Paula’s Bistro – our favourite restaurant in Madeira

I feel pretty confident in describing Paula’s Bistro as The Editor’s and my favourite restaurant on Madeira as we ate there every single day. I feel less confident in describing the breadth of their cooking ability as we only ate a total of three different dishes on our five visits. Two of them were brilliant, the other as good as the main ingredient allowed.

We happened upon Paula’s Bistro quite by chance as we were walking through the old town near the cathedral on our first day. We were tempted by the place just around the corner that offered grilled limpets for €3 a portion, but when we saw “Grilled squid with chips” for €6.90 on Paula’s chalkboard we knew we had found our lunch destination.

We sat down outside and were immediately brought menus by a charming waitress who spoke perfect English. We knew she did because when we asked her if they served the local sharpener called poncha, she replied, “Of course, one each?”. We assented.

We had not tried poncha before but had been told it was a most refreshing and fiery cocktail made from orange and lemon juice, honey and a healthy slug of the local sugar cane distillate. The drink actually has a Protected Denomination of Origin of Madeira; you can only get the real thing on the island!

Paula’s Bistro’s example was brilliant! Out of all those we tried subsequently, and there were a lot, only one came close in pleasant character and burning healthfulness. It was served in a Sherry copita, half full with a liquidised orange, a subtle hint of honey and then topped up with 50% raw fire water. Refreshing, invigorating and enlivening – we immediately ordered another each!

Davy samples poncha

We sipped our second poncha and eagerly awaited our squid and chips, sure in the knowledge that we had happened upon a first rate establishment. The main dish confirmed this beyond a doubt!

We each had six smallish mantle cavities of squid grilled over a charcoal grill to absolute perfection, with the tentacles provided for extra fun-value. The chips were frites and of perfectly acceptable character.

Alas, a quarter of the plate was filled with salad which I refused to touch on the grounds of wanting to prolong my life. The Editor, presumably jokingly, declared it “well dressed and perfectly edible”. My refusal to touch the carcinogenic leaves was noted by Paula’s Bistro’s staff and the third time I ordered this dish I was asked if I wanted vegetables instead of the salad. I declined. “Extra chips then?”, was the next offer, which I gratefully accepted.

Here is The Editor with a plate of squid and frites:

The Editor likes squid

I lied when I said we only ordered three different dishes on our five visits to Paula’s Bistro, there was one thing we were offered on our first visit and then enthusiastically ordered on the subsequent four. You may find this hard to believe, but it was garlic bread.

It had no relation to the dried out pieces of horribleness one encounters in the UK, say, at a branch of the vile Pizza Express. Rather it was made from the delicious local flat bread, bolo do caco, which is moist, rich in flavour and delivers a great carbohydrate buzz.

This was toasted on the charcoal grill, sliced down the middle and slathered with so much garlic butter its final composition was approximately one-third bolo do caco, one-third butter and one-third garlic. Its parsley content would only make marginal-value epidemiologists, of the type we freely abused at in the Institute of Virology at Oxford, worry about their increased risk of cancer. The garlic bread was a joy on every visit; here is a picture of some:

Garlic bread

And there are a couple of pictures of the team at Paula’s Bistro and the inside and outside dining areas of their fine establishment:

The other two dishes we tried were the starter of barely grilled, amazingly fresh prawns (I could have wet myself with pleasure when presented with these) and, the local staple, a deep-water, fanged horror called black scabbard fish.

The Editor refused to have this served in the local, revolting style, with a banana on top, but opted for simply grilled. Even barely cooked it was mushy and soft with perilously little flavour but, as I said, the frites were rather nice.

Paula’s Bistro (telephone: 291 220 549) is open Monday to Saturday from 10:00 to 24:00 at Rua da Queimada de Cima, 47 – thirty seconds walk from the Funchal cathedral. Both The Editor and I recommend it without hesitation, but do not have the black scabbard fish!