Since catapulting to the forefront of the fine dining scene as the 45th Best Restaurant in the World in 2012, I was extremely eager to visit Vila Joya for two reasons. Firstly, I was curious to discover what Portugal had to offer in the fine dining scene given the success their neighbour Spain had enjoyed over the last decade, and, more importantly, I was intrigued with the fact that it took an Austrian chef by the name of Dieter Koschina to bring Portugal into the playing field of culinary excellence. It is not every day that a chef is given an opportunity to head a restaurant in a beautiful venue like the boutique hotel of Vila Joya.
The milder climate to that of Northern Europe and the gentle breeze from the uninterrupted view of the sea is definitely something I would jump at the chance to enjoy, particularly over a delectable glass of local sparkling wine. As the place is situated only an hour’s drive away from the airport of Faro, it is convenient and ideal for those who have little time, yet seek a moment of respite without having to travel far.
Having arrived a little earlier than anticipated, we had a couple of hours before our meal so we decided to explore the premises. The wine tasting room adjacent to the modern wine cellar contained a seductive black-slated table, grand enough to entertain guests over a few bottles of wine. It wasn’t long, however, before we found ourselves back in the bar nursing a glass of gin and tonic as we absorbed the romantic ambiance of the candlelit dinner tables and impressive view of the vast ocean and sunset as a backdrop. We had wondered all day as to what we were going to encounter and it was difficult to have any preconception - an Austrian chef cooking in Portugal with a reputation for French style cuisine? We were naturally intrigued to see the culmination of these components, but before sitting down at our table, we had the opportunity to visit the kitchen where we discovered the “crEATivity table” – a table where four curious diners are able to observe the kitchen in full swing during their meal; a good enough reason to return!
The array of amuse bouches certainly set the bar high for the evening ahead. The Beetroot Macaron with eel cream was excellent, where the rich and delicate flavour of the eel was balanced against the tanginess of the beetroot. This was swiftly followed by a Cornetto Tapenade, which had a fabulous crunchy texture surrounding the concentrated flavour of the sundried tomato and olive. We enjoyed the progression of flavours of the amuse bouche which concluded with a finale of Duck consommé with sour cream and imperial caviar served in a martini glass.
The rich and earthy gelatinous duck consommé added a depth to the classic combination of sour cream and caviar, and the small portion was perfect as the flavour was very intense. The subtle yet fresh mineral flavours of the 2010 Eminencia Loureirocomplemented these dishes well and was a perfect introduction to the Portuguese wine which were to come, some we had never encountered before.
As our visit coincided with the peak season for the Alba white truffles, we were treated to a freshly delivered batch, arriving only that day. These jewels of the earth were put to good use in the Atlantic lobster, parsley polenta and Alba truffles, a novel combination of two of our favourite ingredients on one plate. The moist lobster magnified the aroma and flavour of the white truffle, and the bed of crunchy ceps and puréed broccoli completed the dish providing additional textural elements to the dish. We were very impressed by the manner in which the ingredients had not compromised, but instead enhanced the taste of either star item. A meal in Portugal of course would not be complete without the nation’s favourite fish, bacalhau (or cod). The Cod fish confit, wild mushrooms and garlic had a lovely silky texture not generally associated with the typically large and flaky cod. The creamy deep fried ball of aioli provided a crunchy texture without overpowering the dish with the garlic, and the accompanying chanterelles was the perfect touch to marry the ingredients together with its earthiness. Suffice to say, we were impressed with the calibre of the dishes so far.
Continuing with the theme of novelty, Koschina’s version of the traditional Algarve dish, “Cataplana” Vila Joya, was another triumph.The dish is prepared in a clam-like shaped pressure cooker (the cataplana), which locks in the juice of the ingredients, in this case pork, cockles and lobster with a tomato and onion base. The finishing garnish of the crouton was perfect to soak up the remaining liquor, packed with all the flavours of the ingredients. It was a wonderful reinvention of a traditional regional dish whose roots dates back as far as the 8th century. Having momentarily forgotten about the large quantity of food we were in fact taking in dish after dish (not to mention the copious amount of wine), we realised that we were fast approaching the tipping point of satiety. Luckily we were moving on to the dessert course, which included a prelude of Pineapple Carpaccio and white chocolate soup served over a bed of fresh pineapple wedge and pine nut. The acidity from the pineapple and the sweetness of the chocolate made this a fresh and fruity palate cleanser.
The subsequent Pear and cocoa beans ice cream was again a creative and light dish. The light milk chocolate ice cream and dark fondant chocolate ball submerged in a cold pear juice was refreshing and clean on the palate, and what appeared to be an ordinary decoration of a thin chocolate stick had a surprising crunch to it. It was a superb introduction to the culmination of this extensive tasting menu, which was a Soufflé of croissant, apple tartare and sorbet of salted caramel,again incorporating a contrast of flavours (salty and sweet) and temperature (cold and hot). The flavour was not dissimilar to that of an apple pie, although the portion size was again spot on as it was a very hearty course.
It was by now approaching 2am and, as we sipped over a glass of 1964 Krohn Colheita Branco port with our petit fours, we found ourselves content in this little piece of paradise but exhausted from all the excitement. Our taste buds were well stimulated from the various innovative dishes with unique but successful flavour combinations. We had also been introduced to some of the diverse and delicious traditional cuisine that Portugal is famed for, which was complemented well by wine from a region that was previously unfamiliar to us.
The adoption of the local produce and cuisine to his Northern European cooking techniques makes Koschina a truly unique chef who we will be expecting many more culinary delights from in the future. Let us hope that his cuisine will inspire other chefs in Portugal to follow suit.