Madeira has no shortage of places to eat; all across the island there are restaurants in some shape or form wherein bustling chefs labour to present a wealth of excellent local produce to its best. The traditional fare of Madeira – such dishes as espetada (lamb or beef skewers), espada (ugly – my word – black scabbard fish) and estufado (stew), all accompanied by far too many side dishes – is the equivalent of the British meat and two veg, but on steroids.
But fine dining is to be had that is far removed from orthodox Portuguese cuisine – excellent, inexpensive and filling though it is – and a number of restaurants are striving to achieve that elusive, and well-earned, Michelin star. So far, only one has reached those culinary heights, Il Gallo d’Oro restaurant, in the Cliff Bay hotel, Funchal awarded in 2009.
So, after many years enjoying mainstream Madeiran cuisine, it was time to sample the delights of this star in the firmament of Madeira’s up-market restaurants. I was warmed and encouraged by the views of the Michelin inspectors: ‘This restaurant has an attractive glass-fronted wine cellar in the entrance hall-bar, a dining room on two levels with an elegant classic-cum-contemporary ambience, and an attractive terrace. It offers cuisine with a distinctly modern feel with a focus on meticulous presentation and strong flavours’.
From the hotel entrance, my wife and I were escorted to the inner sanctum, where another welcoming face checked my reservation and passed us to someone else like batons in a relay race, who finally guided us to a table, wreathed as we were in gastronomic expectancy. What I especially like about Michelin restaurants of this ilk, is that the tables are spaced out in such a way that if you wanted to eavesdrop on your neighbour, you have to focus your ears à la mode pipistrelle. The personal space thus provided feels warmly embracing and insular, and makes for cosy tête-à-têtes, companionable husband-wifely chatter, or verbal foreplay to a private dessert not on the chef’s menu. Everything is enhanced by the décor of pastel, earthy and golden tones creating a synergy of gentle relationships that immediately put you at ease. It’s theatre; it’s a performance: this is not the place to come purely for sustenance, you come for the experience, the anticipation, the wonder and the surprise.
The executive chef at Il Gallo d’Oro is Benoît Sinthon, who like so many great chefs was bathed in influence by his grandmother, who took him at an early age to the Vieux Port in Marseilles to teach him how to select fish – a lesson that became most appropriate when he found himself on Madeira surrounded by very deep water and lots of fish. And choosing ingredients from Madeira means that fresh produce has a key role in the chef’s many creations.
Maître d’ Luis Filipe ensured that we were comfortably ensconced and napkinned, and then the back-up team flowed into action with all the clinical precision expected of slick Michelin restaurants. Sommelier Sérgio Marques offered a wine reference selection, suited to our dishes at €34 per person, with a Premier Selection for €52 per person, but I had already spotted that the Michelin inspectors had noted the particularly interesting wine list of more than 300 wines, and I was happy to trust my instincts while maintaining our fondness for the best Portuguese wines – Viognier from Alentejo, then.
Star of the show, should you want it to be, is the Signature Menu, a 4-course extravaganza of foie gras, Portuguese scarlet shrimp, pigeon eucalyptus and chef’s special macaron. But being the curious appetites that we are, my wife and I opted to pick our way through the à la carte menu beginning with a generous lobster medallion, served with Gravlax salmon, dill and cream sauce.
At the fish course my wife and I parted company, in a culinary sense. I opted for that scarlet shrimp, while my wife mewed reverently over coast line fish with asparagus and caviar. But when it came to the main course, we were reunited in selecting veal fillet with a ‘symphony’ of petits pois. I’m not sure what key we were eating in, but the harmonies were outstanding, and the basso sostenuto of a chef’s deft hand with the veal was a foundation on which much enjoyment came to be rested.
Chocolate on a dessert menu is a starting point to which my wife invariably returns after much wringing of hands over alternatives. With many years of chocolate under her belt, suffice to say that I’m sure I detected a tear of joy in her eye as pastry chef Nuno Castro’s Chocolate Temptation with Tainori and coffee cream sauce came to an end; or maybe it was the certainty of disapproval heaped on anyone who licks their plate in public. For myself, there is a world in which strawberries are king, and at Il Gallo d’Oro I found myself in regal company. By now my palate had all but surrendered, but still sought out shades of flavour that proved too esoteric to pin down with certainty.
Of course, there is a gulf between the cuisine of Il Gallo d’Oro and that of downtown Funchal. On the one hand, ‘Old Town’ Funchal satisfies the basic needs; I’ll Gallo d’Oro offers a dining experience par excellence; each has their place on Madeira’s culinary agenda, but, from what I hear, others are knocking at the Michelin door.
All images (c) Terry Marsh
Tell me more about Il Gallo d’Oro
Il Gallo d’Oro, Cliff Bay Hotel, Estrada Monumental 147, 9004-532 Funchal
Tel: +351 291 707 700 E: email@example.com
Signature Menu (4 courses) €95 per person
À la carte menu
3 courses €80
4 courses €95
5 courses €130
Vegetarian menu available
Wheelchair accessible Air conditioning Park and garden, and meals served outside on occasion