Hotel Casa da Calçada Relais & Châteaux – the perfect weekend escape
Essential went in search of the flavours inspired by Portugality and the Portuguese Discoveries and found them in the charming medieval town of Amarante.
Text: Chris Graeme Photos: supplied
It is seven in the morning. The bell of St. Gonçalo Church chimes the hour. I fling open the windows and am enraptured by the sight below. The early morning sunlight scintillates off the River Tâmega water between patches of dappled green in various hues, reflecting the medieval buildings perched above between lush foliage in this charming Northern Portuguese town.
It is a sight that immediately brings to mind that iconic moment at the Pensione Bertolini in the award-wining film A Room with a View and the sweet and tender aria O Mio Babbino Caro from the opera Gianni Schicchi by Puccini.
But this is not Florence or the Pensione Bertolini. This is the splendid view over the picture-postcard historic city of Amarante from my room, one of 24, at Hotel Casa da Calçada Relais & Châteaux, a 16th-century Baroque mansion which, over the past few years, is being discovered by overseas visitors.
This charming 5-star boutique hotel is housed in a former aristocratic manor that once belonged to the Counts of Redondo.
There is a sense of history oozing from the walls; the portraits and black and white photos. In 1880, António do Lago Cerqueira, one of the most important political leaders of Portugal’s First Republic, was born in the house which was owned by his family at that time. Its rooms became a meeting place for politicians and intellectuals at the turn of the 20th century.
ONE MAN’S DREAM
Hotel Casa da Calçada Relais & Châteaux, with its vineyards arranged in neat terraces behind, is famous for its Largo do Paço Michelin-star restaurant, which it first received in 2004.
The elegant yellow boutique hotel is the crystallisation of a dream – the dream of one of the founders of Mota-Engil, one of Portugal’s most important civil engineering and construction companies. Manuel António da Mota hailed from the town and had always admired the stately home since he was a boy and dreamed of owning it. Eventually, he did.
In 2001, the building was completely restored and transformed into a 5-star hotel. A member of the renowned Relais & Châteaux – an association of individually owned and operated luxury hotels and restaurants —, the hotel will close in 2023 for a major multi-million-euro refurbishment.
The lovely yellow hotel is as famous for its gastronomy, which is Portuguese haute cuisine with French and international touches at its finest, as it is for its fine light ‘green’ wines.
A CULINARY VOYAGE
This year, Hotel Casa da Calçada Relais & Châteaux also celebrates its 20th year as a Michelin-star hotel and with it has created some elaborate themed menus which conjure stories of kings and conquests and voyages to distant shores.
At the hotel’s restaurant, Lago do Paço, Essential Business was taken on a gastronomic adventure into Portugal’s historic past, in which it discovered the world beyond Europe – a tasting fine-dining menu that pays homage to the routes discovered by Portuguese merchants and settlers to the lands of Africa and Asia, such as India, Japan and China, as well as Portugal’s ancient medieval lands.
Designed by chefs Tiago Bonito (the restaurant’s resident chef and National Chef of 2011) and guest chefs Ricardo Costa (The Yeatman Hotel) and Vítor Matos (Antiqvvm and Onze), this tasting voyage through Portugality tempts you to discover colours, flavours, textures and scents that will delight the eyes and tantalise the taste buds, and is accompanied by top-quality Portuguese wines that will leave you intoxicated with the entire travel experience.
We are welcomed by the hotel’s maître de maison, Manuel de Meireles Leite, who furnishes us with details about Casa da Calçada Relais & Châteaux’s Largo do Paço restaurant, which boasts one of the best gastronomic offerings in the region and has picked up a number of awards and distinctions as a result.
This starts with Manuel proudly showing an illuminated glass cabinet with the red Michelin-star distinctions Largo do Paço has received every year since 2004 (except 2006) and each year has to be won again to retain the prestigious status. “Why exactly we get it and have retained the distinction year-on-year is the million-dollar mystery,” he says.
“They never tell us why, we never know when they’ll visit, but you have to be really excellent to get it, and it’s not just about the food and wine, it’s also about the service, the knowledge that is imparted to the guests, the ambience and environment in which the food is served, and even the wider context of the lovely setting of Amarante in which the hotel and restaurant exist. It’s the whole experience,” he explains.
Other awards and distinctions include TripAdvisor’s Travellers’ Choice 2018, a ‘Gold Fork’ from Portuguese newspaper Expresso’s Boa Cama, Boa Mesa (Comfy Bed, Fine Table) guide, and in 2017, Largo do Paço was considered one of the world’s finest restaurants by the French ranking La Liste and received two ‘Suns’ from the Repsol Guide.
In addition to Largo do Paço, Casa da Calçada Relais & Châteaux has a second restaurant, Canto Redondo, with an intimate and luxurious shimmering purple interior, and which serves Portuguese refined cuisine by chef Tiago Bonito at affordable prices.
Our caravel to distant culinary shores sets sail at 7.30pm, and through calm seas of unhurried time, takes us through to 11pm, making several key ports of call to taste six signature dishes, two from each chef.
