“We would like to invite you to the Ocean Restaurant and will value your opinion on the experience.”
This is exactly the sort of email that I dream of. A chance to experience a Michelin two-star restaurant at a resort I already know and love - Vila Vita Parc, near Armação de Pêra whose management must have heard that it was I, dear reader, that once dined at the world’s best restaurant in the history of all restaurants, El Bulli.
Vila Vita has been celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, spurred on by a shelf full of awards incuding the award of two Michelin stars for Vila Vita’s Ocean restaurant which now ranks 64 on La Liste's ‘1,000 Best Restaurants in the World,’ up 38 places.
I remember Vila Vita when it was being constructed in the late 80s. The resort overlooks the now-mature tropical gardens, watered by a newly installed desalination plant, leading to the cliffs with the sea beyond – a perfect scene and much loved for years by guests and visitors. This is top-notch Algarve hospitality at its finest with unobtrusive, friendly service immediately putting guests at ease and facilities that includes the Vital spa.
Open in 1992, the relaxed hotel nestles in 22 hectares of gardens, the distinctive Moorish architecture looking sturdy and mature, not kitch or staged.
The resort offers enough different styles of restaurant to keep guests interested, in fact there are ten restaurants, with the Ocean at the crest of Vila Vita’s achievements.
The resort has been upgraded with most suites refurbished and facilities improved and added to, but the Ocean restaurant is the main draw for both gastronomes and experienced diners – I probably just make it into the latter category and was excited at the prospect of tasting from the menu devised by the affable perfectionist, Chef Hans Neuner.
The Ocean restaurant is aptly named, with summertime diners able to enjoy the ever-changing sunset colours over the sparkling Atlantic.
At the end of November, when Mrs Ed and I went, the sun long had set and the view was of garden lighting with diners’ attention turned inwards to a beautiful shelved wall of backlit corals with rather fun hoops of lighting above our heads – all very cool and maritime in sea blue and light grey, without going over the top with the maritime theme.
The atmosphere is not at all stuffy - friendly without being forced - which puts diners at ease for the menu and wine pairing that lies ahead.
The restaurant, a short buggy rode from the main hotel building, seats around 30 people which is a sufficient number to ensure there seldom are any empty spaces. Chef Hans Neuner confirmed that there had been close to 100% occupancy in his restaurant this season with spaces having to be blocked out for Vila Vita’s guests as so many visitors have been booking.
The tasting menu definitely concentrates on local produce, lower food miles adds ecological credibility. The freshness of the ingredients is astonishing. The menu changes as the months go by and new seasonal foods become available to undergo their transformation in the surgically modern kitchen.
Hans Neuner’s playful creations, hand-crafted to amuse and surprise, are fun and always delicious. The descriptions of each course, offered by the serving team, add to the pleasure of discovering what is what.
The quantity for each course was perfectly judged, not too much and not too little despite the intricacy of each creation, although if you have had a long round of golf and are very hungry, you may choose another of the resort’s restaurants.
The wine pairings, I am reliably told, were ‘top quality’ and I was pleased to see one of Rui Virginia’s Barranco Longo wines from Algoz had made it into the exalted company of selections from Bairrada, Dão, Lisbon, Alentejo and the Douro.
The Algarve’s reputation as a gastronomic destination is well-deserved and growing with Vila Vita, Gusto at the Conrad, Vila Joya and Vista of international repute and Hexagone, Bon-Bon, O Alambique and Faz Gostos just some examples of the region's Michelin recommended restaurants.
Ocean, if you can get a booking, is well worth what may be an extravagance but, judging by some of the familiar faces in the restaurant on the evening I was invited, is as much for Algarve residents as guests of the hotel.
Chef Hans Neuner has run his kitchen at Ocean since 2007 after Vila Vita gave him the widest possible remit to develop his own team and do what was necessary to win a Michelin star – a task that took the Austrian only two years to complete.
Much of Neuner’s formative years were spent working under Karlheinz Hauser at the Adlon Hotel in Berlin but he honed his seafood skills at the two-star Tristan Restaurant in Mallorca and at the one-star Seven Seas in Hamburg.
A deep knowledge of product, a blend of Austrian precision and Neuner’s attention to details has mixed effortlessly with the ever-changing opportunities offered by his ‘seasonal produce’ policy, all add to a fun, extraordinary and memorable evening.
The coral display wall
Room with a view...
Grounds with a sea view
Chef Hans Neuner