I suspect I may be the only Englishman to have visited Portugal on at least a dozen occasions without once setting foot in the Algarve. I have spent many a happy afternoon sipping dry white port on the banks of the glorious Douro, I have toyed idly with the odd sardine in the backstreets of Lisbon’s labyrinthine Alfama district, and I have feasted on wild boar after an afternoon wandering the beautiful, castle-topped hills around Sintra; but, until a couple of months ago, the Algarve was a Gannet-free zone.
It was, of course, a restaurant that tempted me. Portugal has two Michelin two-star restaurants, both in the Algarve; and while the chef of one, Dieter Koschina of Vila Joya, was in London collecting his gong as the newly installed 46th Best Restaurant in the World (whatever that may mean) I was having dinner at the other – Hans Neuner’s Ocean restaurant at the Vila Vita Parc resort a few miles along the coast.
The perceptive among you will have guessed that neither chef is Portuguese; both, in fact, are Austrian. Portugal is a great country for food and drink – a Mediterranean diet (olives, wine, sausage, great bread) with Atlantic fish, which is no bad thing – but not a great country for restaurants. The smartest places tend to be owned and run by foreigners who see a potential that the Portuguese, as yet, do not.
Ocean was very good indeed: a gorgeous, cliff-perched setting in the lushly landscaped resort, almost satirically well-spaced tables, friendly and well-drilled staff, and some stunningly good cooking. Neuner has a lightness of touch and a firm grasp of technique: witness a clever little cornetto of smoked eel as an amuse-bouche; a fat, sweet prawn with a pleasantly sharp pickle of vegetables, and a masterful fillet of red mullet with an intense “paella sauce”, cleverly capturing the saffron and iodine-tinged essence of paella in a spoonful.
Vila Vita Parc takes its wines very seriously, too: it even has a vineyard and an estate in the Alentejo, Herdade dos Grous, where much of the restaurant’s produce is grown. And there is a particularly fine wine cellar in the resort itself, a sort of sweet shop for oenophiles, where local charcuterie and cheese can be sampled with a glass of something suitable.
Should you be tempted to leave the resort, the Algarve’s ancient capital Silves is worth a visit, and a lunch. Following local advice, I ate at the Restaurante Marisqueira Casa Velha, a typical Portuguese joint where the tables are squashed, the lighting is terrible and the seafood is superb. Especially admirable was a huge, firm, fragrant chunk of wreckfish (aka stone bass), which needed just a drizzle of oil, a squeeze of lemon and an excellent bottle of Alvarinho to transform it into the perfect lunch. Very simple, and very Portuguese. They can leave the fancy stuff to the Austrians.