Each one of the dishes that marks the 20th anniversary is perfectly paired with a range of carefully selected green and red wines chosen by sommelier David Teixeira.
The result was nothing short of artistry. On the one hand remaining faithful to the essential culinary roots and tenets of traditional Portuguese cooking as celebrated by the country’s greatest food historian and researcher Maria de Lourdes Modesto, but on the other creating, developing, embellishing, refining and perfecting a symphony of what is an artistic and sensorial celebration of the Portuguese and their history.
We meet our chef Tiago Bonito – who originally hails from Portugal’s academic town of Coimbra – in the bar, which opens out to a lovely terrace ideal for lunching with superb views over the river and medieval town, or dining on warm summer nights.
“Our cuisine has to have a little of our roots, traditions and our gastronomy, and then we offer small dishes that take us through the wider world. I love French and Japanese cuisine, so these cuisines inevitably influence my dishes. But then there are dishes that are 100% Portuguese which have influences, memories, and roots embedded in our history and tradition,” he says, explaining that the menu is changed three times per year.
In the chef’s new ‘Discovery’ menu (Descoberta), there are tastes and echoes of the fresh seafood caught off the coastal port town of Setúbal, refrains from Brazil where Portugal had an empire of gold that built palaces and enriched kings, a soft, velvety chocolate dessert made from cocoa from the former equatorial island colony of São Tomé off the coast of West Africa. Then there are fish dishes with tuna and mullet that create a link between the islands of the Azores and Japan.
The wine selection is superb. We are welcomed before dinner with Quinta da Calçada’s fresh light white Loureiro, and a sparkling Portal da Calçada Cuvée Prestige. At dinner, the offer starts with the whites: Quinta do Poço Cabernet Sauvignon 1991, Quinta do Pinto Chenin Blanc from the Lisbon region, a 2019 Marcos Hehn Távora-Varosa Riesling; and moves effortlessly along to the red Pretexto Dão 2021, then a fresh but mineral white Arinto from the Azores, which went perfectly with the tuna and prawns. The dinner was rounded off with Graham’s 20 Year Old Tawny Port and Blandy’s 10 Year Old Verdelho Madeira to pair with the desserts.
EXCELLENCE WITH FAMILY TRADITION
Our voyage of discovery through the experiences and tastes of Portuguese fine-dining cuisine, with its historic international influences, ends fittingly in Portugal’s second city of Porto, from where fine fortified port wines continue to be shipped around the world.
Another gastronomic odyssey is served up on day two of the trip, when we visit the group’s new restaurant in downtown Porto, Real by Casa da Calçada, which is on the same site as the former café and patisserie Garça Real.
Big on mirrors to amplify the 400sqm overall space, the décor in brown, gold and brass hues and marble tones by interior architect Paulo Lobo has a 1970s retro feel to it, but the food is anything but. This famous Porto institution is now divided into a bistro café serving regional pastries, including from Amarante and Porto, and a restaurant offering refined dining at accessible prices.
The menu by chef Hugo Rocha, who had worked for the famous Michelin-star restaurant Antiqvvm where he worked with celebrated chef Vítor Matos, offers high-quality contemporary Portuguese cuisine with a clear echo to the traditional tastes of the past.
We were served up tuna with Russian salad, squid doused in goat butter, and caper sauce for the entrees, while the main dishes were octopus with bordelaise sauce served with oven-baked rice, moving on to tenderloin steak with roasted tuber vegetables and mustard gravy.
We spoke to João Monteiro, restaurant manager and food & beverages, and Hugo Rocha, chef. “We wanted to create a bridge between our restaurants in Amarante, while not competing with the products of one or the other,” says João Monteiro.
“Our aim is not for a Michelin star here, but to serve Portuguese haute cuisine beautifully in an elegant environment with our own identity, which is not in the least bit comparable in substance to the Largo do Paço restaurant at Casa da Calçada in Amarante. From Tuesday to Friday, Real by Casa da Calçada has an executive menu [closed on Sundays and Mondays], while in the evenings the concept may not exactly lean towards fine dining, but is certainly refined dining.”
At lunchtime, the restaurant currently does 30-35 covers and 30 covers at dinner. There are also plans to create a lounge that can be booked for private dining, business lunches/dinners and special occasions.
At present, more locals are dining at the Porto establishment because of its predecessor, Garçia Real’s long association with the city. But with a link to the hotel in Amarante and Porto’s recent popularity boom as a major city break destination from 2017-2019, the new restaurant looks set to attract more tourists. In Amarante, for example, the town is already attracting more tourists than it did in 2019.
We leave the last words to Porto native, chef Hugo Rocha, who explains that the restaurant aims to present fine Portuguese gastronomy “without any masks or great pretentiousness”.
“The idea is to provide simple and not overly complex dishes, some drawing on the cookbook of Maria de Lourdes Modesto, where we showcase the genuine character and flavours of what is Portuguese and unique to the world.”