The Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel seeks to bring some much needed world class hospitality and service finesse to the Portuguese Capital. I put its reputation to test…
After the end of WWII business in Europe was booming. Portugal, ruled by a Military Dictatorship and evoking its neutrality during the past war, was seeking to bring its capital to the attention of world travellers and businessmen. By the end of the 1950’s Lisbon still did not have a proper hotel to house all the upper crust travellers. Until then all foreign dignitaries, monarchs, royalty, wealthy businessman and foreign officials stayed in Cascais and Estoril at private houses and villas of former European monarchs and of the new Portuguese rich. Because of Portugal neutrality, spies, military and foreign ministers from both sides of the conflict regularly meet for lunch over in Cascais and Estoril with views over the ocean and even played golf together.
Lisbon was missing out on all this important influence and it needed to make a statement to the post war world that it too can offer first class hospitality. It was this need that set in motion process to create a world class hotel, that could put Lisbon on the global travel map. The plan was simple. The state gathered the 10 most influential and richest men in Portugal at the time and gave them an almost ilimited budget to built this hotel.
The initial idea was to make it part of the César Ritz hotels group, as one of the 4 great dames hotels of Europe, along with London, Paris and Madrid. However, all the architectural and design team was Portuguese, the construction only used Portuguese materials and Portuguese workers, the interior decoration was made by Portuguese companies, using Portuguese materials. Most importantly, and what is the greatest asset of the Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel, to maximize the exposure and grandure of this property, it was to be completely lined with Portuguese artworks, all specially commissioned for this purpose. Needless to say that the ownership and management team was always Portuguese.
Now you can start to image how much of National Pride this hotel was made to symbolize, and what ultimately separates this hotel from all the others in Lisbon. It was not built by a company or a real-estate fund with the sole purpose to make money. At the time simply called Hotel Ritz It was built to make Portugal and its people proud that they had the most modern and luxurious full service hotel in World at the time of its inauguration in 1959, 7 years after the start of its construction.
The Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel
Occupying an entire block in one of Lisbon’s prime hills, and not restricted by the narrow spaces and old construction techniques that hindered its European sisters, everything in the hotel boasts grandure. At the Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel , the grown floor, where the lobby, the ballrooms and Varanda restaurant are located the floor to ceilings hight is just shy of 10 a meters. The corridors on the 10 levels that make up the hotel’s 282 rooms are wide enough for two modern day cars to circulate in opposite directions. The rooms are also oversized in comparison to today’s standards with the smallest being the classic room with 42 sqm and the largest being the presidential suite with 242 sqm. Even the back of house areas are among one of the largest that I have ever seen, with kitchen sharing the 10 meter high ceiling of the hotel’s ground floor.
Admired from the outside, one is confronted by box shaped building with plenty of balconies and with nothing ornamental of lavish on its façade. At the Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel, the real beauty is not in the building but on the artworks which hang on its walls. Contrary like other luxury hotels, which are furnished in a complete sterile and dull fashion with the same kind of décor being seen in Miami, Cape Town or Hong Kong, this one has over 1000 artworks on display.
Its not just painting and sculptures, there are tapestries, murals, ceramics, hand-blown glass, drawings, crafts and installations. Again, all commissioned specifically to fit a particular place of the hotel. The tapestries by Almada Negreiros on the lounge by the same name are a prime example of it. These hand made by the Manufactura de Tapeçarias de Portalegre using the “ponto de Portalegre”technique. Along with the ceramic Lisbon Hills installation by Estrela Faria, the paintings by João botelho ando Philip Stark’s favourite glassware made in Portugal. The hotel even has its own app which guests can download to get information about the artwork displayed all over the hotel. Most museums in Portugal don’t offer this service…
On its top level the hotel resisted the temptation to make a terrace bar-restaurant and installed the most inspiring fitness area in the whole of Europe. Making a perimeter over the top of the hotel, guests can run over a 400 meter long race track. Dully painted in red. Within the are of this track is the gym and massage area. The quality of the equipments is what you would expect from a Four Seasons Hotel. Top notch! Incredibly, all this takes place with south views over Lisbon’s down town and river. Guests are able to spot St. Jorge’s Castle, along with a few of Lisbon’s 7 hills. Even if it the day is cloudy, there is no better motivation to run.
