Fine-dining restaurant Eleven set inside a two-storey building coloured in shades of rusty red and creamy concrete, in a forested portion of Eduardo VII Park, was a bizarre-looking and mysterious fortress-like structure.
The restaurant launched in 2004 as the project of 11 partners, including chef Joachim Koerper, to offer the historic city of Lisbon a fine-dining restaurant – a space devoted to innovative fare featuring dishes inspired by Southern European cuisine.
Rather than being a case of too many chefs in the kitchen (so to speak), the number 11 also finds significance this year as 2015 marks the celebrated eatery’s 11th anniversary. The pleasure of sampling the refined menu during summer, the ultimate season for Portuguese produce.
Restaurant Eleven has quite minimalistic interior but for eccentric accents they have used furniture from Portuguese brands Boca do Lobo and Brabbu. Lisbon sunshine pours in through floor-to-ceiling windows, framing the same shores explorers such as Columbus and Magellan set sail from to forever change the world. The minimalism makes sense as the food arrives: Dining at Restaurante Eleven is a jolt to the palate achieved by stripping back the frills.
Chef Koerper, who considers his Michelin-starred establishment his universe, allows his dishes to speak volumes in flavour and sensational colours by absolving distractions. “Nature is the perfection, my goal is to extract from it the best raw materials, feel its aromas and flavours, and thus imprint the magic of simplicity and elegance in my dishes,” he says.
The journey begins in the traditional Portuguese way: by breaking bread. Warm, seed-crusted rolls are accompanied by marbled coins of butter laced with local sea salt, resembling a full moon in shape and colour. A national staple, Portugal’s outstanding produce is showcased throughout my lunch.
Anchovies crusted with savoury batter arrive with shaved, coloured carrots and pumpkin purée, the bright orange and metallic silver pigmentation dancing before my eyes, and this is where is dill-covered watermelon cube. The summer fruit is chef Koerper’s signature stamp – indicating his seal of approval before the dish is served to diners.
The following courses provide pops of colour and even greater burst of flavours. Dark purple beet soup is splashed onto a plate where a pink grilled shrimp is engulfed by the savoury liquid. Confit-style cod with spinach purée (a Portuguese classic traditionally blended with milk) is covered in glorious foam and drizzled with rich oils.
Lastly, more confit in the form of suckling pig is served with tomato chutney, passion fruit, and pont neuf potato. This is the champion menu item that blends rustic tradition with chef Koerper’s lineage to Brazil (where he has two restaurants in Rio de Janeiro). A crispy layer of skin containing tender pork meat is paired with bursting seeds of passion fruit and oil-soaked potatoes, adding extra crunch to the melt-in-your-mouth effect.
Dessert is bright and summery: Mango sorbet dotted with teardrop-shaped meringues textured like clouds results in a meal that ends on a sky-high note. As a finale, a platter of chocolates and cookies accompany a bitter Portuguese espresso, or a slow-burning glass of port from the north. Returning to the bustling reality of Lisbon.
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