When we were talking to my mother about our travels in Portugal, how we were planning on driving around the Algarve, she said there was a town Évora, we had to go to, and a winery about 45 minutes from there where we had to have lunch. She took it upon herself to email them and make a reservation for us. And then, as we continued traveling around and talking to people, the name of this winery kept popping up. “Oh, you have to go to Esporão for lunch!” “You like food? If you feel like splurging, go to Esporão.” I was glad that we already had it on the books!
The drive to Esporão was beautiful, even if it was blanketed with soft, gray clouds. We passed fields of sheep, cows, and horses, trees dotted with huge storks, and orange grove after orange grove. We arrived at the winery about thirty minutes early (they recommended we arrive 10 minutes early and had warned of construction on the roads), and spent some time exploring the gift shop full of wines and olive oils, looking out at the view over the vineyards and lake, and relaxing in the sitting room which was warmed by a wood fire and decorated like the hippest hotel: leather seats, beautifully woven carpets, modern industrial lamps. We were then escorted into the dining area, which continued the beautiful decor. Our table was on a wall of windows that looked over the terrace and the view we had been admiring earlier, but the room had more great rugs and brightly colored art decorating the back wall.
Our server explained the concept of the restaurant, the importance of focusing on local Portuguese ingredients, and how much they make in house. After settling on the six course tasting menu and one wine pairing to share (one of us *cough Jonah cough* had to make the 45 minute drive back), we sat back, ready to start our meal. We started with three small amuse bouches, which were accompanied by a deep pink rosé that tasted of strawberries. The first was a mushroom tartlet with cheese and nasturtium; Second, a spiced cookie topped with crab and celery root; And third, a cracker with foie gras, oxalis, and black cardamom. I could have made a meal out of those bites. I wished each one lasted longer, that I got more chances to tasted the playful, unique flavor combinations. It boded well for the rest of the meal.
Then we were onto the bread course, which was anything but a simple basket of bread and slabs of butter. It included sliced warm bread with a perfectly chewy inside and a crispy, almost flaky crust, crunchy crackers made of oats and barley, whipped butter with smoked lard, aged butter dusted with powdered toasted yogurt, and finally a flight of the olive oil made at the vineyard. We dipped and dunked, noting the flavors of fruit and earth in the oils, the funk of the aged butter, and the contrast between the weight and flavor of the whipped butter. After the bread, we had one last surprise before starting the regular six course menu. A crawfish course, nestled in a bowl of sea kelp, a crawfish mousse with pickled onion, accompanied by two poached crawfish. The scent and flavor of the sea left me wanting more seafood, which was a good place to rest for the next three courses.
We started with mackerel, skin on and delicately cooked so that it melted in your mouth , accompanied by mandarin, cucumber ribbons with flower petals somehow inlaid, and miso, accompanied a small cup of a light fish broth. Next was the oyster course: a creamy chestnut soup topped with small oysters, seaweed, and beach leaves. Then a gentle sea bass, with fresh zucchini, mussels, and walnuts. Each dish was full of combinations I hadn’t seen before, and each one worked perfectly. As I spooned up sauces and crunched through vegetables, I enjoyed the play between the ocean flavors that Portugal is known for and beautiful produce that can be grown year round in the country thanks to the mild climate. Next it was onto the meat course. Jonah opted for the lamb with ewe’s milk, brussels sprout, and pear, while I chose the entrecôte with celeriac and onions. The meats were cooked perfectly, and the accompaniments to each had a foot in both the worlds of tradition and modern cooking.
After the meat it was time to cleanse our palates. We did this with a dish of pomelo, bergamot ice cream, and pumpkin seeds. We were ready for dessert: a cocoa nib and vanilla tart with pine, dark chocolate, and lovage ice cream. The lovage ice cream was easily one of the most memorable parts of the meal. It was unexpected, both savory and sweet, creamy and refreshing. Along with the tart we were served two tiny beignets filled with melty chocolate. We thought we were done, but no! With our coffee (which we stirred with cinnamon sticks) we were brought three candies: jellies made with late harvest wine, chocolate truffles with tomato jam, and hazelnuts coated in white chocolate and dusted with hibiscus.
There is something to be said, after a meal like this, for that perfect level of fullness. Of complete satisfaction. I was washed in warmth from the wine, the food, the service, the view, and the company. To have completed upwards of 10 courses and not be painfully full is an accomplishment. Once we had finished eating, we were greeted by Chef Pedro Pena Bastos, who took us on a tour through the kitchen, answering our questions. He showed us the baking room, and the fridge where they age their meat, and where the kitchen was expanding to serve a more casual a la carte restaurant as well. He was incredibly kind, and so clearly excited about the food he makes, which was apparent when we tasted it. As we stopped in the gift shop afterward to buy some wine and olive oil, the sun broke through the clouds. After spending nearly four hours at lunch, we got in the car and stopped at the little historical center at the vineyard, where there were orange trees and an old church. We ran around in the sun, taking pictures, oohing and aahing over the moon rising in the pure blue sky. The drive back to Évora was dappled in golden sunlight as it started to dip below the hills and trees. It was truly one of the most magical meals and experiences I’ve had, and one I’ll remember for a very long time.