It wasn’t exactly how I pictured my first Michelin-rated dining experience to go, but it became an amazing memory and meal at Salpoente, the premier restaurant in Aveiro, Portugal. Everything from the food and wine to the service was exquisite on that evening — it paired well with my only day in the northern Portuguese town during my week in the country.
Dinner at Salpoente was planned well in advance for this trip — it was my birthday, and I wanted to have something special. Aveiro was not on my original itinerary, however. As I first planned my vacation in Portugal, I booked two nights in Lisbon, mostly because I had an overnight flight and didn’t want the hassle of storing my luggage if I booked an Airbnb. Of course, I neglected to book the third night, which was my birthday, because I wasn’t sure about my plans. When I went back a week later to book another night at the same hotel, the price jumped by $100, thus forcing me to find another destination.
While researching things to do in Aveiro, I searched for the best restaurants in town — there wasn’t much, but Salpoente came up at every turn. It’s rated Three Forks with Michelin (I have no idea what forks mean compared to stars). I looked at the menu online and decided it was worth splurging for my birthday — I made the earliest dinner reservation I could at 7 pm as I figured a single diner might feel uncomfortable among all the dinner parties.
Earlier during the day, my guide on the canal boat tour through town pointed out Aveiro’s only Michelin-rated restaurant. I responded, “Oh yeah, I know about that. I’m having dinner there tonight.” The guide looked shocked until I explained that it was a birthday present to myself. At a bar later while avoiding the rain before dinner, I talked with a local and mentioned my dinner plans only to receive the same surprised response — it felt like I was joining an exclusive club.
I arrived at Salpoente about 10 minutes before 7 pm, and the doors were still locked. But the menu was posted outside — it was difficult to see in the rain with the dim lighting, but I got a good look and noted that the tasting menu was different from what I saw online, and it sounded better. I waited out of the rain a block away at the Aveiro community center that had a traditional music and dance event that was ending at 7. I had hoped that the party would continue until after dinner, but no such luck.
“Am I the only early reservation?” I asked when I got to the restaurant. Half the lights were turned off and the place was silent.
“You’re the only reservation,” was the reply. At first I thought it might have been a bit of a mistranslation, but it wasn’t. I kept waiting for other diners to show up.
It’s a beautiful restaurant set up in a former salt storehouse, which is not uncommon in the town that was a center for salt production. The space is much larger than I expected — almost cavernous when one is dining alone. I had hoped for other diners to come to give me an excuse to explore the upstairs gallery, which might have seemed awkward as the only non-staff member in the restaurant. As it was, I could allow my eyes to wander around the room, and I enjoyed gazing at the fish sculpture made of work gloves and boots. There was also the beautiful coffeemaker, which I probably should’ve ordered from after drinking so much wine.
The menu was mesmerizing — there were so many dishes I wanted to try, but I went along with the six-course tasting menu for €69.50. I added the five-course wine pairing for an extra €10, because it was my birthday. When I looked online at the tasting menu a week prior to arrival, a couple of courses weren’t appealing; I was pleased to see the menu hadn’t been updated on the site when I walked by the restaurant. Everything on the tasting menu sounded good that evening.
The dining experience began with a refreshing sparkling wine to go along with the bread, olive oil, and variety of spreads (I don’t think a single one of them was butter). This was probably the greatest amount of time between courses. I was enjoying sipping the wine; I wasn’t going through the glasses quickly, and white wines aren’t my favorites, making them last longer at the table. The sommelier asked if there was anything wrong with the sparkling wine as he served my third glass — I admitted that there was no issue, but I preferred the others that were served after.
The first course, served with a refreshing vinho verde, was the oyster au gratin with a seaweed béchamel, lime, and fleur de sel. The seaweed béchamel is foam-like and light, giving the local oyster a silky texture. The fleur de sel is a salt, which is definitely an homage to the restaurant in a former salt warehouse. It was delicious, and I wished for a second to pair with that vinho verde.
After that first course, I lost track of the different wines being served — the only time I had an issue was when the pinot noir was introduced. I didn’t like it much, and the sommelier returned with another option that was much more to my liking (pinot noir is one of my least favorite wine varieties, but I know other people enjoy it). I should’ve asked for notecards for each wine as I ended up with five glasses in front of me.
Course two was smoked eel with beet and pasta salad and orange gel. I’m a fan of eel, so this was delightful — the texture was light to balance with the beet. I did not expect the smoked eel to be so tender that it melted in my mouth. There’s definitely a trend for some sort of foam on dishes at supposedly innovative restaurants — I’m not complaining about the trend, especially with this orange foam, but it does seem popular. The beet salad under the eel added a great contrast in texture.
Course three was more of a take on traditional regional food with cod and prawns. It was served with a chickpea salad caneloni, egg yolk, prawn sauce, and cod emulsion. That prawn-like thing in middle of the plate, covered in coarse black pepper, wasn’t a prawn. I was also surprised by the egg yolk droplets (I had forgotten what everything was, plus I was on my third or fourth wine). I didn’t enjoy this course as much as the eel (and I still wanted another oyster), but the light flavors made for a better transition into the heartier course that came next.
The wine got heavier with the food at the fourth course — though I requested a different wine at this point when the pinot noir made its appearance. The wine came with Marinhoa ham (though I swear I heard the server say veal), celery and chestnut puree, black garlic puree, and wild mushrooms. The Marinhoa ham was tender and flavorful, but was more delicious mixed with a bit of the chestnut and black garlic puree. I made the mistake of having a taste of the black garlic puree on its own — it’s like ingesting a dozen heads of garlic at once.
At the end of it all, there were two desserts. There was the pre-dessert, which served as a light palate cleanser. It was a citrus sorbet with a crunchy sweet crumble beneath. Then there was Salpoente’s take on ovos moles — an Aveiro egg yolk pastry encased a thin dough that is the same as a communion wafer. It was served with cinnamon panacotta, cream, and crumble with an ovos moles ice cream, and almond cake. They even added a birthday candle for me.
I should’ve had ovos moles before dinner for comparison with this take on the pastry, but I missed out. What I had was a delectable finale to a wonderful dinner. It was sweet with a little saltiness; creamy with a little crunch. I savored the ice cream as much as I could before getting back to the glasses of wine in front of me (I think there were still three half-glasses remaining at this point).
In all, my birthday dinner lasted about two hours, so I’d say I got my money’s worth from this private dining experience in Portugal. The price was reasonable considering what I’m used to paying for dinner with friends in Manhattan at supposedly reasonably priced restaurants. I was more than satisfied with the result of my first Michelin-rated dinner.
Later at Yeah, a friendly bar with a lot of British music posters near my hotel, I was told that the reason for the empty restaurant was likely due to the weather, it being a Sunday during off-season, and the locals not making enough to afford luxury dining. I was also told that Salpoente is a popular lunch spot for businesspeople in town. Sunday also meant that Yeah closed early (it was 10 pm on my birthday!), so I walked to the center of town to find the only Irish pub that was still open.