Thursday, February 09, 2017

Pastéis de Belém, Lisbon, Portugal

Pastéis de Belém.  "The Egg Tart Place".  The most famous place in Lisbon probably.  On every list, mentioned in every guidebook for Lisbon.  Epic long lines.  Yadda yadda.

I'll be honest.  I didn't really expect much.  Everyone told me to go to Pastéis de Belém.  Everyone says the pastel de nata are best ever.  People rave about all sorts of things all the time though.  The hype was too much, and, I rarely, rarely find anything, particular sweets, worth the hype.

And then I went to Pastéis de Belém.

There is a reason why it is in every guide book, why every person who you mention Lisbon to will tell you to go, why the lines are insane.

Because, well, the pastel de nata *are* the best ever.  I honestly didn't have any concept of how good an egg tart could be until I went there.

The place has a good history too.  The history goes something along the lines of pastéis de nata were created by some monks in a monastery in Belém, to use up the egg yolks leftover from all the eggs that the nuns used the whites from to starch their habits.  There was a religious revolution, the monks started selling the tarts as a source of income, the monastery was closed, and turned into a pastry shop.  It has been around since the 1800s.

Anyway.  Go to Lisbon, and just go here.  Forget about everywhere else.  Get a pastel de nata.  Or 10.  And bring me with you.

The Setting

You'll easily identify the shop as you approach, as the crowds are epic.
Takeout Lines.
Extending out on the sidewalk is the longest line, for takeout.  There are plentiful signs indicating what the line is for, and orderly ropes to keep people from taking over the sidewalk.  For lines, these are very well managed.
Pastry Counter.
The line leads to the pastry counter, with extensive selections.

This first area had stuffed donuts, savory choices, eclairs, and cakes.
More Pastries.
There were croissants with assorted fillings, and tarts.
Quiche, Savories.
And quiches, and more savory pastries.
More Pastries.
And muffins, filled rolls, and more.

There was no list of items anywhere, and nothing was labelled, so, I'm not really sure how people were supposed to know what anything is.  Or if they did.  Maybe everyone just gets tarts and these are for looks.
Follow The Signs!.
There is good signage indicating where to go for table service.

To get to the line, you wind your way through the entire, spacious restaurant first.
So Many Tarts.
And you go past the open kitchen, with trays and trays of tarts laid out.  They clearly make, and sell, a ridiculous number of these things.
Seating Line.
Eventually you find the line for seating, also with ropes to keep people in order.
Side Seating Area.
I'm not sure how many distinct rooms the restaurant has, but we wound our way through many, all of varied sizes.  Some had just a few tables.

The single seating line services all areas.
Huge Room.
Other areas were huge and open, and packed.  At all times.
Reserved Room.
There was another huge room, vacant, because it was reserved.

They have 400 seats total in this place, ridiculously impressive, as it doesn't seem like it from the outside, but its just a total maze of rooms all over inside.
Back Patio.
There is even an outdoor patio, with some plants, under a shade structure.  It is here that we were seated.

We were pointed at a table, still filled with dirty dishes, and with fewer chairs than we had people.  We stood around awkwardly hoping someone would clear the table, or bring us a chair, but, it didn't happen.  Eventually we sat, and eventually someone cleared the table.

Tables and chairs are simple metal.  Napkin holders are on the table with thin paper napkins.  And that's it.  No table clothes, place mats, silverware, anything.  Simple.

The Goods

Eventually, someone also brought us a couple menus, again, fewer than we had people.  The menus were partially in English, partially in Portuguese, and we really had no idea what anything was.

In the end, we kinda just gave up and ordered random stuff.
Menu Page 1: Toasts & Sandwiches.
The first page made sense.  It had the pastel de belém featured right on top.  Next were toasts (some with home made bread, some with "tin loaf bread") and sandwiches (with home made bread).

This was in English and very clear.
Menu Page 2: Quiche, Savory Pastries.
Next came a page with quiches, snacks (like samosas?), and filled puff pastries and brioche.  Again, English provided, again, sensible.
Menu Page 3.  Uh ...
And then there was this page.  All in Portuguese.

The first two pages were all savory (besides the signature tarts), and, I clearly wanted the sweets I saw out front.  We tried using Google Translate, but didn't get far.

When our server came to take our order, we tried ordering a few things from here, and he responded with things like, "Only available at Christmas" and "That comes in a bag".  We gave up, and just ordered randomly.
Our Spread.
Our group of 8 just started calling out some items at that point.  Those who wanted savory items ordered individually, and we threw on a bunch of donuts, since we could at least identify those, and I was interested to try a different style of donut.

Our final order was something like:
  • 2 Sausage Rolls
  • 2 Toasties
  • 1 Sandwich
  • 1 Quiche
  • 2 Savory Puff Pastries
  • 6 Stuffed Donuts
  • 20 Egg Tarts
  • Coffee, cappuccinos, espresso, mocha, wine, sparkling water ...

