IF I say that I saw the future of Portuguese cooking in a martini glass, you might conclude that I was having drunken visions.
Not at the meal and moment in question: when a server at the chef José Avillez’s brilliant restaurantBelcanto, in Lisbon, set the second in a series of amuse bouches before me. It was called an “inverted martini,” because the olive had the starring role, in the form of a pool of green juice. Gin played the cameo, having been turned into a translucent sphere the size and shape of an olive.
It was pretty, witty and plenty delicious. And it spoke to the cunning and creativity of Mr. Avillez, a rising young star on the Portuguese food scene and a big reason Lisbon is such a culinary joy, especially these days.
Over the last year Mr. Avillez, 32, has essentially opened two new restaurants. Essentially because Belcanto, in the city’s Chiado neighborhood, had been around for many decades before he took it over and gave it an elegant face-lift and entirely new, slightly avant-garde menu about six months ago. My long lunch there was perhaps the best meal I’ve eaten in 2012 so far.
Mr. Avillez’s other, much more casual new restaurant, Cantinho do Avillez, is just blocks away, only a few months older and a convivial delight. It features a succinct menu of hearty Portuguese bistro fare that departs from the Lisbon norm by paying a bit more attention to fowl, organ meats and African and Asian spices, which underscore ethnic bridges built in Portugal’s colonial past.
Mr. Avillez has helped to provide a needed complement of playfulness, modernism and global sophistication to a restaurant scene that tends toward — and excels at — the rustic and unvarnished. The city teems with straightforward seafood brasseries that mine the waters around Lisbon for all that they’re worth.
One of the newer of these, and one of the best, comes from a nationally celebrated chef who, like Mr. Avillez, has been especially busy these last few years. It’s called Cervejaria da Esquina, and it arrived fast on the heels of Tasca da Esquina, both showcasing the cooking of Vitor Sobral.
Cervejaria, in the elegant residential neighborhood of Campo de Ourique, to which few tourists venture, has a menu with a more diverse selection of clams, saltwater snails and even barnacles than I’d ever encountered before. Its shrimp were phenomenal, as was its version of a popular Portuguese crab dish that presents strands of crab meat mixed with salty roe, thickened with one or more condiments — mustard, for example — and tucked into the cavity of a big red crab shell. You spread the crab mixture on bread or, at Cervejaria, something that’s more like Melba toast.
Cervejaria improves on the typical look of a restaurant of its kind with the lavish use of sleek, pale, handsome wood and tidy displays of its seafood in bins, along with a gargantuan tank that divides two rooms.
There are more and more lookers on the Lisbon restaurant scene, like 1300 Taberna, sprawling and stunning, with flamboyant lighting fixtures, fanciful plates and cutlery and — most important — appealing food that puts Portuguese staples through mildly inventive paces.
But back to Belcanto, where exuberantly inventive is perhaps the most apt description for what Mr. Avillez does there. Riffing off the concept of a golden egg, he actually uses edible gold leaf to encase an egg slow-cooked to custardy perfection.
And in a dish called skate Jackson Pollock, he uses the fish as a canvas to reproduce the look of a Pollock painting with splashes and slashes of black, orange and green sauces made, respectively, from cuttlefish ink, carrot and olive. They gave a salty, buttery charge to expertly cooked fish. They also announced Lisbon’s epicurean ambitions, and validated its achievements.
Belcanto, Largo de São Carlos, 10; (351-21) 342-0607 ; joseavillez.pt; Lunch or dinner for two with wine, 150 to 200 euros (about $187 to $250 at $1.26 to the euro), not including tip.
Cantinho do Avillez
Dinner for two with wine, 80 to 100 euros, not including tip.
Cervejaria da Esquina
Dinner for two with wine, 90 to 115 euros, not including tip.
Lunch or dinner for two with wine, 80 to 100 euros, not including tip.
The cover story last Sunday about Lisbon described incorrectly a dish served at Cervejaria da Esquina restaurant. It is a crab — not clam — dish that includes strands of crab meat mixed with roe and tucked into a crab shell.