It amazes me how many people travel to Lisbon and never venture the extra forty-odd minutes by train along the picturesque Tagus shore to reach Cascais. This beautiful and slightly bohemian fishing village has a glitzy side, appealing to glamorous sun-worshippers, artists and culture vultures as well as being a pitstop for surfers before they head up Portugal’s windy west coast. It’s on this road, just past the town, where you can find Maré by José Avillez, a sun-drenched and unpretentious fine-dining restaurant that – as its name suggests – celebrates the bountiful sea on the doorstep.
Maré by José Avillez is a less formal offering than the restaurants owned by Avillez in fancy Chiado and beyond, where he holds a fistful of Michelin stars. This one is more about being right beside the sea, perhaps only a short distance from where your dinner was caught, and being in awe of the freshness. Nothing here distracts from the impact of eating seafood by the sea; the decor is light and mostly wooden, almost Nordic, with a couple of hanging plants to soften the lines. The showstopper is the panoramic windows, showing you the scrubby dune-scape on either side of the restaurant and a full half-horizon of glimmering sea.
Visiting on an autumn evening did mean that we missed out on the view, but there was a lovely glow to the rooms. There are two rooms; as you enter, a less formal bistro area with a bar has a nice atmosphere for a family meal, while past the open kitchen and an epic fresh seafood arrangement, there is a more formal room. The chatter and the jazz soundtrack still make the second room feel lively, but this is a much more adult space. Opposite the big windows, an underwater scene made of tiles dominates the wall and a giant wooden ray hangs from the ceiling. It’s a seafood restaurant for sure.
We were served by Beatriz who was very friendly and helpful in making our dinner choices. While we decided, there was a selection of olive, corn and wheat breads, with olive oil, lupin bean hummus and a delectable smoked butter. We were given a choice of three wines by sommelier Indrid, who allowed us to taste and explain each one. We settled for a wine from Douro by Chef José Avillez himself and winemaker Dirk Niepoort, made exclusively for Maré by José Avillez and his other restaurants and, naturally, designed to perfectly enhance the flavours of the dinner.
On to the food. With the sea only a whelk’s throw away from the door of Maré by José Avillez, our choices all featured the produce of the local waters. Our curiosity drove us to try the highly celebrated goose barnacles, which the kitchen was kind enough to do in a tiny tasting portion. As the server put them down, he warned us that ‘they squirt a lot’ and he was not wrong. It’s a fine art to snap off the top part (that looks oddly like teeth, but it was Halloween…) and extract a column of barnacle meat without getting covered in juice. The flavour is worth the effort – unique, delicate and lightly salty.
Starting the meal in earnest, we each had a tuna cone with spicy sauce, a finger-food treat available in all Avillez’s restaurants from the ‘Raw Bar’. The ice-cream cone style dish was fresh and spicy, filled all the way down with little chunks of tuna. We also, in an unusually restrained way, accompanied this bitesize starter with another small option, a beef croquette each, served on a little dollop of truffled Dijon mustard. A little slice of pickled onion on top cuts through the luscious shredded meat inside, but this is definitely a mouthful of winter to the tuna’s mouthful of summer.
Service at Maré by José Avillez is exceptional. We felt very well attended to and even had to ask for a respite between courses, in case their efficiency was going to overwhelm our appetites. There was no need to worry though, the waiting staff were able to adapt to our pace and the main courses were served right when we were ready for them – not an easy thing to do with fresh seafood!
Charlotte’s main course, the seabass, was served with a olive oil, chive and lemon sauce, cut in cross sections rather than as fillet, allowing the flavour of the bones to linger in the flesh. I had chosen a scarlet shrimp – one was quite sufficient because they were huge – which was sweet and meaty, the juice providing a perfect opportunity to make the most of the remaining bread. Both dishes encapsulated the freshness of seafood at its best, simply dressed and perfectly cooked.
The menu at Maré by José Avillez recommends two side dishes with main courses from the grill, so we chose three to share. The garlic rice was really good and the green vegetable selection with basil oil featured asparagus, broccoli, mange tout and spinach. Perhaps our preference would have left some of these a little crunchier, but the vibrant greenness and depth of flavour were a great accompaniment to the seafood. The final side was tasty clams with coriander xerém, a traditional cornmeal dish that’s like a thick soup or porridge not dissimilar to grits, but an unusual and interesting texture.
To finish the meal, we were given a Graham’s 20-year-old tawny port, a classic that we have both enjoyed elsewhere and which continues to be a favourite with cheese in particular. Here, it was paired with our choice of dessert. Charlotte opted for ‘hazelnut in a variety of textures’ which arrived in a pot as a whipped creamy flourish, sprinkled with crushed hazelnuts and a good helping of sea salt. Digging right to the bottom revealed a hazelnut sorbet, but we found that the salt didn’t really offset the sweetness of the cream enough for our palates.
Our second choice was a toucinho du ceu, which is a traditional almond and egg custard cake on a crust. In this case, it was served with a tangy raspberry sorbet, which was necessary to balance the sweetness of the cake. Portuguese desserts are notoriously sweet – if you don’t have a sweet tooth, there is also a cheese option on the menu at Maré by José Avillez and I guarantee they’ll have a few ports you can try to match it with!
After dining at Maré by José Avillez, there is something quite delightful about stepping from the restaurant into the salt-spiked breeze and hearing the crashing waves only metres away. José Avillez is clearly passionate about presenting local produce from the waves and encouraging us to get excited about the beautiful flavours that simply cooked seafood can offer. A perfect setting and a delicious dinner; who could ask for Maré?
Maré by José Avillez
Av. Nossa Senhora do Cabo 9000