 It cost 75€.  Total.

A feast for 8, < 10€ each.  Insane.
Merenda. 1.50€.
"Puff pastry / ham / cheese."

Ojan originally ordered a ham sandwich.  Then he considered a ham and cheese toastie instead.  Then he decided he wanted the ham and cheese puff pastry.  He switched his order while our poor server was busy still taking our ridiculous group order.

It was ... ok.  Unlike the egg tarts and toasties, it was served room temperature.  His comment was that it would be really good if it was warm, as it was, it was just ok.  I tried a bite, but, it was so unmemorable that I I didn't take a note, or even remember enough to write it down now, just an hour later.  Ojan only had a few bites, and opted to save it for later, since it was room temperature anyway.

I didn't try any of the other savories, but others had sandwiches on homemade bread, toasties (that were actually warm and had melty cheese), sausage rolls (that just had thin sausages inside), and quiche.  No one really had much to say about any of that, not that I expected them to.
Pastel de Belem. 1.05€ each.
We were really just there for the pastel de belem right?  Wow.  Just, wow.

I took one bite, and declared something along the lines of "holy wow".  Everyone kinda looked at me funny.  "Do you want to say more?", they asked.  I said, "no, we need a moment of silence for how amazing these are."  And that is all I said.  I didn't have words for how good these were, and I still don't.

Yes, they are egg tarts.  Yes, they have a flaky pastry shell, and custard filling.  By description, I've had this sort of thing many times.  But really, I've never had anything like this.  It transformed my opinion of what an egg tart even was.  These are in a class of their own.

They were served warm.  On the table is powdered sugar and cinnamon shakers, and I guess traditionally you sprinkle some on.  They were fine with or without.  I didn't really have a preference.

The pastry shell was the definition of crispy and flaky.  They looked sorta burnt, but, they weren't.  They looked a bit too greasy, but they really weren't.  Really incredible pastry.

And the filling.  Swoon.  Creamy, rich, sweet but not too sweet, custardy but not too custardy ... just, perfection.

Ridiculously crispy exterior, amazing pastry, warm creamy custard.  Oh my.

I know they still just sound like any old good egg tarts.  I don't know how to convey how life changing they were.  I could have eaten a dozen.  I wished we didn't order anything else, that I didn't waste precious stomach space trying the other things, that I'd fasted for days, or that I could just simply move in and sit there all day eating these.  Seriously, insane.

1.05€ each.  Seriously?  Seriously?  How is something so perfect so inexpensive?
Bola c/ Creme. 1.20€.
"Donuts: Vanilla Cream Filled, Egg Custard Cream Filled."

The donuts looked better than they tasted.  The donut itself was just ... ok.  They didn't seem particularly fresh, not that they were excessively stale either.  They were just ... fluffy donuts.  I wish I hadn't bothered with these, and just had about 3 more tarts instead.  But, we had piles of donuts to try.

Each was split in half, and filled with our choice of filling.  We decided to get 2 of each of the three options (vanilla cream, chocolate cream, egg custard).  All were topped with powdered sugar, and had filling spilling out.  I cut them into quarters so everyone could try them all.

I started with vanilla, as that was the one I wanted.  I figured it would be like Boston Creme filling.  It was ok, basically just vanilla pudding.  Creamy, slightly vanilla flavored, sweet.  Not bad, but not noteworthy in any way.  No one really liked these.

I moved on to the custard one.  Usually I'm not much of a fan of custard fillings because they can be too eggy, and this was bright yellow, so it certainly was loaded with egg yolks.  But given how amazing the tart custard was, I had hopes.  Ojan took a half of one, anticipating greatness, and then tried to give me it after one bite.  I accepted, only to scoop the custard out of the center, discarding the donut itself.

The custard was ... interesting.  Very thick.  Very rich.  Very, very sweet.  Only a tad bit too eggy for me.  I almost liked it.  There was something gritty about it that wasn't actually off putting.

Overall, donuts themselves not great, fillings not noteworthy.  Skip.
Bola c/ Chocolate. 1.20.
"Dark Chocolate Creme Filled Donuts".

We also had chocolate cream filled ones.  The donuts were again fairly lackluster, but the chocolate cream filling was the best of the bunch.  Very rich, dark chocolate pudding.

Still, not nearly as good as the tarts.  Noticing a theme here?  Just get the tarts.
Croissant c/ Creme. 1.45€.
"Egg Custard Filled Croissant."

Someone also manged to order this.  It was ... fine.  The croissant dough was actually nicely layered and flaky, and it was crispy outside, and moist inside, but it lacked a bit of butteryness that I'd like to see.  Plus, it just couldn't compare to the tarts.  The custard was the same as from the donut, good, thick, rich.

Just get more tarts.
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