There must be something in the air in Santarém. The municipal map is shaped like the hand of God and the food scene is so hair-raisingly good, you do sometimes wonder if the place has been blessed. Like many supposed ‘overnight successes’, the city’s recent buzz is in reality the upshot of a lot of hard work and long-term vision. The Santarém annual National Gastronomy Festival fêted its 40th birthday in 2021 and must surely be part of the reason why so many exciting chefs are based here. I did the tough job of trying some of the oldest and newest restaurants about town and here’s the lowdown.
1. Taberna do Quinzena
If you like your eateries unfussy and full of authentic charm, this is the place for you. Be aware: there are three linked establishments around town, but we came to the oldest. 150 years of loyal customers can’t be wrong, right? As you enter, through doors where the clients used to tie up their horses, you’ll pass the balcão – the original bar counter where once upon a time men, (yes, only men) stood to drink strong wine from thimble-sized glasses. Vintage posters featuring matadors on horseback line the walls, the wooden tables are long and for sharing, and neither the menu nor the portion sizes are messing about.
We started by sharing Alheira, a devilishly sticky and more-ish sausage mainly composed of poultry, bread, olive oil, garlic and chili pepper. Next the house’s version of Can Can Beef in a sea of sauce topped with an egg. It may not have looked the prettiest thing ever, but the beef was decently-cooked and the creamy, mildly spiced sauce was tasty.
We also tried the Pluma Iberico, that fatty cut of uniquely flavoursome pork that you can sear quickly like a steak. I’ll let you into a secret: it was so good our usually non-pork eating photographer stole most of it from my plate and devoured it.
Accompaniments are just as hearty and simple, like rice and fries. Yes, and – not or. The green salad with tomato and onions was well-dressed and copious too. The waiters insisted we wash dinner down with a glass of aguardente, or ‘firewater’, fermented and distilled from wine must. I didn’t regret following their advice.
2. O Pátio da Graça
O Pátio da Graça may have the elegance to match its position, overlooking the venerable church of Santa Maria de Graça, but exciting young chef Rafael Duarte is not afraid to shake things up. His stylish Peruvian-Japanese fusion restaurant offers the kind of food I could eat all day long.
Deliciously squidgy chicken and ginger gyozas. Steamed bok choi dressed in a gleaming salty broth. Soft, sticky bao buns filled with tempura crab burgers. The tenderest, tastiest yakitori I’ve ever eaten. Salmon tacitos topped with tobiko roe like tiny specks of gold.
Around the pale walls stretch brown leather banquettes. Vaults and warm lighting lend a gently ecclesiastic feel. On summer days (and why not fresher days too if you’re hardy?) you can dine upstairs on the eponymous patio. One of the typical wells storing the city’s water is sited there. Black and white tiles underfoot, blue sky overhead, and a view of Santa Maria’s glorious rose window complete the heavenly experience. Not to miss.
3. Oh! VARGAS
On the northwestern outskirts of the city, Oh! VARGAS has belonged to the same household for three generations, each bringing their own plan of action. Current owner Manuel Vargas styles himself as a businessman rather than a chef but working closely with his team (and currently recruiting for kitchen staff!), his take on the family brand is a relentless focus on quality and consistency.
As well as transforming the restaurant into a reference for fine wines, regional and beyond, he has invested in classy renovations, creating high ceilings, modern décor and a large wisteria-covered terrace that draws a crowd in summer months. He’s clearly proud of Oh! VARGAS’s past and present, pointing out across the courtyard the doorway leading to the small room where his parents slept after work for 40 years, as well as insisting we take a look at the fancy refurbished bathrooms.
But, let’s turn to the wine, seeing as that’s where Manuel places much of his emphasis. He selected for us a bottle of white Bridão 2019 Private Collection D.O.C Tejo, from the Cartaxo cooperative, south of Santarém, bordering the Tejo or Tagus river. It has the area’s typical lucent citrine appearance, but its makers have avoided the traditional and highly-scented Fernão Pires grape, to blend instead Arinto, Verdelho, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. I enjoyed the light savoury mouthfeel, a saline edge to the tropical pineapple and lime notes.
It was a cleverly chosen complement to our food: starting with tangy nettled goats cheese, blackened leeks with sweet red pepper purée, and expertly-cooked asparagus and mushrooms, with just the right amount of bite. For mains, we sampled pluma again, and fried John Dory which was done to perfection, tender in the middle, crisp on the outside.
With this level of skill in the kitchen, it seems almost insulting to say that two of my favourite items were the arroz de coentros (coriander rice) and açorda (a fragrant peasant dish of thick bread-based soup). But it’s the truth – and they do say you can tell how good a restaurant is by how well they do the simplest things where there’s nowhere to hide. I could happily eat that coriander rice every day for the rest of my life.
