The interior of Bairro Alto's tapas restaurant Sophia La Loca — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
“Actually, we base ourselves on a pestico gourmet style concept,” elaborates Chef Tiago Vieira. “It’s about the quality of the product, which is based on basic traditional recipes.”
With décor prone to changing color and style, depending on the whim of Vieira and his team, this delightful and intimate little eatery is conveniently sited on one of Bairro Alto’s most frequented streets, a pedestrianized artery that arrows straight into the heart of the Portuguese capital’s animated nightlife neighborhood.
Currently open for dinner only, the restaurant is divided into two salons, separated by a reception lobby. A useful ramp connects both, facilitating access by diners with mobility limitations. It seats up to 60 persons on mis-matched chairs, with tables set over slate flooring.
Served on slate, the "tiborna de coelho" – a rabbit-based tapas dish – is typical of the food served at Sophia La Loca — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Sophia La Loca’s menu is selective. Vieira has deliberately chosen to keep options to a minimum, his mantra being quality rather than quantity.
“We take favorite Portuguese meals and serve them as smaller portions,” he explains.
In fact, the menu is very much geared towards the discerning Portuguese palate, with pesticos in gourmet style.
But, says the chef, “It’s also about introducing foreign clients to our food, its textures and flavors.”
An evening at Sophia La Loca might commence with a tasty starter of camerão com alho, delicious garlic prawns that positively melt in your mouth. This could be followed by one of the house specialities, bacalhau assado com migas de grelos, a dish based on codfish.
On the other hand, if meat is your thing, their succulent bochechas de porco is a delicious alternative, as is the tiborna de coelho – duck slices on bread drizzled with olive oil and garnished with parsley and tomato.
Chef Tiago Vieira's version of the classic Portuguese dish "bacalhau a bras" — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Portugal is renowned for its range of cheeses. The quejo de cabra assado com cenas – an intriguing marriage of grilled goat’s cheese with “things” (Vieira won’t let on.) – is a seriously tasty introduction to the country’s outstanding diary offer.
Besides his homeland’s rich culinary heritage, Vieira’s inspiration is none other than British celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal.
“I really admire his work and love reading his recipes,” he enthuses. “Ultimately, though, I think good cooking is about simplifying the plate. This is the best way to enjoy food, and it’s why I cook with such pleasure.”
Wine is an important part of the dining experience at any restaurant. At Sophia La Loca, the cellar is stocked with a discerning choice of labels, each bottle personally selected by Vieira.
The list is not exhaustive. Instead, it’s rotated to reflect Portugal’s incredibly diverse wine-growing regions.
“We are constantly evolving: our food, wines, the interior design. Everything,” says Vieira.
Tiago Vieira with Sophia Maciel — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
The name of the restaurant is intriguing. Translated into English it means “Crazy Sophia." But who is Sophia?
According to legend, Sophia Izabel Álvarez Benitez Vega Almeida da Costa e Silva De La Roca was born in 1888 near the Spanish border in Portugal’s sun-baked Alentejo region. Her family was involved in a smuggling operation, helping to sneak prized Spanish jamones ibéricos (Iberian-cured ham) across the frontier.
While adept at her clandestine role, Sophia lacked the sales patter needed in order to sell on the hams. Frustrated, she left for Lisbon, settled in the city’s leafy Graça district and found her forte. She turned a former butcher’s shop into a successful tavern before relocating to Bairro Alto.
There, she hosted wild, cosmopolitan parties, providing excellent home cooking and alarming amounts of alcohol. (She herself was partial to whisky and absinth.) The story ends abruptly with her sudden disappearance, with only an abandoned cookbook as evidence of her existence.
But the tale has a twist.
Vieira’s right-hand woman and co-owner of Sophia La Loca is one Sophia Maciel, who he describes as the “face of the restaurant.”
Meanwhile, his other restaurant, Tasca do Sol, is located in . . . Graça. Coincidence, or has the enigmatic former smuggler returned in spirit to reclaim the apron strings?
“It’s an interesting question,” admits Vieira, chuckling over a glass of wine.
Meanwhile, the next phase is to open the place up for lunch, he reveals.
Now that doesn’t sound crazy at all.
Chef Tiago Vieira relaxes after another night in the restaurant's kitchen — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt