these more manageable with a bit of the mess on top.
Coffee or tea was included as our sixth course but we both chose to pass on that. After the initial slightly rushed service, things slowed down a lot as the meal progressed and the restaurant started to fill. We were served by a lot of different staff which I found a bit distracting and lacking in continuity but everyone was pretty efficient (with the exception of the meaty mix-ups early on). The restaurant either had no air con or had a big ventilation problem as the room was becoming overwhelmingly hot towards the end of our meal and we skipped the coffee because we needed some air.
The bill came to Euro68 for the two of us which I thought was really very good value. The menus had been Euro28 each with a cocktail and a glass of wine on top so drinks were not such good value as the food.
We went outside to take in the views over the Tagus river and to take some photos of the museum. The restaurant had given us a pass for the car park timed for 20 minutes later so we wouldn't have to rush.
If you are looking for 'experience' dining that doesn't sacrifice too much quality at the expense of the theme, then this is a great choice. If you are the sort of people who hates to not be able to choose every dish, then it might not be your kind of place. If you just want drinks and snacks, the lawn and the terrace are lovely and will be cheaper than a full meal.
Rua Marechal Saldanha,
Tue - Sun 13:00 - 01:00