I love birthdays. They are something special, and every age at any age should be celebrated. Since I am little, I love celebrating my own birthday and making the day special for others.
So as a birthday treat (not mine this time around), and while being in the Algarve, I thought going to a nice restaurant might be just about the right birthday gift. Not any restaurant. After some research and phone calls from Brussels down south, I finally managed to reserve a table for two at Sao Gabriel.
What is so special about Sao Gabriel, you might wonder? Well it is the first Michelin star restaurant I have ever been to. We all know about the Michelin stars, the Michelin withdrawn stars and the suspense and anticipation of the Michelin guide every year. Not being part of the business I am not sure what the detailed criteria are when awarding a restaurant a Michelin star – but if Sao Gabriel is anything to go by, then I wonder what restaurants with two stars and up have to offer?
Sao Gabriel is a one star Michelin restaurant. The restaurant was named after a gorgeous old exemplary of traditional art, the hand painted blue tiles “Azulejos”, the angel Saint Gabriel. Located between Quinta do Lago and Vale do Loba, the restaurant is owned by Rudi Märkle, a Swiss hotelier who retired in the Algarve. Opened in 1999, the restaurant combines modern perfection with the warmth and the wonderful Portuguese tradition and art.
Upon entering the restaurant we were greeted by Susy Luginbühl, an incredibly dynamic woman who knew exactly who we were, and made us feel at home within the first 5min (magic or what?). The décor is all blue hand painted Portuguese tiles, while cozy corners and tables offer the necessary privacy to enjoy a relaxed (and romantic) dinner.
After being seated, we decided the best way to taste and get the feel of a Michelin star restaurant will be to opt for the ‘menu degustation’ – a choice of 6 signatures dishes of Jens Rittmeyer, a young and very talented German chef.* While deciding which Portuguese wine to go for, Vitor Lourenço Filipe d’Avo, the Sommelier came to greet us … and the rest as they say is history.
He advised us on some of the bottles of wines, however offered as well to match each course with a specific glass of wine. An offer we could not refuse, and such an amazing learning experience.
We started with quail egg soup and dry white wine.
On to a goose liver terrine with apples and goats cheese and Sauternes. Absolute heaven. Every bite we took was followed by a sip of wine, and I can honestly say that was the highlight of my culinary experiences so far. I still have the taste in my mouth and have not been able to recreate that combination so far.
A truffle soup followed of topinambur (Jerusalem artichokes). Grilled scallop on lemon risotto. The lemon risotto was pure heaven. We tried to recreate it back in Brussels, but haven’t so far found the right balance between the lemons and the risotto. However I will keep trying and once successful, the recipe will be written down.
Next a regional specialty, oven roasted shoulder of tender black pork with sautéed herb potatoes, artichokes and shallot-thyme sauce. Having tried Alentejo pork the evening before in Cais i, it was interesting to notice the difference between cooking styles. While one was pure tradition, the pork in Sao Gabriel was adapted to the modern taste, a little lighter and more flavored than you would expect.
The pork was followed by caramelized quince mousse with a unique lemon pepper-orange ice cream and a glass of Porto.
A feast of smells and tastes, of textures and combinations. Incredible. And to make sure the evening will be unforgettable, the restaurant prepared a surprise birthday cake as well, which totally blew us off. To end the chef came as well to greet us and ask how we liked his cooking (what a superfluous questions. It was DELICIOUS!)
A six course menu and 4h later, our Michelin experiences ended. Happy? I couldn’t have been more. Birthday? A success and I hope unforgettable.
*2016 update – the Chef is now Leonel Pereira
disclaimer: all photos from the Sao Gabriel website