My room at the Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel
Diana Branco, the Hotel’s Director of Public Relations was kind enough to offer me a deluxe room on the 10th floor, the hotel’s top level and where the presidential suite is located. Decorated in country browns, the room had a private terrace and outdoor seating area overlook the Old Town, Eduardo VII Park or the Hotel gardens. It was furnished with a large working desk and include a comfortable seating area with sofa and superbly appointed pink marble bathrooms with a separate shower. Impressive were the the oversized sinks, with almost enough space for a child to swim.
I liked the pattern of the wall fabric on the corridor that leads from the entrance door, past the mini-bar to the room. The linen was wrinke free, the mattress firm and the pillows soft but sturdy. . Some might argue that is some background noise from the busy Marques de Pombal roundabout (the busiest in Lisbon), however the double glassed windows cancel all the noise. One thing that is very important for me and is a guarantee to keep me up at night are residual noises. Honestly, a fan, water running or dripping, the noise of the mini-bar, the ticking of a clock. In my night at the Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel there were none. I expected nothing less and my rest was profound.
The amenities are made by Ocitane which I found to be pleasantly surprising. Glad to see that they opted for a down to earth natural brand and nothing so pretentious and fashionable like in other places. Turn-down service prompt and clean, with exchange of towels, night water, open of bed and no chocolate. Thank god.
Lunch at the Varanda Restaurant of the Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel
The Varanda Restaurant does not have a Michelin Star , but Executive Chef Pascal Meynard and his brigade are certainly trying hard to achieve it. Despite Chef Pascal’s French origins, and the hotel being under the American franchise Four Seasons, the theme, methods and ingredients of the Menus at Varanda are 100% Portuguese. Something that for me puts it a (very) few notches above all the other fine dinning establishments in Lisbon like Belcanto (two Michelin Stars) or Eleven (one Michelin Star) . ( The Altis Belem Hotel has a one Michelin Star Restaurant called Feitoria, where Chef Luis Cordeiro is also known for using plenty of Portuguese products and techniques, but has I have yet to try it I safeguard my opinion to when I do. )
My first impression when walking into the Varanda Restaurant was of new age modernism of the end of 1950’s. The colour pallets, the use of stone, wood, mirrored tables, the giant oyster shell and the above seahorses, the pinstriped curtains, the moss green walls…You have to imagine how modern and sober this arrangement was almost 60 years ago. Today one can still feel the special upper crust sentiment when you passed through the glass doors from the Almada Negreiros Lounge.
Starter: Octopus carpacio, Crab , with salicornia tempura, iceberg lettuce, passion fruit jam, cucumber discs, celeriac and baby carrot shavings, fleus de sel, and chifonade of peper, with olive oil.
Imagined as a thin layer of fresh food presented on a rectangular piece of ice (it was glass) this dish is very appealing at first sight, although I confess once can get a little confused with so much going on at the same time. The octopus was tender and its texture extremely uniform, and from its consistency it must have been cooked in a sous-vide. The little disks of passion-fruit jam added a much needed sweet contrast to the dish, as the crunchy fleur-de-sel was just too salty in the mouth. Crab flavour almost unnoticeable. Salicornia tempura is a first for me, so kudos to the chef for innovation.
First Main: Turbot Fillet Sautéed – Carolino Rice From Alcácer do Sal with Parsley in Tomato Broth and Clams
I know what you are thinking, tomato broth in a risotto? I can hear the Italians cursing in the back. Its not really a risotto, its more of a creamy and rather delicious new way to to cook Portuguese rice from Alcácer do Sal. For me this was the best and most accomplished dish of the afternoon. The rice from Alcácer do Sal has thick rectangular grains, which make a risotto like preparation possible, and something that you cannot do with Carolino, Agulha or other types of thin grained Portuguese rice. It had a hint of wine and a little butter for the creaminess. The tomato broth a little bit acidic and a rather innovative idea. Instead of making a tomato rice, which is typical of Portuguese cuisine, it was place it around it. I could feel the tomato pieces. The cress of pea gave the dish an extra layer of sweetness and matched beautifully the buttery meat of the turbot. This was perfectly seared and moist on the inside.
