Lisbon, as most of our readers know, is quite possibly the coolest European destination at the moment and so our recent visit had been long overdue.
Driving up the San Francisco-steep street leading to Pestana Palace, I was reminded of Portugal’s rich history.
Pestana is a real palace (as opposed to a misnomer indicating an expensive hotel).
It was built in the early 20th century by one of the oldest aristocratic families who also made one of the largest fortunes in Portugal from farming cocoa.
Construction of the building began in 1904 under the guidance of Italian architect Nicola Bigaglia and today it is classified as a national monument.
You can get a glimpse – and a sense of what it is – as you approach the high wall gardens of the palace.
Once inside, you walk up a twin marble staircase and through a corridor, on either side of which are some of the most splendid reception rooms you are ever likely to visit: the wood-panelled dining room is visually striking as is the succession of themed rooms on the right before you reach the restaurant.
The formal dining room is remarkable for its frescoed ceiling and intricate gilt panels and provides a somewhat incongruous breakfast setting for the casually dressed attendees of the web summit taking place in Lisbon at the time of our stay.
Dinner there, on the other hand, is quite magical. The sheer splendour of the room aside, the menu is a testimony to the best of the famed Portuguese gastronomy.
My companion and I opted for, respectively, the multi-course seafood menu and the sardines and veal for me.
My first course consisted of this most Portuguese of fishes, cooked four different ways – that is, grilled, fried, smoked and salted – in itself a mini 4 course offering. The grilled version was my favourite – boring, I know, but words cannot describe the voluptuous taste of a plump, freshly caught sardine in all its undressed glory.
My second course mirrored the first in that it consisted of veal cooked in four different ways, including a melting morsel topped with foie gras and another braised, in its reduced juices and red wine sauce. Each was an experience in its own right and the truffled mash accompanying it heavenly. A veritable tour de force that left no desire or room for pudding (especially as the palate cleansing sorbet in a glass of sparkling wine provided a delightful substitute).
My companion’s menu had a succession of seafood mini dishes starting with oysters and followed by mussels, clams, grilled prawns and lobster.
It is the prawns and the lobster that deserve the highest praise as they get so frequently overcooked.
Whatever the chef’s secret, the prawns were soft and melting without being overdone (a mistake that can leave them stringy when grilled). The lobster itself was the definitive grilled crustacean in that it was cooked to absolute perfection, tail presented on the side and flesh in shell literally dissolving on the palate.
If you haven’t tried lobster at Pestana Palace, you haven’t tried lobster at all!
We both passed on dessert but did partake of the sumptuous chocolate truffles.
Our Portuguese red, Quinta da Boa Esperanca 2013, was nicely balanced, with just enough tannin to complement the very rich food.
Back to our junior suite, we were enchanted with the views of the extended gardens from a balcony the size of the sitting room. Lisbon is not hot in November, but it is sunny and pleasant, and the terrace is a great spot to enjoy a small bottle of the country’s most famous export, port. Do try the rose port if you get a chance – a lesser known but elegant option to either red or white.
We were in the modern part of the hotel, but constantly reminded of its past and place in the national history by the seemingly endless oil painting adorning the walls everywhere. The work of Carlos Reis (1863-19040), one of the great Portuguese artists of the 19th century, can be seen throughout (including the ceiling frescoes) and would delight the fine art lovers.
Pestana Palace is a 5 star establishment, with the flawless service one is accustomed to expecting from this kind of rating. We can think of no better place to stay while visiting Lisbon.