I was visiting Lisbon for a few days and heard from a friend of mine about a small restaurant by the river that specialised in a peculiar type of Portuguese cuisine. He told me that everyone who loves food should go there. Duly intrigued, I scheduled it in for a summery day in May.
Since I almost always travel to Portugal to see family, or with my parents on holiday, this was the first time in Lisbon where I had no one to cook for me. Having decided to stay in a cheap hotel in the city centre and not in our Oeiras flat, I could not cook for myself either. When hungry I would visit a little family-owned cafeteria under my building that served fresh pasteis de bacalhao (salt cod fritters) and arroz do pato (duck rice), a chore at first but eventually a place I could not do without. It was homely and the guys there did not laugh too much at my Portuguese.
I had only been going for three days but already felt like I had been a regular for several years. I knew the owner, his wife, about their daughter’s upcoming marriage and their pet terrier, Juju, who had only just passed away. A Brazilian waiter Caio, who was particularly fond of me – often amusing himself with my uncanny ability to swear in Portuguese like a tapioca vendor in Rio – used to insist on waiting my table. It was easy to get used to, and if I had stayed in Lisbon a little longer, I doubt I would have returned to England.
So, before I left for this place in Cais do Sodre, I went down to see Manuel and Agatha downstairs and asked if they knew anything about the restaurant Pedro had recommended. Manu looked at me with a slightly raised eyebrow, still polishing class with a grey cloth. ‘I am surprised you have not heard of Sol E Pesca. It is very famous. Since you do not know anything about it, I’ll let it be a surprise. But it’s not that surprising’ (at least that is what I translated). This did not help much, but I ordered a few pasteis to go which did.
The sun was high in the May sky when I arrived at Sol E Pesca. There were a few people in, tourists from Scotland by the sounds of it, enquiring about one of the fish cans in a showcase of tin cans, about how it would be prepared. Not understanding what was going on, I picked a tiny table against the opposite wall and waited to be served. The menu that I received was attached to a fishing rod, which I suppose went with the ‘sun and fishing’ translation of the restaurant name. The place itself seemed like one you’d visit if you desired bait and tackle, new fishing gear or scuba equipment. I learnt eventually that it was such a place, twenty years prior.
Before I was served I knew my server spoke perfect English by overhearing his interactions with the other guests. It is always harder for me to speak in Portuguese when I know the person I am conversing with can speak English fluently. I greeted the young guy serving me, a student who looked very much like ta brunette Eddie Redmayne, in Portuguese, and proceeded to ask about the perplexing menu, in admittedly broken Portuguese. He smiled, like they always do at my attempt, and then proceeded to answer in Portuguese, too quickly by far for me grasp what he was saying. I asked him to speak slower because I was still learning, and he did, but I was still confused and slightly embarrassed. There was a moment of familiar awkwardness where the waiter both felt sorry for me and at the same time desired to speed up because of his job. Recognising his difficulty, I caved, and spoke in English, letting the feeling of failure wash over me and colour my cheeks.
I apologised for wasting time, but he shook his head with a wide smile. The waiter explained to me that the menu seemed confusing because every dish referred to a kind of canned seafood. The restaurant I was in, specialised in fresh canned food, which was in essence an oxymoron, which was probably why I could not immediately comprehend what he was saying. Fisherman make their catch, cook, cure and prep their fish before putting it in cans of brine or oil and would then send them to Sol E Pesca that served them as is with fresh bread and other accoutrements. It sounds absurd, he reiterated, but it works and people come from all over to try their food, a favourite of the locals.
While still tentative within, I projected excitement and asked him if he would send me three of their most popular cans, each of a different kind of seafood. He asked me if I had any preference, I said I had none, and he went away with a nod taking the menu with him. With my drink of chilled beer, I waited for what I thought would be a tin can on a porcelain plate.
Then a basket of warm crusty bread arrived with a bowl of mussels in a broth, and plate of mackerel small and gleaming in the sparse light of the restaurant. The muscles were soft, almost like crème caramel in texture, and had the perfect sea sweetness you learn to love about them. The broth was cool, garlicky, with a lemon piquancy that was utterly refreshing. The mackerel, an oily fish that I do not tend to grab for in a restaurant, did have a texture of a tinned fish but was infused with the flavour of the oil it was packed with, a subtle chilly heat that tickled the palate. Because I loved the mussels so much, I ordered another round of mussels that came along with my squid that represented another example of well-infused garlic and parsley. A simple meal: bread and seafood, but it was incredible and I loved every bite.
The waiter, after things settled down, came over for a chat. He was a student at the university of Lisbon and was studying History and English. He also told me he was doing his thesis on dystopias, focusing on Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. When I mentioned that I was an English Lit student in the UK, he could not help but spend the end of his lunch-shift picking my brain. It was a nice afternoon, and I learnt a lot from and about Lucas who mentioned a few other places to visit: where to avoid particularly, and corrected a few of the Portuguese sentences I was not sure of. At the end, while I get how odd it is for one to eat canned food in a restaurant, I do not quite understand what all the fuss was about. It is actually not all that uncommon in Lisbon; I would definitely suggest visitors check it out.