I recently headed to Madeira for a rather long-overdue holiday. A big part of the reason for going was to get to know a bit more about the famous Madeira wine, which I wrote about for Vinspire and is worth checking out (even if I do say so myself). Whilst we were away the occasion of my 35th birthday took place and as my wife knows me so well, she thought that the best present would be to take me for dinner somewhere nice. She settled on Madeira’s only 2* restaurant situated in the Cliff Bay Hotel called Il Gallo D’Oro (the golden rooster). This is in a rather upmarket part of town where there are several new hotel developments all overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, including what looks to be a huge redevelopment of the Savoy Hotel which the locals don’t seem to be too happy about as it’s blocking some of their views towards the sea – which I can understand.

IMG_6298The hotel itself has what I would describe as a rather nondescript lobby area that could be any hotel in the world, but features soft jazz music, plush soft-furninshings and impressive furniture. On entry to the restaurant, you notice that the room has a relatively high ceiling (something that I always appreciate, having once lived in a flat with a very low ceiling) and is elegantly set out. We were warmly and effusively greeted by a bevy of waiters and waitresses (is there a collective noun for waiting staff?!) who were dressed immaculately. I immediately felt that this was going to be an enjoyable experience. We were shown to an excellent table which had a view over the ocean, which was useful as sunset was about to happen right in front of us! Whilst perusing the menu we started with a glass of NV Pommery Rosé champagne, which was pleasant if a little unspectacular – the good stuff was about to come…

IMG_6304The first course was entitled with a rather delightful understatedness “Lobster and Caviar”. Hello!! I mean, what a way to start off your tasting menu! When the dish was presented in a pretty, porcelain white bowl that was designed to look like a shell, it was impressively intricate and elegant. It turned out there was a lot more to the dish then simply lobster with caviar, there was a whole trove of other ingredients that were included too: trout, potatoes, chives, plus a sauce made from oysters, champagne and cream! What was impressive for me about this dish was the lightness and delicacy of all of the flavours. The trout and potatoes and cream combination sounds like a heavy north-German dish, but this was refined and elegant cooking. I asked how the lobster was cooked (yes, I’m that guy…) as I was sure that it had been served raw; however, I was told that it had been cooked at 87 degrees for precisely eight minutes. The result was meat that was light and flavoursome, but not overpowering the other elements of this dish. The caviar was a nice touch, but I didn’t think it packed enough punch for my liking; if I’m eating caviar (and importantly, paying for eating caviar), then I want to know about it.

IMG_6302When it came to the wine matches, interestingly all of the wines that they served were Portuguese, which I quite enjoyed; particularly as they were to show that in many instances some of their best Portuguese wines could do just what you wanted a fancy Burgundy or Barolo to do. The lobster dish was served with a 2017 Soalheiro (Sub-region) Alvarhino – the Portuguese name for the Albariño grape made famous in northern Spain. The wine had a rich green apple nose that wasn’t overly tart with the slightest hints of white pepper and pineapple. On the palate there was generous acidity to the wine, but also a surprising richness to the wine (with respect to the grape). This was an excellent match for the clean and clear flavours of the lobster dish, a more oaky, buttery wine would potentially have overshadowed the food, whereas this complemented it nicely.

IMG_6307Our second course had rather intriguingly been entitled “Kinder Surprise Egg”. This showed me that the Head Chef clearly had a playful side to him. When we were presented with the dish I couldn’t help but smile. We had more lobster to contend with (yay!), a poached egg, two kinds of foam (one of Chardonnay and one of a lobster bisque), gold leaf and, of course, more caviar. Whereas the last dish was all about presenting the lobster in a delicate, sensitive manner, in a simplistic approach; this was an altogether more bombastic plate. The delicacy and refinement were replaced with opulence and decadence. The sauces are heavier and richer. The egg and its perfectly tacky yolk further add to this. I really enjoyed eating these two plates of food, their juxtaposition worked perfectly.

IMG_6305For such a dish, I was expecting a rich, buttery Chardonnay and this was heightened when the waiters from out some Chardonnay glasses. However, what we were presented was something that was, for me, a first – a Portuguese Viognier; a 2015 Torre Do Frade (Alentejano). The first thing that I noted was that the nose on this wine was incredible, one of those that you want to keep on swirling and smelling and feel almost guilty about starting the tasting of the wine. This was rich and buttery, all accompanied by ripe red apples and some tangerine notes. When I could eventually summon up the courage to taste the wine it was rich and welcoming with generous, buttery, toasty notes accompanied by flavours of ripe pears in a beautiful harmony. A hedonistic wine that made for a compelling match with the dish. Glorious stuff. At this point I was already a very, happy diner!