To finish, a take on Chiffon da Ana – a Portuguese dessert – here with walnuts, meringue and a rich egg custard. The different textures were well put together but it was a little too sweet for me. Still, like magic, I managed to snaffle down several mouthfuls.
4. Ó Balcão
Ó Balcão is credited by some as being The Place that raised the stakes in Santarém’s gastronomy game. The focus on provenance here is key. As well as specialising in freshwater fish from the local Tagus, chef Rodrigo Castelo seeks out other neglected regional ingredients and puts them centre-stage.
The stream of creations coming from the kitchen is startlingly exquisite – both in looks and flavour – and, by other European city standards, excellent value. There’s a tasting menu with wine pairings, worth every penny. You can also select à la carte, with prices averaging about 13 euros.
We started with crispy river shrimp; tiny, salty flavour-bombs to tease our palate. This was accompanied by a glass of 2015 sparkling dry white Monge, from Quinta do Casal Branco, just over the other side of the river.
Next came chewy cecina or ‘cow ham’ – thin slices of cured beef masquerading as the delicious bastard-child of presunto Ibérico and jerk. Then a (trigger-warning) castrated goat taco with homemade pickles, lime and almonds – so good it was almost pornographic. And the ‘River-to-sea cone’ – a mini mock ice-cream of fried Christmas dough (coscorões), filled with ceviche of flathead grey mullet topped with river shrimp mousse. Like an ice-cream it really did melt in the mouth.
With a different wine to accompany every element we ate, there’s not room here to review each one, but Castelo certainly knows how to devise a gourmet experience. A special mention must go to the house ‘Castelo’ wines dedicated to his father, labelled with a pen and ink portrait of the man at whose side he learnt to cook. But if I had to choose one wine to go with Castelo’s showcase fish dishes, it would be the 2019 Câmbio Blanc de Noirs Grande Escolha – a white tempranillo whose sharp citrus is balanced by buttery dried fruit notes.
Let’s not forget the veg. I loved the contrasting smoke and freshness of the charred bimi broccoli, while my companions went wild for folded cabbage leaf filled with pearlscale fish and topped with baby pennyroyal.
Choosing standouts among such an outstanding menu is nearly impossible but two dishes in particular made me almost cry with pleasure. Presented on a single spoon came açorda (bread purée topped with soy sauce-cured egg yolk, and a morsel of king fish.
And to finish, ‘Grandmother’s Coffee’, a pudding inspired by Castelo’s nan who loved to dip her bread in coffee. In homage to her, he presents fried bread infused with milky coffee, topped with a quenelle of cinnamon ice cream and – wait for it – dehydrated olive flakes for a touch of salt. Incredible.
As you can tell, I loved everything about this place, including its seductive dark green walls, Portuguese ceramics, hot towels and bathrooms fragrant as a trip to the spa. Recommended.
5. Dois Petiscos
Young Chef João Correia’s star is on the rise. After training and working internationally, including at the Ritz Carlton and in Barcelona, he returned to Santarém seven years ago to open his own place and be nearer family, as he and his wife began a family of their own. It’s a difficult time to open a restaurant – he had just completed the renovations on his second establishment in town, Dois Petiscos, conveniently situated just off the main square, when Covid-19 restrictions began. But unlike other places in town, he was already prepared to do take-aways and so was able to keep going despite the shutdown.
The décor is simple with rustic touches, whitish walls with woven artwork and ceramic animal busts and the obligatory open kitchen where you can see the team at work. There are extra tables on the balcony too.
We sampled Green Bean Soup, creamy and nourishing, then croquettes – one of curried beef with honey mayonnaise, one of tuna with coriander aioli.
These are one of the house specialties and are so crunchy, yielding and tasty, it’s not surprising they’ve become a favourite with local kids. The garlic and chilli prawns were easy on the garlic and left a hint of heat lingering on the lips. Foie gras is of course controversial but it was wickedly caramelised and velvety atop the tenderloin and onion confit.
After a crazily indulgent week, I loved the wholesome accompaniments at Dois Petiscos. The agulha rice (needle rice – a Portuguese long-grain Indica variety) with a whiff of butter, was a dream. I’ll be looking out for it in the shops. And the mashed orange yam tossed into turnip greens had well balanced sweet, earthy and bitter notes, with just the right chomp and give.
We took away a dessert called ‘dois caramelos’ to try later. It’s a kind of deconstructed Snickers bar, with biscuit, chocolate ganache, peanuts, caramel fudge and puffed rice. I’ll guiltily admit that sitting at home later, I could only manage a bite of it. But the fact I still had an appetite to do so at all is a testament to how good Dois Petiscos is.