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Populi (Lisbon, Portugal)

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Address: Ala Nascente Terreiro do Paço 85/86, 1100-148 Lisboa

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      19.09.2012 12:15
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      A fabulous Lisbon restaurant with prices that will surprise you (in a good way)

      ~Super High Standards~

      I'm not sure if it's possible to eat badly in Lisbon - certainly even more sure that rule applies if you're dining with locals. When the sales director of our Portuguese business asked me to go and look at the supermarkets to whom he sells, I was even more pleased to learn that my colleague Isabel and I were also invited for dinner. When the head of the Iberian business decided he'd also fly over from Barcelona because he'd like to come along, I knew that dinner was going to be good. No sales guy would ever take his boss somewhere that wasn't excellent. I'd conscientiously avoided pizza at lunch time in order to make sure I left lots of space for dinner. My expectations were high.

      The chosen restaurant was a place called Populi, a hot new cafe-restaurant which opened in June this year and which is located on one the city's most beautiful squares, the Palace Square or Terreiro do Paço. Apparently this square has only recently undergone a major restoration project and was previously used as a rather unattractive car park. If you search for the restaurant and the square on Google maps you'll find an old satellite image that must predate the restoration as it shows a rather ugly car park and a few market stalls. The work has restored the square to former glory, kicked out all the cars and creating a large open space with colonnades around the perimeter. There's a big monument in the centre of the square to the king (I think it was Joseph the first) who was lucky to escape the great earthquake and tsunami of 1755 which flattened this area and much of the city. The king never again slept in a building, taking to the high ground and using a tent for fear of another earth quake. My Portuguese colleagues, Josep and Isabel, were both really excited about the work that had been done to restore the square. Whilst it's divided from the water front by a road, the Av. Infante Dom Henrique, there are great views out across the river.

      Populi is open throughout the day with different menus for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner - we went for dinner on a Tuesday evening in August. Prices are surprisingly reasonable - this is not a city where you'll pay 7Euro for a coffee just because the view is nice.

      ~Our visit~

      Isabel picked up me and Luis, the visitor from Spain, and drove us into the city. We found Josep waiting for us at a table for four on the terrace under large white sun shades. As the guests, Luis and I were offered the seats with the best views and refused them, knowing that they were offered because the local colleagues appreciate the view so much. We figured they would probably enjoy it even more than we would. A waiter came to take drink orders and in a slightly suck-up way, I asked Josep what he was drinking, fascinated by the sprig of rosemary in his glass, and was surprised to find it was a gin and tonic. That seemed as good an idea as any other so I said I'd have the same. Isabel has a mineral water, and Luis took a beer. I'm not at all convinced that a sprig of rosemary has any place in anything other than roast lamb (which I don't eat) but I was intrigued to see if it worked. I can't honestly say that it did.

      The menus come attached to a wooden board with multiple sheets tethered to the board by metal screws. I knew that whatever I chose would be great but my eyes were caught by a couple of favourites -gazpacho, or its Portuguese equivalent, and octopus. You don't get to eat octopus every day and there's no better place to have it than on the Portuguese coast. It took me very little time to choose. The orders for the four of us comprised two gazpachos, a codfish cake and asparagus with cheese as our starters and for main courses, two portions of octopus for me and Isabel and two different bacalhao (salted cod fish) dishes for the boys.

      The restaurant has a lot of staff and I soon lost count of all of them. It seemed like every few minutes someone else was dropping by to bring something or ask how we were doing. One guy who seemed - dare I say it? - a bit the worse for wear and with a distinct wine-breath - came to explain various dishes. I put on my best 'listening face' to avoid having to get them all translated. I have to be careful with that face - it gets me into trouble in countries where I clearly can't actually understand stuff, but in Portuguese and in context, I'm a pretty good guesser.

      With our orders placed and our wine - a nice strong white - poured, we settled to our wait and a further discussion about the Lisbon earthquake. I knew there had been one (I first read about it in Voltaire's classic novel 'Candide') and I knew it had been a big one but I hadn't really appreciated quite what a massive attack it had been. The area where we were sitting had not only been flattened by falling buildings, but people had been carried away by a tsunami. It's hard to imagine.

      ~Food Fantasies~

      One of the waitresses brought us some bread rolls served in a little fabric drawstring bag like a tiny potato sack. As well as the rolls there was unsalted butter and olive oil with balsamic vinegar as well as a dish of juicy green olives served on ice and olive oil.