IMG_6313Now it was time to move to a meat course, we had “Guinea Fowl and Corn from the Farm”. Again, I smiled wryly at the simplicity of the title of the dish when contrasted with the masterpiece that was brought to the table. First thing to note is that the Guinea Fowl was brought in a charmingly repurposed Champagne case (apparently leftover from a Champagne event that they held) and presented on a hot stone. The box also had some lit cinnamon sticks in there, which gave the fragrance of the box (and the room, actually) a really heady, sweet-spice aroma that was rather ravishing. The Guinea Fowl was then added to the plate for what was a quite simply beautiful arrangement of delicious things. There was corn a number of ways: in a purée, in a corn ball and a charred strip. All of it showed that wonderful sweetness that corn has, but also what a fine accompaniment it make to good dishes. The Guinea Fowl strip itself was absolutely divine, from memory the nicest piece of game bird that I have eaten; it was delicate, flavoursome, tender, succulent and moist. Wow! There was also a little ball of Guinea Fowl dark meat on the plate too, as well as a rather pleasing mini-beetroot, which added another lovely flavour to the mix. The sauce, as you can see from the photo, was dark, rich, intense and had a fabulous sheen to it.

IMG_6311.jpgWith the Guinea Fowl we moved on to a red, a 2015 Lavadores de Feitoria Quinta da Meruge (Douro); made from Tinta Roriz (the Portuguese name for Tempranillo). I was surprised that the nose was a little quiet, from what was forthcoming, however, I would say that it was elegant and perfumed with notes of red cherries and roses being the predominant flavours. Much like a more delicate Barolo. On tasting you could see that there was plenty of structure and backbone to the wine that lent it a real presence. There was a nice tartness and acidity that was useful for cutting through the game. However, I think that this wine will be at its best in c. three to five years, as it still needs some time to open up and fully express itself.

IMG_6316After the meat dish, we went “French style” into the cheese course with a course simply titled “Our Cheese”. We were given two dishes here, the first a Gorgonzola tube inside a sweet red-gel case which was accompanied by a baked fig and some dots of 25-year-old Balsamic Vinegar that had taken on a port-style characteristic.

IMG_6318The second dish was a rather remarkable cheddar-like cheese that had been crafted into something that looked like a cauliflower – no idea how they did that!; which was served alongside a chocolate ice-cream quinelle and some raspberry gel. I loved the Gorgonzola dish, that combination of slightly-salty blue cheese, with the figs and the port-style Balsamic was wonderful; my wife, on the other had, did not get on with that one as she is not a fan of cheese on the blue-end of the spectrum. I’m still working on that… The second dish was interesting, but for me the flavour pairing didn’t work. The cheese itself was delicious and was visually stunning, but to put it with chocolate was something that I just don’t understand.

IMG_6315To match with the cheese we went “English style” (i.e. we had Port, the French tend to have their cheese course with a glass of red). This was a 2014 LBV Borges, which was a new Port House for me, so I was keen to try it out. The nose had inviting and heartening notes of sweet spices that bring that traditional association with Christmas, however there was also a significant smattering of blackcurrant alongside this. On tasting it was notably sweet, but then not overly so; it had some interesting herbal and medicinal notes going on that gave it a bit of character, alongside more familiar rich black cherry notes. The wine had a little heat to it, which again just served to keep its head up against the interesting food flavours.

IMG_6324Now it was time for the sweet, again somewhat beguilingly entitled “Pomme D’Amour”. Here again we see the playful side of Chef Sinthon coming out. A faux apple is created, which contains within it an apple compote, white chocolate foam and mini meringues. This was nestled on a crumble base and off-set with a quinelle of ice-cream. It was with great relish that I cut into this “apple” and made a pleasing combination of apples, cream, chocolate and crumble on my spoon. This is what clever, high-end dining is all about – taking something you know, dressing it up differently and then delivering exceptional flavours, all (hopefully) set off with a little bit of fun.

IMG_6321For our last wine we were treated to something special, a unique bottling of sweet Muscatel wines that are made specifically for this restaurant and served in unmarked 3L bottles. I can’t even tell you where the wine is produced as it all seemed very secretive. The wine was heady and aromatic, with sweet spice aromas once more dominant; I noted clove, ginger and all-spice. I also noted that there was a strong tea presence to this wine, maybe an Earl Grey style tea? On drinking this wine coated the mouth beautifully and there was a real richness to it which gave a kind of burnt caramel profile to it. A wonderful wine – shame you can’t buy it anywhere!!

Hopefully it comes through in my notes, but this was a truly excellent meal and one that I enjoyed very much. Sometimes you have meals that are delicious or pleasurable, but aren’t always fun or enjoyable; this was both, fortunately. A big part of this was from the staff serving us – they were attentive and engaging and really went to great pains to answer my questions, even if sometimes that had to go away and find the answer our to them and report back. Alexandre was someone of particular note who made it a personal crusade of his to make sure that we had an excellent evening. I was very impressed with the quality of the food, as well as its inventiveness and playfulness. Furthermore, I think the wine matches were intelligently picked and gave me some really interesting firsts – the Portuguese Viognier was particularly memorable.

Of course, the last words should always be to thank my darling wife for her generosity in taking me to this to wonderful restaurant, which was an excellent way to begin my mid-thirties…

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