Madragoa Café's inviting interior. Most nights see the restaurant fully booked. — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Madragoa Café is one of those places that you might not have been looking for, but are so glad you found.
Hiding behind a fairly nondescript façade on a side street in Lisbon's Santos quarter, the restaurant is easy to miss. But once through the door, this humble little eatery reveals itself as one of the most delightfully surprising places to eat in the Portuguese capital.
Styled in a rustic manner, Madragoa Café is run by Cristina and António, who greet their guests like trusted friends. Tables are arranged against one side of a tiled wall hung with antique ceramic plates, framed oils and ink drawings (look out for the vintage map of Portugal circa 1948).
Overhead lamps cast a warm glow across the floor. Coloring the interior is a huge copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s starry-skied Café Terrace on the Place du Forum, Arles, which lends the room an appealing bistro-esque quality.
Fado singer Sofia Ramos and guitarist Bruno Fonseca regaling diners with voice and guitar — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
António will show people to their tables, as Cristina is Madragoa’s chef. Both husband and wife, though, make a point of mingling with diners.
When Cristina is not in the kitchen she’ll be regaling everyone with anecdotes about the restaurant’s history, the stories behind the family keepsakes and mementos that decorate the shelves and cupboards, and the culinary lore that upholds the menu, which celebrates traditional Portuguese gastronomy.
Appetizer options include hams and cheeses from Portugal's many regions — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
António meanwhile is Madragoa’s de facto sommelier. He was born in the Douro region of northern Portugal into a family of wine producers.
While he has a connoisseur’s nose for wines from this particular corner of the country, he’s also listed a good selection of reds and whites from elsewhere, including the Alentejo and, interestingly, the Algarve – where the industry is successfully playing catch up with Portugal’s more illustrious wine-growing regions. Most of Madragoa’s wines are sourced from smaller, independent producers.
Bacalhau Madragoa, a signature dish that comprises cod and breaded potato — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Eating at Madragoa Café is to sample regional, homestyle cuisine at its most textured and flavored. The journey begins with appetizers like the cheese and ham ensemble – a platter that represents a wonderful taste of rural Portugal – anywhere from the stark, wild beauty of Trás-os-Montes to the rolling pastureland of the Azores archipelago. The dab of honey is an inspired condiment.
The seafood cataplana, a delicious speciality from the Algarve — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
“I’m very proud of my Portuguese heritage,” announces Cristina. “The food I prepare is the food I like to eat. But what we do here is even better!”
Drawing on time-honored recipes but adapting technique and presentation is why Cristina can dazzle with dishes like the restaurant’s signature bacalhau Madragoa. It's an inspired combination of melt-in-your-mouth cod and sliced and breaded potato melded with olive oil, flecks of parsley and other various delicately scented herbs.
“It takes time to prepare,” she admits, “but then you should take time to eat it.”
Homemade chocolate cake, a favorite dessert choice — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
A particularly colorful and ebullient choice is her version of the seafood cataplana, one of Portugal’s most emblematic dishes that originates from the Algarve. A cataplana is a special vessel made of copper and consisting of two close-fitting concave halves – if you like, a wok that snaps together.
When it arrives, António takes great pleasure in slowly lifting the lid – a real curtain-raiser moment – to reveal a perfectly cooked stew of prawns, cockles, mussels and other assorted shellfish, all bathed in a heavenly sauce enriched by a garden of herbs and selected vegetables.
The fact that some of these dishes have so impressed Portugal’s culinary community is evident by the citations proudly displayed around and over the bar; the certificates serve as testimony to Cristina and António’s award-winning double act.
Fadista Sofia Ramos performing at the restaurant — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
Like any good play, a finale has to leave an audience wanting more, but you’ll need to leave room for Madragoa’s outrageously decadent chocolate cake, a sensuous affair that sits on the plate surrounded by cream and a liberal sprinkling of cinnamon.
A memorable dining experience should include an element of surprise. In this case, it's singing because one night a week, Madragoa Café hosts an evening of fado, that most haunting and evocative of Portuguese music styles. Santos is not an area of Lisbon known for its fado houses, and Cristina is quick to point out that the restaurant doesn’t pretend to be one.
Madragoa Café's interior design reflects its rustic and homey atmosphere — Photo courtesy of Paul Bernhardt
However, after hearing respected fadista Sofia Ramos and guitarist Bruno Fonseca perform elsewhere in the city, she invited the super talented duo to regale her guests with the poignant and emotional “Portuguese Blues,” and this they do admirably.
Mind you, the melancholy is interspersed with toe-tapping interludes where Sofia will almost laugh her way through a song while Bruno adopts a quirky Brazilian bossa nova style of playing that gets everyone clapping and singing along. Coffee, anyone?