Hans Neuner, executive chef of Restaurant Ocean at the Vila Vita resort in the Algarve Ocean loves to travel. When he left Austria to head to Porches in the Algarve he did not know he was going to end up staying there. But the region, the sea, the quality of the produce both from the land and the sea have made him stay.
Nothing maybe exemplifies this story more than the Octopus dish that he served me recently at the restaurant.
Octupus is a staple in Portugal like in other places on the Mediterranean as is the ‘prickly pear’ plant which is found pretty much everywhere in hot climates. And while it costs a fortune to buy one such fruit in the North of Europe where it does not grow, it is not only abundant but also wild in many countries in the Mediterranean.
The prickly pear fruit is considered to be an exotic fruit for some and makes for a refreshing summer fruit but its leaf or cactus is also edible and used in South America. He learned this on a trip to South America and he assessed whether this would be possible with the Portuguese variety which is so common here. From that came the idea to use it with octopus a dish that proved to be one of my favourites at the restaurant. He served the octopus with corn mung beans, sour cream and the cactus of the prickly pear. Next to the main dish, he served an octopus taco on a cactus to emphasise this.
He has taken to learn as much as possible about Portuguese cuisine and is always on the lookout for recipes, ingredients and dishes which can inspire him in the restaurant.
But he is also inspired by what is happening around us. One such example was a pre-dessert which he created together with his pastry chef Marcio Baltasar sends out a very strong istrong message. They drew inspiration from the iconic photo by Justin Hofman in the National Geographic of a seahorse swimming with a discarded cotton swab that illustrates pollution at sea and recreated that playful feeling on a plate using cardamom leaves, cashew and papaya as a way of raising awareness about the problems of waste at sea.
He is always looking for sustainable ways of serving local produce from fish to vegetables and meat which are mostly grown from the resort’s own farm. But he is also aware of the need and importance to help local producers because only by building an eco-system can things ultimately improve.
The location of the restaurant couldn’t be more idyllic. It has a stunning view of the Algarve ocean with the limitless horizon. It was beautiful in August when I visited but I’m also curious to see it in winter when the dramatic winter clouds and the waves could create a more dramatic backdrop.
As the name suggests, most of the inspiration of the restaurant comes from the sea and particularly the fish markets like the one in Sagres which we visited together with Hans. FIshermen land their catches here and the fish and seafood is auctioned on the spot.
Hans visits the market once every few weeks to get a feel of what is going to be available over the coming weeks which enables him to plan his menu.
The cuisine at Ocean is Portuguese inspired though as he himself says at times he needs to make use of produce from outside the country like in the case of the langoustine dish which he served with carrots, calamansi and coconut. I asked him why he had to resort to Icelandic langoustines when he is so close to the sea and he said that unfortunately there is no guarantee that he can get enough local langoustines to be able to serve this dish.
The restaurant also gives you a sense of place with the interpretation of the chicken piri piri, a staple dish in the Algarve as well as the bell peppers with barnacles and cockles, another exceptional dish, the “Acorda” with prawns and coriander as well as the azores tuna with lime, wasabi and pancake.
Vila Vita is one of the best resorts in the Algarve if not the best and with its farm the Herdade dos Grous it can provide its restaurants, including Ocean with exceptional produce. Kurt Gillig’s vision of creating this fine dining restaurant has not only materialised, he’s also managed to put the region on the gastronomic map.
The restaurant has 2 Michelin stars and placed 62nd in La Liste 2017. It is definitely one to watch.
Restaurant Ocean, Hotel VILA VITA Parcm Rua Anneliese Pohl, Alporchinhos, Porches · Algarve, Portugal
Chicken Piri-Piri, photo by Filipe Farinha