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A lot of cod - and a fair amount of codswallop

Published 3 December 2006
News Review
698th article

Michael with Paula Lecoq at Hockey Cafe (Geraldine Lynton-Edwards)

I met the outstanding actor John Malkovich in the lobby of the Lapa Palace hotel, Lisbon. It was just before lunch. By coincidence, I was off to Bica do Sapato, a restaurant part-owned by John. He was staying at the hotel. He likes Portugal. I can leave it or leave it.

John said he'd followed my recipe for roast potatoes, including the bay leaves.

I didn't like to tell him I wasn't aware I'd ever given a recipe for roast potatoes. Other, possibly, than one provided by my friend Michael Caine. In which bay leaves don't feature!

John's place, Bica whatever, is on an estuary so it looks out over water. It's quite buzzy. The hotel manager told me, "It's all sandwiches and salads." In reality, there was a big menu.

The food was good. Geraldine had apple and carrot juice, I had orange juice. All absolutely fresh.

My starter was crispy goat's cheese with roast tomato, my main course fresh cod poached in olive oil. The service was slow beyond belief. Under my cod was what could have been sliced vegetable or pasta.

"What is it?" I asked Geraldine.

"I haven't got a clue," she replied.

"Thank you so much, you're very helpful," I responded.

We decided it was a vegetable. We were told it was salsa.

The Lapa hotel people assured me Cascais and Estoril, on the coast road were beautiful. They weren't. It looks like every plumber that ever lived has built a small, utterly boring retirement bungalow on this stretch of coast. Nothing worth seeing.

We progressed to Sintra, one of those preserved villages that sit around everywhere. It wasn't a patch on the French or Italian ones. But then France and Italy beat all countries for holidays.

Sintra was nice, though.

Old houses. Lots of tiles. The Portuguese like tiles.

It was lunchtime so we dropped in to the Cafe Paris on the main square. It was far from full. I was shown a tiny table for two people.

"I want to sit there," I said pointing to a table for four.

"It's for four," said a surly waiter.

"Well, there's nobody here. Where are the four people?" I asked. The waiter was silent and glum. "Brilliant," I said. "You haven't got four people and you're losing two."

We crossed a tiny street to the Hockey Cafe, which was quite posh. They immediately gave me a terrace table for four.

Paula Lecoq appeared. She had charm, said she was "public relations", but seemed to be running the restaurant.

Paula insisted I toured the interior, climaxed by the sight of a section of ancient wall, preserved behind glass. See one old wall and you've seen them all, I say.

Paula told me they got fresh sole every day from Cascais. I ordered it with butter and lemon sauce. A few minutes later Paula returned to say they didn't have any sole!

I switched to cod fish with french fries and eggs. Geraldine chose cod fish lagariro. Although we'd ordered different variants of cod we both got the same.

Paula noticed and said, "You didn't ask for this!"

"True," I said. But I'd already started eating. The cod was overcooked. Not nearly as good as at John Malkovich's place the day before.

Having eaten the cod I was given, Paula then brought me the one I'd ordered which was a brandade of cod with onions and french fries. That was overcooked too.

Then I had some moderate crepes, with cream, which I thought came from a plastic container. Paula assured me it was real and whipped on the premises.

Not a great meal but a pleasant setting opposite what was once the old jail, the national palace, and a blue-tiled, 19th-century house.

A couple of nights later we went to the Alcantara Cafe in Lisbon. A massive old warehouse. One of the best rooms I've ever eaten in. A lot of iron pillars and ironwork, vast mirrors, a great atmosphere.

The food was average. I had parmesan mille feuille with smoked salmon and artichoke puree, a freebie lobster tart with goat's cheese, and a bean stew of shellfish.

Our only other meal outside the hotel (we were only there four nights) was in Obidos, another preserved village. Very white. No comparison with St Paul de Vence in France or Apricale in Italy.

We ate in a local cafe there called Pateo do Lidador. Geraldine and I got completely the wrong food order.

Finally, sausage and scrambled eggs arrived. An airport would do better.

Geraldine had some sort of fish. Probably cod. You see cod everywhere in Portugal.

Briefly you could see me. You won't again.

Winner's letters

Last week you wrote you didn't have a hat. What happened to the one you've been talking through for all these years?
Ron Ferguson, by e-mail

I read that Michael Winner's favourite period was the 1950s. I realised that already because I've seen clothes like his on the Antiques Roadshow. Keep wearing them, Michael, I'm sure they'll come back into fashion one day.
Mike Clement, Suffolk

I'm constantly irritated by the British restaurant disease - piped music. It's often inappropriate and loud. When I ask for it to be turned down I'm told, "No one else has complained", or, "It helps customers relax". What are your views?
Mark Yonge, Kent

You claim to have lost weight, yet last week you told us at the House of Fraser restaurant you, and just two others, managed to take up no less than three tables. Is there something you haven't told us?
Mike Mogano, Solihull

I dreamt I saw you in MacDonald's [sic] eating a Big Mac. In the name of research I mentioned this to my husband to see if he found it interesting and unusual but he said he'd never heard of you.
Irene Smith, East Yorkshire