      When my starter gazpacho arrived I was a little confused. I'd only grasped a small amount of the complex description from the man with the wine-breath and I'd not understood exactly what was coming. My bowl contained a tiny round mound of chopped tomato, cucumber and onions and nothing else. It looked like a rather pitiful tomato tartar. My initial disappointment was quickly quashed by the arrival of a jug of iced gazpacho which was poured around the tomato mound. Hoorah, this was more what I'd expected. The contrast of textures and the intense tomatoey-garlic flavours were absolutely delicious. Isabel had the asparagus with cheese which was apparently delicious and cooked on the grill. I didn't get too much feedback on the codfish cake but it was polished off fully.

      Ever since he'd ordered his dish, Luis had started to kick himself that he'd not gone for the octopus. And when it arrived, Isabel and I were really pleased that we had. Josep had a codfish dish that was apparently delicious but looked a bit beige to me. I will eat bacalhao (salted cod) when I have to and I will sometimes even almost enjoy it, but if there's something else on the menu, I'm unlikely to choose it. Luis's cod fish dish was an interesting mix with a scrambled egg type texture and, I think but I'm not sure, rice. I can't be entirely sure about their dishes as the online menu is only a partial list of the available dishes. I had a small forkful of Luis's cod and it was pleasant but not on a par with my octopus.

      The octopus dish comprised about six or seven meaty tentacles, cooked on the grill and perched on top of a bed of pureed sweet potato and greens. I found the greens rather hard to cut and a bit too chewy, but the sweet potato was so smooth that it looked like apple sauce. I sacrificed one of my tentacles (read that carefully!) to Luis who declared it the best dish of the entire meal. It was outstanding and I was feeling a bit smug. The texture was possibly ever so slightly softer than perfect but not so much as to reduce the enjoyment.

      ~Sexy Facilities and Disappointing Desserts~

      Whilst resting before pudding, we decided to go and explore inside the restaurant. A large banner outside proclaims 'the sexiest WC in the world' and we went off to see if it was true. Whilst the toilets were very nice, there was nothing to suggest they were really special so we decided to interrogate one of the staff. We then learned that it was actually the business next door which had the super sexy loos and that they close at 8 pm.

      I normally avoid restaurant puddings but our first two courses had not been too heavy and had been delivered at a pace that meant I wasn't uncomfortably full. I wasn't overly impressed by the pudding choices and I didn't see anything that I felt I couldn't live without. As the others were keen to have something I ordered crème brulee, Isabel ordered a passion fruit panna cotta and Luis went for the 'best chocolate ice cream in the world'. We'd already been intrigued by 'the best chocolate cake in the world' which seemed an unlikely claim at about Euro4.50. Unfortunately, the 'best' claim turned out to be as much of a disappointment as the unsexy toilet.

      My crème brulee was pretty good and I finished it all. The custard, in true Portuguese style, was very yellow and very sweet. The top was not too thick and was easily broken with a tap of the spoon. Isabel didn't like her panna cotta and declared it to be 'un cotta' - i.e. uncooked. The waiter was so distraught that he insisted on bringing her something else so she also had a crème brulee. The chocolate ice-cream was controversial. To put it simply, it wasn't chocolate ice-cream. Luis was as disappointed as a kid on Christmas morning who hasn't got a bicycle. He even called over Mr Wine-breath to ask how this was the best chocolate ice-cream in the world. It was explained that it's a vanilla ice-cream that contains 'bits' of 'the best chocolate cake in the world' and we all agreed that someone should send the trades descriptions people round to sue them for such a misleading name.

      Coffees and mint teas were drunk to finish off the evening and we all agreed it had been an excellent meal although the puddings had been a bit of a let down. I can't tell you what the bill came to as I was too polite to lean over and have a look, but the dishes I ordered were all very reasonably priced, especially considering the location and the reputation of the restaurant. From memory my gazpacho was less than Euro5 and the octopus was Euro16.50. I think the crème brulee was around Euro6-7. For those who are nervous about what they're eating and don't want to make too many guesses, the menu comes with English translations and the staff speak English well enough to explain if you have any questions. The staff were pleasant and attentive and the only thing I could find to criticise (other than the misleading ice cream) was the music. The a capella jazzy versions of a surprising number of my favourite songs were mildly amusing first time round but at the third time of listening, they were getting very annoying and were played rather too loud for comfort. However, I am aware that I'm much more noise sensitive than most people so in the words of the famous 'Dear John' letters, it probably really is 'me, not you'.

      ~Details~

      Populi
      Ala Nascente Terreiro do Paço
      85/86, 1100-148 Lisboa
      Tel. (+351) 218 877 395
      E-mail: populi@populi.pt
      Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PopuliRestauran​t

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