It was a cosmopolitan gathering around the dinner table in Oporto, northern Portugal. There were three Germans, a Pole, two Spaniards, five Portuguese and two English food and wine lovers, all kept in check by a patrolling sheepdog.
Over the next three hours we made our way through a typically attractive Portuguese feast. Bottles from Dão, Barraida and the Douro that invariably provide good value on wine lists; a large, fresh sea bass, butterflied and cooked on a barbecue alongside the sweetest of tomato salads; and, at the end of the meal, bottles of Niepoort vintage port 1970 and a 1977 Garrafeira that provided me with a lesson I wish I had learnt as a restaurateur.
These two bottles were so rich and concentrated, and so filling too, that they were dessert in their own right. I just wish I had had the courage to offer them in the dessert section of my menu, rather than as one of the accompanying wines.
Breakfast in one of the cafés by the river the next morning gave an intimation of how much this city has improved since I first came here in 1976 to argue over the price of cotton. Oporto is now cleaner and brighter, its streets full of small shops. It is no surprise it has become such a magnet for tourists.
A 20-minute taxi ride along the river takes you to Matosinhos, the suburb on the ocean that our Portuense friend claims is home to the very best fish restaurants in the world. We arrived the following evening at O Gaveto (The Seagull) and even from the workaday exterior of this restaurant I knew we would not be disappointed.
O Gaveto, like Elkano outside San Sebastián, northern Spain (one of my favourite fish restaurants anywhere), is within spitting distance of the sea, and this is a crucial ingredient in its success.
O Gaveto has been in the hands of Manuel Pinheiro and his two sons, José and João Carlos, for the past 29 years. Inside the restaurant, seemingly unchanged since the 1970s, this continuity of ownership, combined with their obvious delight in serving the freshest fish and shellfish, becomes immediately apparent.
The first room is home to several tanks of lobsters and crabs and two elegant U-shaped bars. On the far wall is that day’s catch – cod, sole, sea bass – but an indication of just how well the Pinheiros have come to pre-empt their customers’ wishes and appetite is on display on the fridge’s front counter. This holds about six metal trays packed with various combinations of tangerine-sized crabs (given a spicy kick after being cooked in water infused with piri piri); tiny orange shrimps; and goose barnacles. As the customers stop in front of this display and are greeted by one of the Pinheiros, it is impossible not to order one of these trays, which is then promptly brought to your table.
That is how our meal began, with the intake of the sea from the shrimps and the goose barnacles prompting a comment that eating these was “almost like swimming but without getting wet”. Our Portuense friend smiled, nodded sagely and proudly explained that it was all down to the expanse of Atlantic outside, where the normally cold and rough seas are the vital factors in providing such exceptional raw ingredients.
To prove that the first tray was no fluke, it was promptly followed by a second, bearing a large crab, steamed and then dissected, with the dark meat from the shell served on thin toasts. Then came bowls of clams cooked with garlic, coriander and white wine and accompanied by green mounds of ramps cooked with olive oil, garlic, flour and milk.
The final dish was a house speciality. A large, firmly closed, metal container came to the table from which emerged a steaming combination of rice and lobster. It was stunning, the richness of the lobster offset by the creaminess of the rice and both enhanced by the delicious soup that held them together. The container went back to the kitchen empty.
The end of the meal brought two more insights into how the Portuense enjoy their food. The first, from a German now resident in Oporto, was a reference to their particularly rich desserts. “Their dessert recipes,” she explained laughing, “always refer to egg yolks by the dozen and sugar by the kilo.”
The second, looking around O Gaveto, is how swiftly its happy customers take to toasting one another’s health at the end of the meal. Next time, we will happily join in.
‘The Art of the Restaurateur’, by Nicholas Lander, is published by Phaidon (£24.95)
Rua Roberto Ivens 826, 4450 Matosinhos,
+351 229 378 796