When the London-based, Lisbon-born chef Nuno Mendes wants to delve deep into a city he pops in his earphones and walks. “I get completely lost, but slowly I start to find my way around. It’s a great way to decompress,” he says. It’s how he has explored the nooks and crannies of Portugal’s famous 12th-century, Unesco-protected port wine town, which happens to be where his mother and grandparents were born.
The busy chef — who already divides his week between Lisbon and London (where he owns and runs his Fitzrovia restaurant Lisboeta, and where his three young children live) — has thrown Porto into the mix with the Largo, a refined but laid-back 18-room hotel on the central square of Largo de Sao Domingos. Here Mendes oversees the ground-floor restaurant Cozinha das Flores and the chic 12-seater bar Flôr, as well as room service and the hotel’s terrace restaurant with views across the city’s rooftops, cathedral spires, castle turrets and bridges crisscrossing the Douro River.
The Largo hotel on Largo de São Domingos
Collaborating with the Largo’s Danish owners Per Enevoldsen (co-founder of the jewellery brand Pandora) and Steen Bock, as well as the Portuguese architect Frederico Valsassina and the interior designer Space Copenhagen, has given Mendes the chance to rediscover Porto, having not been to the city since his teens. “I love that it has taken me on a completely new and different journey,” he says as I join him on a jam-packed two-day culinary adventure across the city.
Much of this involves pork, ranging from long, hand-cut slices of tender dry-cured presunto (like prosciutto) served with squidgy sheep’s cheese at the small but bustling Casa dos Presuntos “Xico” on Rua do Heroismo to heart attack-inducing francesinha (toasted sandwiches) and cachorrinhos (hot dogs) at Cervejaria Gazela and Casa Guedes, where Mendes ate what he describes as “hands down one of the best sandwiches I’ve had”.
There is also an endless array of sausages. The chef’s favourites include farinheira (smoked pork, flour, garlic, bay and paprika), maranho (goat or lamb, rice and mint) and morcilla (blood and rice) — ideally “poached and then grilled to make the skin crispy, then served in a broth with mint”. A pitstop at Conga on Rua do Bonjardim for a sloppy bifana (a roll stuffed with juicy slow-cooked spicy pork) and ice-cold beer is mandatory, Mendes insists. Next to us a man gently picks his way through a tiny quail, poached in the same vat of porky liquid kept topped up and simmering day and night.
One early morning we take one of the Largo’s leather-lined old-school Land Rovers to wind our way along the river from the city centre, past the picturesque 18th-century Jardim do Passeio Alegre in Foz (with its art nouveau-tiled public WC) and on to the coastal road tracing the Atlantic Ocean. We head to the seaside neighbourhood of Matosinhos and the Mercado Municipal de Matosinhos fish market, where Mendes chooses clams and “goose barnacle” crustaceans (their reptilian-like exterior belies the sweet clam-meets-cockle flesh concealed within). The Largo team later serve these for lunch, simply steamed, accompanied by moreish seaweed butter and olive oil brioche, followed by ice cream infused with the spiced local broa rye bread. “This is what Porto is about. This is what you dream of coming here to have,” Mendes enthuses.
Mercado Municipal de Matosinhos fish market
While in Matosinhos we have a coffee at Piscina das Mare, designed by the Pritzker prizewinning architect Álvaro Siza (who was responsible for the tiled mural in Cozinha das Flores). If we’d had time Mendes would have taken us to a marisqueira (traditional seafood restaurant) such as Os Lusíadas on Rua Tomas Ribeiro. These are the places where, Mendes says, “I’ll look at the menu, but unless there’s something that I find really not to my liking I’ll ask them to bring what is good that day. That way they look after you really well and you discover new things.”
For good-quality traditional Porto dishes such as grilled black pork (secretos de porco preto) or salt cod with eggs, olives and potatoes (bacalhau a bras) we head to Rogerio do Redondo in the leafy neighbourhood of Bonfim. This is one of the chef’s favourite areas to wander, where 18th and 19th-century tiled-fronted houses jostle with Sixties modernist apartment blocks. Mendes is the ideal dining companion. Not only with his tales of working around the world — from San Francisco and New Mexico to landing on the London scene with his first venture, Bacchus, in Hoxton in 2006 — but for his advice on how best to eat everything we try. He can’t help but add lemon, chilli and olive oil to our bean rice (arroz de feijao), stirring as he goes “to release a little more starch”, he says.
