Michelin-starred restaurants are always a treat. You sort of know what to expect but then you don’t because you get surprised and delighted every time. They are all unique experiences with individual highlights and their own twists and turns. This was no exception.
Il Gallo D’Oro is a 1-starred restaurant inside the Cliff Bay hotel in Funchal on the island of Madeira, and is led by chef Benoît Sinthon. His whole philosophy rests on local produce and the discovery of the Island of Madeira, adding ingredients from the Iberian peninsula, and coupling the food with top Portuguese wines.
As expected of restaurants at this level, especially ones that are hosted in hotels, the atmosphere was formal, restrained. People spoke softly and sat up straight. The décor was plain and unassuming. You come here to eat nice food, let’s make that clear from the outset.
You get a feel for how good with the wonderful selection of breads and the impossibly creamy butter and olive spread that come first.
The menu is really interesting and offers a lot of choice, a kind of pick-and-mix where you can select the number of courses you want (3, 4 or 5) and choose within each category – soup or risotto for starter, meat or fish for the main. My husband Mark goes for the chef’s Signature Menu, where obviously there is no choice. Or so you think. Contrary to my expectation that famous chefs are uptight and don’t welcome swapsies when it comes to ‘their’ choice about what you should eat, I was allowed to strip the Signature Menu apart. I didn’t want pigeon or white chocolate for dessert (white chocolate is NOT chocolate and shouldn’t be called chocolate). But I wanted the two seafood starters – the lobster medallion and the Portuguese Carabineiro (a magnificent large red shrimp with a sweet flavour that can be found in deep waters of the East Atlantic Ocean, known in English as the Scarlet Shrimp or Cardinal Prawn). Those two dishes made my meal.
But before we got seafood, an intriguing amuse-bouche set the scene for a delectable journey. What a wonderful little ball of earthiness! A truffle-flavoured dark brown crumb coated a creamy and indulgent patê-like centre and on the surface of the white tree trunk it came perched on, a crunchy buttery salty ‘soil’ made it all come together. On the side, crisp dry mushroom slivers added a fun element. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this start to our meal, with both of us exchanging approving looks and expressions without saying a word.
The lobster medallion was full of surprises – little mounds of caviar and a creamy sauce were dotted here and there in top of the sweet and delicate flesh of the lobster, which was sitting on perfectly round slices of smoked salmon and soft potato. The Carabineiro came served with interesting purple plastic-looking wafer-thin starchy films, amongst other elements and a foam that tasted as if we had just drank a bit of the sea.
Between the starters and the main we got served the most refreshing basil sorbet as a palate cleanser.
My premium filet dish with veal cheek confit, black truffle juice and mini vegetables was surprisingly chunky and filling for a Michelin-starred restaurant and for a brief moment I felt transported back to a good meat restaurant where a quality chunk of meat is cooked to perfection and coated in a deep dark brown warming jus.
Mark says his pigeon dish was the highlight of the meal for him and I can believe it. It looked stunning.
After this we were served a lovely pre-dessert of salted caramel ice cream and raspberries.
To me, the dessert was the only thing that didn’t feel fully Michelin-starred. Pouring the hot chocolate on top of the perfectly round golden chocolate sphere created a, albeit delicious, chocolaty soup with melted ice-cream and crunchy fresh bits of fruit (pineapple and ginger), yum! Nothing wrong with that but it was not quite a perfectly balanced concoction of textures and flavours you come to expect in these places because the hot chocolate becomes the dominant element (although I have since watched an online video of the desired effect and you can see where the chef is going with this).
But my husband’s dessert was precisely that. A plethora of textures, colours and flavours co-existing in perfect harmony, a surprise with every bite. Soft, crunchy, creamy, fresh. I watched him eat with sheer delight and promptly swallowed my white-chocolate-is-not-chocolate righteousness.
Unlike previous visits to Michelin-starred restaurants, we chose to go for the usually pricey wine selection and what a great idea it was. Food at this level is usually full of surprise and by having your wine chosen specifically for each dish not only guarantees it will be perfectly matched but also adds an extra level of surprise. At some point I was as excited to see what wine came next as I was with the next dish. And if you want a more complete experience get the Sommelier to explain his choice. You learn lots, you get names of wines to buy yourself and you make the Sommelier happy. I especially enjoyed Curtimenta, a bold white, full of presence (actually a ‘vinho verde‘ made with a green-skinned grape called Alvarinho, or Albarino on the Spanish side) and surprisingly easy to drink.
I was brought up on slightly acidic and harsher ‘vinhos verdes’ (they have significantly improved since I left Portugal) and this is nothing like that. Loved it. And I am not a ‘white wine drinker’, whatever that means. Equally easy to drink was the other ‘vinho verde’ we had for the first course – Contacto, also a wine made by Anselmo Mendes. I have become an instant fan of this wine producer.
By the time the well-balanced and berry-tasting red wine came (Herdade de S. Miguel, Casa Agrícola Alexandre Relvas) we were well on the merry side, I guess that’s the other advantage of going for a wine selection matching your food, you get lots of it and you get happy. The meal was appropriately topped and tailed with Madeira wine.
The slightly chilled aperitif was made with the grape Sercial, a golden liquid with a light citrusy crisp feel and the dessert wine was a Madeira made with the Bual grape, a darker and sweeter version which tasted of nuts and caramel and was the right amount of heavy. It will probably be a perfect match for cheese as well as for the desserts we had.
All in all, I loved Il Gallo D’Oro. As always with food at this level, I left feeling I have become a better eater and food lover. I learned a little more, I experienced a few more new food things.
If you are in Funchal make sure you book a table and if you go in the summer try to sit outside as the view is outstanding.
Don’t forget no trainers, shorts or jeans and men are encouraged to wear a jacket and/or tie.
Where: Funchal, Madeira, Portugal
Cuisine: Modern Portuguese/Iberian/Mediterranean
Type: Restaurant, Michelin starred
Occasion: Breakfast and fancy dinner
Rating: 4.5 stars
Would I go again? Yes