Second Main: Roasted Suckling Pig From Bairrada – Cheese and Chives Stuffed Potatoes
For me the least accomplished dish of the lunch. The potatoes were pretty tasteless and the suckling pig tasted way to much of pepper and pork lard. I confess that I am not the biggest fan of suckling pig, especially when it comes to retake of the original. The sauce did very little to bring the flavours together. Although it was a very good effort by the chef, I recommend that he takes another look at the potatoes and the gilled lettuce and replace it with something a bit tastier.
Creamy Chocolate Tart, Sour Cherries Sorbet
This desert was my second favourite dish and certainly the most beautiful. The geometry of it made contemplate the dish for a good minute before tasting. The Valrhona chocolate truffle tart with a Portuguese sour cherries sorbet was well accomplished in every way. The sorbet was cold and firm when it got to the table. Even though there were no pieces of fruit, I could taste the home made effect and that besides two other ingredients besides the fruit were water and sugar. The tart was crunchy on the outside with the top layer being made with some sort of cereal. The decadent truffle Valrhona chocolate on the inside made me want to it by the spoonful. I will be making this recipe for the blog, as soon as Chef Fabian Nguye releases the recipe.
On wine: Licino Carnaz is the Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel’s sommelier and was awarded the best Portuguese sommelier of 2014 by Wine – Essencia do Vinho magazine. He confessed to me that beyond the full bodied, highly alcoholic red wines that have dominated the market in the last 5 years, his personal choice goes to a Charme 2011 from Nieport (Douro Valley) . Its not just because it is a frequent present in the wine spectator top lists, it is because it is an elegant wine, with class and light tannins. It it a very feminine and delicate wine.
In a conclusive manner, I believe that Chef Pascal Meynard and his brigade are on a mission to bring the best of Portugal to its guests at Varanda, and the a la carte menu that I tasted was nothing short of Michelin Star quality. As a (ex-)hotelier myself I know how hard it can be for a hotel restaurant to make a name for it self, especially when it is not a run as separate entity to the hotel’s entity and owned by a celebrity chef. The enormous majority just kind of get absorbed by the Hotel’s main corporate identity and operation, which always hinders quality. But not in this case! I look forward to see what the future brings to the Varanda.
My honest opinion of the Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel
As you might know, I managed Palacio Belmonte for 3 years (2010-2013). I am still very much attached to the idea that this private hotel, within a 2300 year old building, on the top of Lisbon’s highest hill, with views that no other place in Lisbon can offer and where almost all of the guests that I personally took care of become my close friends, is still Lisbon’s best hotel. But to all fairness, I do believe that Palacio Belmonte caters to a very special niche market, which is not necessarily the same of the Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel.
The Hotel Ritz plays in the big world class hospitality league, against some big names in the luxury world like Fairmont hotels, Ritz-Carlton and even the Dorchester Collection. When you think about it this way, and looking at Lisbon’s inventory of hotels, the Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel is certainly the best and obvious choice. Not only due to its staff to room ratio of 1:1 ( something rare in today’s hospitality and only found in uber luxury places like the Lanesborough in London. This particular one has a whooping 3:1 ratio.) , but because it you can feel the dedication of the team into making sure you (the guest) are well and properly taken care of at all times. The property is well maintained and one could easily spend an entire day just admiring the artworks.
I was a guest of the Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel during my stay in Lisbon. All text and opinions are my own are own.
Rates from 460 € per night (breakfast included) for the Deluxe room in which I stayed in.
Ritz Four Seasons Lisbon Hotel details:
PS: In case you were wondering, I had my dinner inside the bathtub, in a pure moment of indulgence to myself . And the night view from my balcony was this…