Meet the chef: Portugal's Jose Avillez

Meet the chef: Portugal's Jose Avillez

by Kristi Adams
Stripes Europe

My hands shook with a heady mixture of excitement and adrenaline as I found the country code to Portugal – and pressed dial. I was calling Mini Bar Teatro – one of José Avillez’s restaurants.

The same José Avillez who holds three Michelin stars, owns seven restaurants in Portugal, brought the city of Lisbon its first two-starred Michelin restaurant, has placed in “The World’s 50 Best Restaurant’s List” by Restaurant magazine and won “Best International Restaurant” by Condé Nast Traveller International.

That José Avillez

Oh, I should mention he also interned at the world-famous el Bulli – the three-starred Michelin restaurant in Catalonia that has been widely regarded as the best restaurant in the world.

I was so excited I nearly danced by my desk as the call connected.

Two rings later, a lilting Portuguese voice sailed through the phone, undoubtedly asking if they could help me. I’d mastered enough of the beautiful sing-song language to ask, pleadingly, if she spoke English – and breathed a sigh of relief when she said yes.

Once she confirmed our reservation – I really did break out into a dance.

Three weeks later, my husband and I were seated in the lush, red velvet São Luiz Theatre grinning like two kids on Christmas Day. Within seconds, we realized this was not your ordinary restaurant.

The servers were a delightful combination of friendly, professional and playful. Playful, you ask? If it is your first time dining with them, they ask if you feel adventurous enough to try their “Surprise” menu. If you ask what’s on it, they will tell you the number of courses and inquire into any food allergies or aversions, but the only other clue they offer about the meal is that it’s food as you have never had it before. Food that will play with and trick your senses for an unforgettable experience.

In other words, molecular gastronomy.

Molecular gastronomy is a style of cooking and food science that explores, then exploits, the physical and chemical transformations and reactions that occur in cooking. The result is a delightful mix of culinary physics, art and experimental cuisine, in taste, texture and presentation.

I won’t ruin the surprise of Mini Bar Teatro, but like our server – I will leave you with a few clues. The el Bulli olives are on the surprise menu. Although the taste is that of a rich, tangy green olive – the texture is that of a liquid silk that melts across your tongue. It’s just one of several dishes that truly embody the restaurant’s promise, which is “all is not as it seems.”

Although owned by a Michelin-starred chef, Mini Bar Teatro is not Michelin-starred itself. Yet. But, I suspect it might be soon. For now, it is simply a down-to-earth 'Michelin experience', without the sky-high prices or pretention.

We had such a memorable experience at Mini Bar, we decided to try one more of Chef Avillez’s restaurants before we departed Lisbon; Pizzaria Lisboa. With a deceptively simple menu, the house-made dough and freshest ingredients resulted in stunningly delicious pizzas and pasta. 

What impressed me the most with Chef Avillez’s creations was the breadth of talent across such vastly different preparation styles. From simple pizzas to extraordinarily difficult truffles, his creations rank among the best in the world. Equally impressive, is that Chef Avillez offers restaurant concepts across several price points – making his food accessible to all budgets, a rarity among Michelin chefs. The only way his food could get any better, is if he wrote a few books and shared some of his secrets.

Oh wait! He did!

Find out more about José Avillez, his restaurants, books and more

Photo credit for José Avillez - By RCM-JA - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0

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