The aroma of melted Seia cheese, honey, and toasted almonds wafted around the table as our host set a piping-hot cast-iron skillet before us. Crisped cheese rind added an earthy depth to the buttery cheese, and everything frothed and sizzled in the little pan. We—Tom, André Apolinário of Taste Porto Food Tours and I—leaned in closer to inhale the exhilarating mix of sweet and savory. We were in cheese heaven at Rei dos Queijos (“King of Cheese”), in Porto’s Baixa district: half-way between the first course of feather-light, soft goat cheese and a powerful cheese trio that would end our feast.
Always the “king of cheese”
Current owners Alzira Peixoto and Carlos Mendonça, both graphic designers, and architect Filipe Afonso lamented the loss of a place they had known since childhood and decided to re-open the shop and restore the building. The cork-lined walls, faceted glass cabinets, and tables topped with marble quarried in Portugal’s Alentejo region have brought Rei dos Queijos back to its original state.
Inspired by memories of the cheese shop and tea room they had visited with their grandparents, the trio took their concept up a notch. They envisaged Rei dos Queijos as an all-Portuguese outlet serving a contemporary Portuguese clientele, as well as culinary travelers looking for a unique glimpse into Porto traditions.
They decided to offer a selection of cheese varieties not widely available elsewhere, with a cheese bar offering petiscos—Portuguese tapas—accompanied by Portuguese wines. Chef João Pupo Lameiras developed an inventive menu that pays homage to time-honored Portuguese culinary traditions and includes dishes prepared without cheese. The restaurant’s highly selective cheese and wine lists feature small producers from around Portugal. The result is extraordinary.
From snack to feast
Alzira and Carlos took us on a journey across Portugal, with a finish that combined mountains and the Azores. Along the way, they introduced us to cheeses we had not previously encountered anywhere. Any of the small plates we shared would be marvelous as a happy hour snack, and as we experienced, can also be a component of a splendid feast. Wines for our meal were all from Quinta do Perdigão, a boutique winery in the Dão region.
We began with a trio of cold plates: a delicate goat cheese that quivered under a light pesto came with sweet-tart tomatoes. Beetroot tartar with a dollop of delicate Caprino de Odemira cheese from Alentejo was topped with caramelized walnuts. And for a bit of show, slices of salted codfish were larded and flash-seared, layered with green apples, and dotted with peppercorns.
Then it was time for warm dishes. Buttery Seia cheese croquettes got their mojo from a batter made with presunto and a dollop of marmalade. Scotch eggs with sliced dill pickles on onion cream were a divine union of crisp, salty and creamy with a side of tart from the pickle and sweet from the caramelized onion. It was here that our gratinéed whole Seia cheese with honey and almonds entered the record books, and we almost lost Tom. Left to his own devices, he would likely—and understandably—have abandoned our culinary romp for another skillet of gratinéed Seia. Probably for his own good, he was not in charge of our dinner.
Next up, a combination of warm and chilled plates guaranteed to please just about every palate. For meat lovers, it was beef tartar with a dusting of the strongest cheese in the house, and a side of sweet potato chips; Xarém, a shrimp-and-grits-like dish from the Algarve that immediately became a new favorite dish for this southerner; and pumpkin rice with fresh raspberries and sage that was a delight to please any vegetarian. I confess to taking a second helping of both the Xarém and the pumpkin rice.
Dessert was a duo of contemporary and traditional: a mille-feuille of goat cheese, beetroot gelado, and walnuts; and rabanada, Portuguese French toast. According to Carlos, “This is like my mother made, only better.” I cannot speak for his mother’s rabanada, but the version we had at Rei dos Queijos was singular: artisanal bread dipped in goat’s milk, battered and crisply fried, and topped with cinnamon gelado.
Amazingly there was more to come. We ended our repast with a three-cheese platter featuring a magnificent São Jorge, aged for 36 months to Parmesan-like perfection. At least for now, Rei dos Queijos is the only place in town to sample 36-month São Jorge, and I recommend it highly. At the other end of the texture spectrum, a tart and silky Serra da Estrela, one of Portugal’s divine “thistle cheeses” brought the stellar taste experience to a close.
What makes Rei dos Queijos memorable?
A passion for top-quality Portuguese food products lies behind every culinary decision here. Crackers, bread, and toasts are artisanal, and made just for the house. Half of the 50 or so cheeses on offer are exclusively available here, and all are from small producers. The wine list—sparkling, still and port wines—is highly selective and leans toward organic.
The wines, the cheeses, and the menu were developed in harmony, and with a range of diners in mind (vegetarians and the lactose-intolerant will find plenty of dishes to savor). The setting is authentic, given over to its original purpose as a dairy shop, and lovingly restored. Most memorable, though is the service: thoughtful, informed, and friendly.
The owners welcome guests for a drink, a bite, or a three-hour dinner. “There is no pressure here,” stressed Carlos as we prepared to depart. “We don’t have a rotation system for meals,” Alzira added. “We plan to be here for a long time, and will love to have you with us.”
- Rei dos Queijos is the ideal place to try unfamiliar cheeses. Cheeses are individually priced for takeaway but offered for in-house dining at a single-serving price.
- If you plan to try multiple kinds of cheese, order them in a progression from lighter to more intense, much as you would sample wines.
- Tip: If you want to replicate our feast, or design your own, bring friends to share. It is a lot of (very good) food!
- For a raft of detailed information about Portuguese cheese, check out The Ultimate User’s Guide to Portuguese Cheese from Catavino.