Bustling Musa bar on Passeio das Virtudes
Other favourites include Zé Bota on Travessa do Carmo, for its bacalhau a braga (“the best codfish I’ve ever had”) served with caramelised onions, red peppers and potatoes. One evening we grab craft beers from Musa on Passeio das Virtudes before watching the sun set over the Douro from the Parque das Virtudes over the road. On another night we eschew the popular local aperitif of port and tonic for one of Flôr’s cocktails, made by the mixologist Tatiana Cardoso, including the Clichéd (gin infused with a salty hint of cod essence, apple and coriander) and Misshape (aguardente Lourinha brandy laced with essences of marmalade and goat’s cheese). For a nightcap Mendes suggests Passos Manuel, the old movie theatre of Coliseu do Porto on Rua Passos Manuel, “but go slow on the medronho, a Portuguese firewater fruit brandy made from arbutus berries”, he suggests.
A lunchtime trip on the hotel’s 63ft Riva motor yacht — accompanied by a delicious hotel-prepared lunch, washed down with refreshing glasses of moscatel do Douro — takes us cruising east, beneath an enfilade of bridges, then west to the marina where the river meets the ocean. This is just one of the many unique experiences the hotel offers its guests. Another is a charming wine tour through the hotel with Gabriel or Ivo, the Largo’s sommeliers (and wine-makers in their own right), moving from rooftop terrace to the cool of the newly excavated granite cellar and finishing in the central courtyard, which stretches five storeys high with views of the sky.
In further search of Porto’s gastronomic delights we traverse the city’s steep, ancient cobbled streets, walking past houses rendered in bright shades of yellow, pink and orange or decorated with prettily patterned azulejo tiles in blues and greens. Mendes seeks out “smaller out of the way” churrasqueiras (grills) and tascas (taverns) to eat simply — for instance, Churrasqueira Do Infante on Rua de Mouzinho da Silveira or O Rápido on Rua da Madeira, where all the art students hang out. “I went with some friends and we had a few dishes, like rojoes (cooked pieces of pork), a jug of wine on tap, and the whole bill came to €7. It’s really cool; you feel immersed with the locals.”
Mercado do Bolhão on Rua Formosa
We feast our way around the historic Mercado do Bolhão on Rua Formosa, recently reopened after a five-year renovation, trying oysters and sea urchins, soft goat and sheep cheeses (Queijo Serra da Estrela is a local favourite), and shots of espresso with bright yellow trouxas de ovos (egg yolks in sugar) and chocolate-dipped hungaros butter biscuits. Most delicious of all are the tinned sardines drizzled with spicy tomato, and tiny slivers of tender, grainy roe (so special they are £35 a tin) served simply on Ritz crackers, from the local 100-year-old Nuri cannery. Mendes has drawn these taste sensations into every dish served at the Largo. “What you get in Porto is a convergence: people coming from different areas of the north of Portugal slightly muddled with Galician influences,” he says.
Ever the modernist, he has given local ingredients and techniques a light, contemporary touch. His signature doughnut (made famous during his stint at Chiltern Firehouse) uses spider crab sprinkled with sugar grains, and the usually sweet pasteis de nata is lent a savoury bent with caviar-topped turnip custard. Silky strands of Azores squid, as thin as tagliatelle, are layered over a stew of chickpeas and cod tripe (a classic Porto dish), and congee of local wild blue fish is reminiscent of the canja de galinha his grandmother used to make (a legacy of Portugal’s four-century rule of Macao).
Nuno Mendes at his Cozinha das Flores restaurant in the Largo hotel
The dishes Mendes serves are as thoughtfully nuanced as the hotel’s interiors. Spread across five 16th, 17th and 18th-century buildings perched on the city’s second oldest hill, it feels instantly calm, with its earthy colour palette and sympathetically restored original features, yet cossetting, due to the warm layers of material tactility from northern Portuguese wood to local stone.
Space Copenhagen’s creations — such as its Swoon chairs for Fredericia, Loafer stools for &Tradition and tall stools for Mater — are peppered throughout, alongside iconic Hans Wegner chairs and pendant lighting by Ochre. Table linens have been embroidered locally; subtly imprinted glasses handblown by the Portuguese designer Samuel Reis; and every stoneware plate, mug and bowl handcast by the Porto-based ceramicist Teresa Branco.
A selection of Mendes’s dishes at Cozinha das Flores
But then the Largo is all about forging connections, says the hotel’s general manager, Verena Fiori Colombini. “We want it to be a place of encounters, like being in someone’s home, where guests, artists, locals, chefs and staff can come together in an ongoing dialogue,” she says. “And we’re trying to celebrate Porto, its culture and its history in a modern and fun way,” Mendes adds. “I have a passion for doing multifaceted collaborative projects, restaurants and rooms. You can create a narrative that goes beyond the entertainment you create with the food, wines and cocktails. There is a push and pull between some things that are more conceptual, and others that are more about comfort and tradition. That’s when the connection with the guest becomes so much stronger.”
Doubles from €1,530, thelargo.com