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A recent peregrination brought me to the harbor of Lagos in the Algarve region of southern Portugal. Seabird calls—sharp cackling Herring Gulls, piercing shrills of Common Terns and the deep cacophony of Great Black-Back Gulls—mingled with seaside scents and vistas along the shoreline. Sensory stimulus is the first impression of this historic coastal town of 18,000.
The shore setting is an essential ingredient of the towns past and present as a source of food and point of embarkation. Vasco da Gama sailed from the port in 1499 on his epic voyage of discovery. An armada of 800 vessels led by Dom Sebastião, the newly crowned 18-year-old King of Portugal, embarked from Lagos in 1578 on an ill-fated crusade to conquer a North African city.
A statue of the Don Sebastião Restaurant's namesake stands in the main square in front of the Town Hall. From its beginning in 1979, the restaurant has gathered a following of diners and a reputation for delicious traditional fresh food and local ambience with warm, friendly service. It is locally renowned for quality cuisine from a menu inspired by Portuguese fare and the sea.
The restaurant is located on a cobblestone walking-only street that is a short distance from the waterfront. Each day, boats bring in fresh catches of fish, shrimp, crabs, oysters and other seafood. The interior showcases Portuguese gothic décor and pottery on whitewashed walls in the cobbled floor main dining area. This all quickly fades to backdrop as food and wine take center stage.
Starters of chouriço, flaming pork sausage grilled over local firewater, are served as wines are poured. The red of choice, Esporão Reserva 2007 Alentejo, and the white of the night, Quinta do Carmo 2007 Alentejo, continually flow throughout the evening. The red is hearty but not overly full-bodied while the white is clean and refreshing; each is simple, elegant palate pleaser that goes down too easily.
The delectable cuisines from proprietor Antonio Gomes, chef Paulo, waiter Victor and crew mix complimentary essences that seem to explode in the brain as well as on the tongue. The hot spices blend with the textures of vegetables, seafood and pasta in extraordinary balance, cooked to perfection. Sweet, fresh raw oysters from nearby Alvor River and a Don Sebastiao salad followed. The signature salad of lettuce, tomato, cucumber, white beans, cooked beetroot with a zesty vinaigrette dressing was crisp and tasty.
My entrée of charcoal-grilled jumbo tiger prawns with Piri-Piri, a sauce of small hot peppers, triggered a dramatic taste response. Also sampled was an equally delicious melt-in-the-mouth charcoal-grilled sea bass seasoned with a butter and olive oil sauce. Both came from the nearby Atlantic Ocean, the prawns from near Africa and the sea bass farther north.
Don Sebastião's house specials are fresh seafood and fish, grilled or boiled, and lamb stew in red wine. Meat dishes and several veggie options are also available. All are made to order in-house and served with a variety of bread and rolls from a local bakery.
Large aquariums showcase the variety of colorful live crustaceans: lobsters, crabs, crayfish, clams and oysters. Main courses include pork chops with figs, succulent shellfish, rice, and shrimp cooked with savory spices.
There are two large dining rooms decorated in a rustic style with alfresco dining also available on the cobbled front patio or the roof terrace. The underground wine cellar is especially engaging, showcasing a broad collection of Portuguese wines, vintage Port (dating back to the 1700's), Madeira and impressive historic bottles from the owner's private collection.
A visit to the cellar after dinner for port with queijo da serra, a cured, creamy sheep milk Serrinha Cheese from Portugal's Serra da Estrela mountains continued the parade of taste sensations. The cellar houses 14,000 bottles and 240 varieties of white, rose, and red. Tucked in the corner was a humidor with an assortment of brands. We selected Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2s from a cabinet and headed to the patio.
The dessert selection included morgados cookies made with local almonds, figs and eggs and almond cakes. I took great pleasure in these sweets with after dinner coffee, port and a strong local alcoholic spirit, the aguardente de medronho, distilled from butus berry fruit while enjoying slow burning Cubans on the patio adjacent to the street where people passed by arm in arm on evening strolls.
Lagos and the Algarve are heavily influenced by tourism but still retain many qualities of the country and people. There is an authentic taste of Portuguese culture and cuisine at resorts and quaint beach towns in hidden coves from Praia da Luz to Sagres and the mountain village of Monchique, each rich in lifestyle with warm and welcoming people.
Although the Algarve is one of best golf destinations in the world, with 36 courses in a 74 mile stretch, the region offers plenty for non-golfers as well, including miles of golden-sand beaches and beautiful walking nature trails, charming villages, seaside national parks, historic architecture, sailing, fishing and other water sports.
Algarve's proximity to and influence of the sea pervades much of life—climate, weather, agricultural, cuisine and customs. The sharing of food and wine is central to the culture. Restaurants are gathering places where people celebrate traditional local fare and the enjoyment of dining together, a ritual that's magnified exponentially by this geographic phenomenon that's repeated each and every night.
Don Sebastiao Restaurante
Rua 25 Abril 20/2 8600-763 Lagos, Portugal
Bill Nestor writes about travel, golf and lifestyle from his home in Vermont.