Portugal’s River Douro has been keeping Max Graham’s family in the port business for 200 years. Growing up in Porto with the founders of Churchill’s Port in Portugal, Max has been learning the tricks of the trade since he was born, and he’s now on a mission to educate Londoners about niche Portuguese wines and ports.
After heading up a Port pop up in Soho in 2013 and executing successful supper clubs at Carousel in Marylebone and Pop Brixton in 2016, Max teamed up with Bar Douro’s head chef Tiago Santos (previously of Porto’s well-regarded waterside restaurant, Casa de Chá da Boa Nova) for a three-month residency in Porto to really get to grips with Portuguese cooking techniques and traditions. The pair has now set up shop in South London’s new foodie hub, Flat Iron Square, set amongst London Bridge’s railway arches.
The wine bar/restaurant fuses traditional Portuguese cervejaria interiors with the arch’s original industrial features – pretty blue and white tiles line the marble-topped bar that provides the only barrier between diners and the small open kitchen, while exposed aluminium piping in the curved railway arch roof becomes part of the decoration. A mezzanine level cleverly utilizes the space at the top of the arch’s curve to showcases Max’s impressive Portuguese wine collection.
Max speaks with great knowledge and enthusiasm about wines from Alentejo, Lisbon and The Douro Valley, along with lesser-known Portuguese winemaking regions that he aims to put on the map. We loved the light, firm and grippy Bairrada wines – the house red Ataide Semedo ‘Baga & Touriga’ had bags of personality and cherry notes, while an unusual viognier was a floral favourite with hints of orange blossom and citrus. A wine from Lisbon, Casa Figueira ‘Adiado’ Castelao, was characteristically saltier with redcurrant notes, while Churchill Estate’s white from The Douro Valley was more minerally and fresh.
As well as charismatically imparting expert wine knowledge, Max gave us a condensed history lesson, telling tales of how Portuguese Jews hid out in the hills above The Douro and disguised game as pork sausages to keep their beliefs hidden, and of ancient pig-rearing methods to produce ham to rival Spanish Ibérico.
Small plates at Bar Douro are true to Portuguese traditions, with a few of Tiago’s modern twists – tender grilled octopus tentacle was served with sweet potato as it is in tabernas across Tavira in the Algarve (try our Portuguese fish stew for a taste of this kind of cooking), bitter grelos (turnip tops) were sautéed with wafer-thin slices of fried garlic, and suckling acorn-fed Bisaro pig was cooked sous-vide then pressed and served, true to tradition, with homemade crisps. Another standout dish was a delicate mix of wild mushrooms (king oyster, Portobello, shiitake) served with roast chestnuts on a silky chestnut purée and topped with a delicate tempura spinach leaf.
Croquetes de Alheira (Portuguese smoked sausage) were served with a tart lemon purée which competed too much with the strong smoky flavour of the sausage, but pao com chourico was so good that we immediately ordered a second – tiny cubes of chorizo baked in rolls made with Japanese breadcrumbs to create an almost chewy bread pocket.
Save room for pudding. We had a preview of a super light olive oil cake, beautifully presented with jewel-like pieces of quince and swirls of whipped requesón (a Portuguese ricotta-like cheese). But, go all out with baba de camelo, a bowl of thick, creamy dulce de leche mousse decorated with wafer thin pieces of dark chocolate, or keep it traditional with gooey warm pastel de nata and lightly spiced cinnamon ice cream.
The port flight to finish was a micro-tutorial on the Douro Valley’s fortified wine, starting with white port aged in oak for 10 years, replenished each year to keep fresh and to balance the oak. The second was our preferred port, a 10-year Tawny with a rounded woody flavour, and the final, a ruby port LBV, was aged in oak to accelerate ageing and to give a smooth finish.
A lesson in Portuguese dishes, wines and history, Bar Douro is a valuable addition to South London’s newest foodie hub.
Written by Alex Crossley