On any August evening a good part of fashionable Lisbon seems to be waiting outside the glowing yellow-shuttered windows and open door of Restaurant Vila Lisa, in Mexilhoeira Grande, a hill town in the seaside region of the Algarve. During the rest of the year the Algarve, a three-hour drive south of the Portuguese capital, is full of English and German tourists, but in August, Lisboans claim it, and Vila Lisa, for themselves. They might be hankering for a taste of the seafood-based cuisine of the region, which like all great cuisines was born of poverty and ingenuity. But more likely they are going for a taste of home—a kind of rural home that in modern Portugal seems increasingly far away.
This one is guaranteed to be particularly lively, presided over by the artist proprietor, a balding, bearded man named José Vila. Vila's small figure bobs through the bright and merry rooms, lit by overhead lanterns that reflect off the white stucco walls; wine bottles are stacked against one wall, and his paintings, which show the influence of Miró and Tàpies, hang on the others. He darts in and out of conversations with diners, most of whom seem to be friends of his and of one another's—perhaps very recent friends, given that all the tables are picnic tables seating ten. He supervises the young women who keep dishes circulating at a brisk pace. He pulls paintings off the wall to illustrate points he's making and perhaps to attract potential customers—the restaurant doubles as his gallery. He invites people waiting on the street to come inside and pour themselves a glass of wine from a carafe on a marble-topped table beside the big pass-through to the kitchen, where a small, wide woman with the face of Georges de La Tour's fortune-teller dishes food into ceramic bowls.
Vila sets beside the carafe a loaf of bread, a knife, and a saucer filled with extremely fruity olive oil. The oil barely covers a big, lightly smashed clove of violet-skinned garlic, and is flecked with what looks like snow crystals but is in fact flor de sal—the local version of fleur de sel, skimmed from salt pans a few miles away, on the Atlantic coast. The waiting customers happily cut off slices of bread and press them into the oil: the Algarve variety of garlic, the oil, and the salt are among the reasons they came.
My dream whenever I arrive in a new place is to happen upon a restaurant that seems like a family party, where the hosts serve the kind of dishes they would ask their mothers to make as a birthday treat. Restaurant Vila Lisa fulfills that dream. Here everyone eats the same thing, so newcomers needn't worry that they won't understand the menu or that they've ordered fancified fare for foreigners rather than what people in the Algarve really eat. Courses simply come out of the kitchen, family style. Conversations start easily at the long communal tables—although Vila doesn't speak English, most of his guests do.
The possibilities consist of about fifteen dishes, whose recipes came from Vila's mother and other relatives he watched cooking while he was growing up. Two or three are constants. Among them is xarém de berbigão, a cornmeal-thickened soup containing razor clams or some other seafood caught that day. "We used to think that was so strange, mixing cornmeal and seafood," explained a woman sitting across from me, who had driven several hours to come to dinner at Vila Lisa.
The bread is made in nearby Odiáxere, baked in wood-fired ovens. These loaves mean business, with a thick, hard crust and a dense crumb that after a few days will be ideal for bread salad. Chewy and a bit salty, they are reminiscent of Tuscan bread except for the salt.
Joaquim Figueiredo, an ambitious young Lisbon chef sitting at my table, told me that he comes to see his friend Vila about fifteen times a year, drawn not only by the integrity of the ingredients and the cheerfulness of the setting but also by the bread, a loaf of which he always takes home.
The next dish, raia de alhada, was his favorite, Figueiredo said: cubes of boiled potato and flakes of boiled skate dressed while the potatoes are warm with vinegar, that powerful oil, and flor de sal. The following course was unobtainable for anyone who does not have fishermen coming right from the boat to the back door: squid with its own ink for sauce, cooked on a cast-iron griddle and seasoned with nothing but a bit of salt and two small chunks of white onion atop the dense black ink. Tender and meaty, this entered my memory bank of definitive tastes.
The only dessert is queijo de figo, a torte of dried local figs, almonds, cocoa, medronho (the local brandy), and cinnamon. "The Algarve has the best almonds in the world—the ones they planted in California were from here, not from Spain," Figueiredo told me, rising to greet what seemed like the fifth group of patrons from his own restaurant as they headed for the wine carafe. "And the Turks planted our variety of figs. But no one knows how good our products are—it's hard even to get a good salted almond in Portugal. Can you believe it?"
I was listening, but a bit distracted. Vila had already wrapped a loaf for Figueiredo to take home, and had dropped it off on his rounds. I intended to take one home myself.
Restaurant Vila Lisa, Mexilhoeira Grande, Faro, Portugal. Telephone 011-351-282-968-478 or 011-351-282-799-479. Reservations accepted. Open nightly in July, August, and September, and Friday and Saturday nights during the rest of the year. Cash only. Dinner is 4,500 escudos (about $20) per person.