Monday, May 2, 2011

Vegan in Lisbon

A few weeks back the fiancee and I jumped on a plane and headed over to Lisbon for a wee city break.  Sick of being so close to Europe and not getting to see her, I was VERY excited to get some sun, check out some sites and sample the local cuisine.  Before heading away however I did do a little research to see just how vegan friendly this trip was going to be and the signs weren’t looking good.
How was it when we actually got there?  Let’s just say, I was wise to pack some snack bars…

Day one saw us try to get right into the local cuisine.  On the recommendation of our peppy hotel receptionist we headed up the road to a hole in the wall local eatery, with mosaic tiled walls and old men sitting watching Portuguese soap operas - we were pretty sure this was the real deal.  The waitress spoke some English and on mention that I was ‘vegetariano’ I was offered a ‘salad with olive’, which my starving self readily agreed to.

When said salad arrived I was a little disappointed to find ‘olive’ meant ‘olive oil’ and that my salad of lettuce and a few slivers of carrot was busy swimming in it.  The norm for Lisbon restaurants, we were given bread on our table (which is rather sneakily added to the bill if you eat it) so I made myself a sandwich and filled the rest of my belly with potatoes I stole off my fiancee's plate, a traditional fish creation that was eventually rated ‘meh’ once it had been fully devoured.  Things had not started well for either of us.

Our next culinary stop was down the main city drag of Rua Augusta.  My better half had caught a glimpse of some pretty tasty looking tarts so we popped into a coffee shop and had a wee sample, and by we, I mean him - my lack of any Portuguese words beyond ’perfavore’ which I was pretty certain wasn’t even Portuguese, I had no hope of asking whether ‘there are eggs in that’ and so settled for an espresso, which was rather delicious if not a little sad without a tart to accompany it.

The crappy weather brought us indoors later in the afternoon where we spent nearly two hours at Lisbon’s Aquarium, the second largest in the world, watching fish hypnotically swim past us in a huge main tank.  Now I know such things are not regarded as very vegan by some but this place was AMAZING. For someone who doesn’t like fish I walked out of there in love and, after such a long time gawking at sharks, in desperate need of some food. 

We headed back into town and decided to try and find a restaurant on the main tourist strip in Restauradores, a gauntlet of fast talking, menu flaunting touts, desperate for anyone’s custom.
We were approached by countless waiters who gave us a run down of the whole menu, page by page, until we asked if they had something vegan to which a disappointed voice always answered no.   Finally however we ran into one waiter who told us that our search on the main drag was pretty hopeless, as we were fast finding out, but directed us down an ally to Ristorante Valentino (Rua Jardim do Regedor, 37-45), an Italian Restaurant where I had a fantastic cheese free pizza -  Portuguese Food 0: International Fare 1. 

Day two saw us head out to explore some of the main sites of the city.  We jumped on the hop on hop off bus and headed out to Belem where, after a bit of site seeing and snap taking, we landed at a restaurant on the waters edge just in time for the sun to come out.

Getting a bit hungry at this stage, the menu was not looking hopeful but they did have great wine and olives, so I ordered a lot, just to be safe.

After getting lost for a few hours we headed back into town and went in search of Megavega (Rua dos Sapateiros 133), a vegetarian/vegan restaurant I had seen online.  Tucked in just off the main drag, it served a variety of simple salads and mains and more importantly had vegan chocolate cake!  Finally things were looking up!

That evening, after having forced my man to eat lunch at the ‘hippy canteena’, we thought we would give Portuguese fare another shot.  We headed up to Barrio Alto, the bar district in Lisbon, full of funky hideouts and packed with restaurants.  I reluctantly walked past Indian and Thai menus before we settled on a Fado restaurant - traditional Portuguese food eaten to the sounds of traditional singers belting out there sad tunes less than a meter from your plate.

While the singing was pretty impressive I was again not to be wowed by the food as, even though our waitress spoke perfect English and assured me they had vegan food, I was once again presented with a pretty unexciting salad, along with a rather lackluster vegetable soup that I'd say wasn't even vegetarian... Portuguese food 0....

Feeling the tourist in every respect now we decided to up the anti on day three and head on a guided tour to Sintra, a delightful little town over looked by a fantastic Disneyesque old royal summer palace, as well as a few spots on the Portuguese coast.  We stopped in Sintra village after roaming the castle and had what I concluded to be one of the best meals of the trip, a fantastically tasty lunch at Bengal Tandoori (Rua Pendôa, 11).  I had a few beers and completely devoured a delicious eggplant curry, the first time I had felt full all week.  Portuguese Food 0: International Fare 2.

That evening we met up with some friends in town and thought we'd give traditional Portuguese food one last shot.  On our hotel receptionist's recommendation we jumped in a cab and landed in a traditional Portuguese seafood restaurant, where I was once again forced to eat some rather boring salads, some pretty manky broccoli (how you make broccoli taste bad I don't know) and a plate full of french fries.  One plus though that I must concede, the Portuguese are not shy on their free pours and so what lacked on my plate was well made up for in my glass. Still, Portuguese food 0:  International Fare 2.

Day Four saw us meander round the centre of the city, adamant to tick off the remaining sites left to us.  After a very hot slog up the hill to the Castelo de S. Jorge I was promised no repetition of the previous night’s meal and so set my sites on eating Thai at a restaurant we had passed in Barrio Alto a few nights before.

After arriving in the bar district once more we were disappointed to find that nothing was open during the day, so wandered into the neighboring district of Chiado.  A hip shopping area full of open air cafes and parks, we were surprised to find a Japanese temaki bar Koni Store and, dying of heat at this stage (it was nearly 22 degrees, the height of an Irish summer!) we gladly plonked ourselves inside.  I ordered the vegetarian spring roll and teriyaki mushroom temaki, which was fantastic and so filling for its size.  Portuguese Food 0:  International Fare 3.

That evening, as if to say sorry for all the french fries and salad I had been subjected to during the week, the choice was again mine to decide dinner and so we set out to find what was apparently the best vegetarian/vegan restaurant in Lisbon, Terra.  Set in an old house with a delightful alfresco dining area shaded by trees and filled with the sound of running water, we knew we had found something special.

The food was a mixture of Portuguese and Mediterranean cuisine, served buffet style, and our waiter spoke perfect English and was extremely helpful in pointing out what was and wasn't vegan, the majority of which was.  He didn't think this was enough however and promptly got the kitchen to especially cook me some seitan kebabs - I was completely smitten! It was only at the end that I realized they even had vegan dessert but was far too full at that stage (I see buffets as a challenge) to even venture another bite.  And so, at long last, Portuguese Food 1! 

The next day we didn't even kid ourselves and headed straight for an Indian restaurant around the corner from our hotel, Restaurante Grill House, where we tucked into some pretty decent fare, pushing the final tally to Portuguese Food 1:  International Fare 4.

So overall it was a pretty mixed bag when it came to being vegan in Lisbon. Vegan or not we were sadly not very impressed with the traditional food we found at all but I imagine if you can speak Portuguese beyond my meager three words I'd say you have a chance at finding a bit more.  It's not all bad news though as Lisbon is full of all sorts of international restaurants (and apparently quite a few more vegetarian restaurants than we were able to find) and if all else fails they make excellent wine and are not shy on the free pouring of spirits - and at the price, compared to ol' 'rip-off Ireland' anyway, you can afford to indulge!

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