Dinner at #22 of The World’s 50 Best Restaurants
Portugal’s Only Restaurant to Make the List is a Michelin Two-Star
There is a strong feeling of anticipation as one enters the dining room of The Algarve’s most exquisite gastronomic establishment. The heart-stopping vistas of the cobalt-blue Atlantic fronted by sandy dunes and manicured tropical gardens heighten one’s awareness of being in a magical, surreal paradise. The air of expectation is further amplified knowing this Two-Star Michelin-rated restaurant (for many years, the only such restaurant in Portugal) with its 12,000 bottle wine cellar and two distinguished chefs has become internationally famous by virtue of being ranked Number 22 among The World’s 50 Best Restaurants. When a panel of 972 experts from 27 regions of the world, representing top chefs in that region, leading food journalists, restaurateurs and gourmands, determine that THIS is one the top culinary destinations in the world, the excitable sensation of entering an elite environment is palpable.
The Vila Joya Restaurant’s culinary excellence is due to the combined talents of Austrian-born Executive Chef Dieter Koschina and Italian-born Chef Matteo Ferrantino. Their creativity, expertise and flair make each dish a true sensation. Chef Koschina is responsible for inaugurating the fifteen straight years this restaurant has held its two-star Michelin status (1999-2014). With the addition of Matteo Ferrantino, Vila Joya’s position in The World’s 50 Best Restaurants has climbed annually from Number 42 to Number 37 to where it now stands at Number 22. Clearly this dynamic duo wields a powerful, synergistic effect upon each other’s talents and their team.
After being handed a welcome drink simply called “Apple Something,” a vodka-lime juice-liqueur flavored concoction garnished with a razor-thin slice of green apple, we were seated next to the terrace window where, in the distance, the fading glow of the setting sun could be seen. At this particular seating were about 20 persons at six tables within our little salon. For those who appreciate statistics, I present those announced by one of our servers: Normally the evening meal would feature six courses. However, tonight’s meal would consist of eight, along with three “surprise” appetizers of which even our crew of servers had no foreknowledge. “In the event one of the surprises features oysters, do you have any allergies?” one of our servers inquired. We assured him we had no food allergies. Then we cheerily wondered how long a marathon of eleven courses might take.
Next we were informed that one of the two sommeliers covering the tables at the restaurant that evening would attend to us shortly. In a few moments our young sommelier from Edinburgh, Scotland brought us the first of eight wine pairings. All the wines, we were told, would come from Portugal. The 2014 Covela Edicao Nacional from Minho, a white wine from the northwest part of the country, was a crisp, citrus-like wine with slight notes of grapefruit. Our first “surprise” course was an amusé bouche of imperial caviar and sour cream “oyster” served on a spoon, placed upon a small, flat black stone. Together the smooth cream and salty snap of caviar awakened the taste buds with a smile.
The next surprise was a trio of tasty delights: avocado cannelloni, a coneto (cone) of beef tartare, and buttered radish. Smooth avocado puree was served in a delicate pastry shell, a memorable moment of flavor. Similarly, the puree of beef tartare in a delicately tiny cone proved to be a bite of tangy perfection. The third item, a red radish enveloped by a thick shell of hardened butter, was too rich and fatty for my taste buds, but a new sensation nevertheless. Our third surprise was a beetroot macaron with a smoked eel filling. It was accompanied by passion fruit and foie gras. This delightful extravaganza was paired with the Eminencia Vinho Verde (2010), a wine with a little more character than the first, as the skins of the grapes were left on the crushed juice for a short term. Next were presented a selection of seven different types of bread and rolls with olive oil and butter.
Our third wine selection was unusual. It was a Projectos 2010, a Riesling wine with 8% alcohol content made by Dirk Nieupoort. Projectos is the Portuguese word for projects, by which is meant very small productions or experiments in which Nieupoort tries different techniques to create new wine. The Riesling grape is, of course, uncommon for Portugal. In the production of this particular wine, the fermentation was stopped early, leaving an increased amount of residual sugar.
The surprise courses thus concluded, we began working our way through the evening’s printed eight course menu after a roaring start! Puréed Atlantic lobster was served with avocado and ginger as our first course. Next came an Imperador in bouillabaisse sauce. Imperador is the Portuguese term for the Alfonsino fish, easily mistaken for red snapper and sometimes called red “bream” or dorade rouge. Caught in the Portuguese Atlantic, it has a good flavor, low in fat and the soft white flesh is mild tasting, also considered to work well in soups.
Our third course of the menu was a generous portion of flavorful sea bass accompanied by artichoke and gnocchi shaped in the form of a green olive. Paired with this course was our fourth white wine, a 2011 Meruge from the Douro region with a delicious oaky flavor. The Meruge grapes may be made into either red or white wines, depending upon the vintner.
Next came a wonderful, buttery scallop served with green peas and black truffle. We had some discussion with our servers about the truffle, wondering whether it had come from France or Italy. (It was an inquiry that remained unanswered.) Normally truffles are harvested in late autumn or winter. The black truffle, valued at between €1,000 and €2,000 per kilogram is second in price to the more expensive white truffle which can sell for €14,000 or more per kilogram. The pairing for this course was a fifth white wine, the 2006 Quinta Do Cardo Siria from the Beira region on the eastern edge of Portugal, bordering Spain. Here the altitude of 2,100 feet makes these vineyards some of the highest in Portugal. The barreled, aged wine made of the local Siria grape is akin to Chardonnay with notes of white fruit such as apple and pear with a nice finish.
Thick and tender slices of Mieral pigeon were served next. These were accompanied by our first red wine, the 2010 Principal Reserva from Bairrada, one of three Northern Portugal regions making world-class red wines. The Douro is probably the most famous region, followed by the Dao known for making fruity wines similar to France’s Burgundy. The wines of Bairrada tend to use the Baga grape, normally considered harsh and tough, producing tannic wines with high acidity. Our much-appreciated move to a red wine was a hearty complement to the meat course, offering a full mouth flavor of dark berries with a lasting finish.
As we drew closer to the finish line, a creamy pistachio sorbet was served, blended with other fruits. The word “medlar” appeared on the menu here, along with orange. Medlar is a small fruit that has been consumed for over two millennia and when ripe and softened has the taste and consistency of apple sauce. A 2009 Colinas Brut Rose was served here, our seventh pairing.
Strawberry with mascarpone, the seventh menu course, was one of two sweet desserts. The final course, sweet corn with caramel, made for a delectable finish. The final pairing, a 2010 Bastardo H. Simoes from Setubal was a fortified wine of about 16% alcohol.
This was an experience that will live long in the memory. The remarkable seaside setting, the splendid and professional service of the sommeliers and the waiters, and the incredibly diverse flavors and presentations of our gastronomic fare could not have been more perfect. It’s easy to see why this restaurant continues its dramatic ascent within the elite realm of the greatest restaurants in the world.
Vila Joya Hotel Restaurant
Estrada da Praia da Galé
8201-917 Albufeira, Algarve, Portugal
Telephone: +351 289 591 795