“Don’t sit there!” says the waiter.
Mike and I pause in the process of settling down at a table for two in a fairly empty restaurant and look at each other, then the waiter, wondering what we’ve done wrong.
“There’s a lot of food,” he explains. “You’ll need a bigger table.” With that, he ushers us to a table for four. We sit down, still a bit bemused; we haven’t ordered yet.
We soon find out how right he was. It takes him four journeys back and forth from the kitchen serving hatch, through which we glimpse tantalising spirals of steam and the glint of metal pans, to deliver our main courses.
I’ve got octopus with baby baked potatoes in olive oil (polvo à lagareira) served in a roof tile while Mike’s gone for lamb chops. We ordered half-portions but there’s enough in each dish for two people so I have to double-check that he hasn’t given us full portions, which are meant to be shared.
While we’re contemplating the enormous amount of meat, he brings a seemingly endless stream of side dishes to the table. A plate of fries, a green salad, a bowl of black beans in sauce, and two bean and spinach salads – one with cod and potatoes, one with croutons.
It’s all very impressive, especially as it’s not the norm to get any kind of vegetables with your meal in Portugal unless you specifically order them. More importantly, it tastes delicious. The lamb chops have been marinated in lemon and cooked to pink perfection. The octopus is soft and delicately sweet.
Too good to waste, we eat until we’re fit to burst. We’ve made a dent in the side dishes but there’s still plenty left over. It’s amazing value, considering that our mains only cost about €7 or €8. Even with a bottle of house red, a couple of coffees and some appetisers, the total bill was only €23. On weekdays, they do a complete set lunch menu for about €7.
Okay, then, I’ll tell you where you, too, can stuff yourself silly with tasty food for very little money.
First, head to central Portugal. You’re looking for a town called Lousã, about 25 kilometres from the university city of Coimbra and backed by a mountain range. If you like hiking through forests to ancient hilltop schist villages, or even driving to them and wandering around, Lousã is a great place to work off your lunch. There’s also a small castle, a river beach and a museum; enough to warrant at least a day trip.
Once you’re in Lousã, head out of the centre towards the mountains. On the corner of Rua Dotor João dos Santos, opposite the town hall and behind the parish church, there’s a large dark window under a dark wooden sign. You can barely make out the name, ‘O Gato’ (The Cat) above and could be forgiven for thinking it was closed.
Unless it’s Tuesday, however, it’s probably open so try the door. Don’t be put off by the dingy, smoky bar you have to walk through to get to the restaurant at the back of the building. The eating area’s no-smoking, as far as I’m aware. It’s nothing fancy, but kind of cute, with its pebble dashed walls painted with local scenes, such as the castle and the ornate drinking fountain.
The menu changes daily and will be in Portuguese but the waiter speaks English and will be happy to explain what the dishes are. Don’t forget to go for half portions if you want different meals; I defy anyone to get through an entire portion on their own!
CNN elogia a "tremenda" comida portuguesa
A "tremenda" - em quantidade e em sabor - comida portuguesa é a protagonista de uma crónica publicada, esta terça-feira, nos iReports da norte-americana CNN. A peça, da autoria de Julie Dawn Fox, é o relato de uma visita ao restaurante "O Gato", na Lousã, onde os pratos, "saborosos e baratos", espantam os amantes estrangeiros da gastronomia.
"Desafio alguém a conseguir comer uma porção inteira sozinho", conclui.