“You can see Portugal from here, straight out that way,” chef George Mendes jokes from the giant windows of his latest modern Portuguese fine-dining restaurant, Amar. Not quite. But from the seventeenth floor of Raffles Boston — the 35-story hotel opening in Back Bay on September 15 — you can drink in almost unreal views of Boston, Cambridge, and Copley Square, awash in gold at night.
Amar, which means “love” in Portuguese, is the latest chapter in the nearly three-decade career of the Michelin-starred chef, who was raised by Portuguese immigrants in Danbury, Connecticut and has cooked in famed restaurants around the world, including his lauded New York City Portuguese spot, Aldea. His new concept is a celebration and reinterpretation of recipes passed down through generations, using both New England and imported ingredients.
“It’s refined rusticity,” Mendes says. “It’s also meant to perk your eyebrows a bit, or question it. Like, ‘Oh is this Portuguese or is it not?’”
Besides its literal position seventeen stories off the ground, Amar’s stage couldn’t be more elevated. It’s the first fine-dining concept to open in the 147-room Raffles Boston — the first North American property of the Singapore-based luxury brand. Mendes describes the detail-oriented service as “white-tablecloth without actual tablecloths.” Customers are encouraged to dress up, and athletic wear and baseball hats are “kindly prohibited,” according to Raffles, in the dining room.
“I think for the most part people usually actually run away from restaurants that are located in hotels,” says Raffles Boston’s director of sales and marketing, Simon Rodrigues. “But we’re experiencing the opposite. People are excited about [Amar] because it’s something different. With chef George Mendes, we’re shaking it up. Not only in Boston, but I would even go so far as saying shaking it up nationwide.”
Not that any chef opening a restaurant — or more accurately five, as Mendes is also launching a bar, a speakeasy, a spot for hotel guests, and a cafe — needs added pressure. But the spotlight has been burning hotter since last spring, when Raffles announced him as one of their two chefs, and he moved from New York City to Boston. (Jody Adams is opening a modern Italian spot in Raffles come December.) Mendes dazzled critics at Aldea, which he opened in 2009. In a two-star review for The New York Times, Frank Bruni hailed Aldea’s cuisine as “precious, lusty, ultramodern, rustic and a host of other adjectives that don’t normally squeeze together but find themselves in a tight, mostly happy clutch here.” The restaurant earned a Michelin star, which it maintained until Mendes decided to close it in February 2020. (While Boston doesn’t have a Michelin guide, snagging a star is generally viewed as a career goal, akin to an actor winning an Oscar).
Besides the Michelin shadow, there’s the pressure closer to his new home. Even after over two hundred years of Portuguese immigrants settling the area, first to work in textile mills and on fishing boats, there’s no modern fine-dining Portuguese restaurant in Boston. Traditional, yes, like Casa Portugal in Cambridge, along with the excellent restaurants in the South Coast. Maybe because Portuguese cuisine hasn’t hit the mainstream.
But perhaps the culinary compass is swinging in that direction. Rodrigues, who was raised by Portuguese parents in Taunton, tells of bringing Mendes to Sagres Restaurant in Fall River. Later, when Rodrigues was dining without him at Café Europa in New Bedford, owner Peter Ferreira dropped by. After some gentle ribbing about why Rodrigues didn’t bring Mendes over to his Portuguese restaurant, Ferreira chatted about how excited he was for the national attention Amar would bring to the cuisine. “You see the pride,” Rodrigues says. “Even [Ferreira] was saying, ‘it’s time.’”
Like many kids of immigrants, Mendes says he dodged his heritage for a while, in favor of studying French and Spanish avant garde cuisine. But when working with Martín Berasategui at his eponymous three-star modern Basque restaurant in Spain, an idea took root.
“If three-star Michelin restaurants in Paris and in Spain are adapting or reinterpreting flavors of their childhoods and their grandmothers, then I can do it too,” he says. “And that’s pretty much what began the journey for me.”
His latest journey is Amar’s seafood-leaning fare, with offerings changing week-to-week based on deliveries from both local fishermen and flights from Portugal. After just receiving FDA clearance, Amar will be the first restaurant in the country to serve giant squid from the Azores. He’s excited, too, to source ingredients like olive oils and tinned fish imported by the family-owned Portugalia Marketplace in Fall River.
His opening menu showcases six snacks, called petiscos, and seven larger plates, called pratos. Traditional fare includes salt cod fritters, while innovations combine wood-grilled Maine lobster with fennel and Azorean pineapple. And surprises abound, like the chawanmushi, a savory Japanese custard with uni, mussels and clams. “The chawanmushi is riding on the history of Portuguese missionaries visiting Japan for the first time and exchanging recipes,” Mendes says. “A prime example of why the menu is not pigeonholed to mainland Portugal or the islands.”
Indeed, Mendes is following a thread from Aldea, where plates explored former Portuguese colonies. Along with centuries of Muslim presence on the Iberian Peninsula, Portuguese cuisine is steeped in the nation’s colonial history, from the spice trade to the African slave trade. Consider piri piri sauce — made from African chilies — plus dishes featuring cinnamon, which originated in Asia, as proof. We’ve been reevaluating who we’ve left out of the history books, and it’s thrilling to see chefs reevaluate those left out of the cookbooks, too.
Purists can be a tough crowd, though. Take his modern spin on bacalhau à Gomes de Sá. All the usual suspects of the casserole are there: salt cod, potatoes, eggs, onions, black olives. Mendes deconstructs things, cooking the fish and potatoes separately and marrying everything on the dish. “If we get a grandmother from New Bedford in, she’s probably gonna be pissed off because of how I’ll plate it,” he says with a laugh.
Which is nothing new. Conversations that include some form of how dare you — why are you complicating the classical recipe? — have followed him his whole career. “If it sparks a conversation, I know we won,” he says. He’s happy to engage with diners, who usually agree, he says, with something like, “it’s different. But it’s delicious.”
Starting on September 15, Amar is open from Sunday to Wednesday, 5:30 to 10 p.m., and Thursday to Saturday, 5:30 to 11 p.m. Reservations are available here.