Designer Dining

On the flight to London, I watched a movie starring Anya Taylor-Joy, Nicholas Hoult, and Ralph Fiennes reprising his role as Voldemort but in chef’s attire. Touted as a sinister dark comedy, The Menu explores the philosophies of top-tier chefs and challenges the pretensions of pompous diners. Chef Sowek (Fiennes) has a stygian and fuliginous plan to punish his superficial, self-absorbed, disdainful and decadent clients for years of gluttonous elitism, and for destroying his passion for cooking.

So, it felt somewhat ironic that we spent Saturday night at The Yeatman, in Porto, indulging in the most amazing haute cuisine; a degustation menu created by Chef Ricardo Costa as ‘a journey through Portuguese gastronomy and wine’.

Showcasing local produce and traditional flavours, and Costa’s superlative cooking skills of course, the menu was inevitably reliant on fish and seafood, each mouthful a fusion of intense flavour, glorious aromas and fascinating, often unexpected textures, ‘designed to create an immersive sensory experience, to awaken sensations, evoke nostalgia… and to provide lasting memories.’

It did.

The Yeatman, overlooking the Douro and the historic Port lodges of Vila Nova de Gaia, not only has a prime position on the Porto landscape, but also secretes an award-winning wine cellar beneath the hill. In the kitchen, those regional ingredients are whipped together with fervent imaginations, top notch cooking techniques and the magic of molecular gastronomy to redesign or reinterpret traditional Portuguese recipes. Such creative cooking earned the restaurant two Michelin stars in 2017.

As we settled into a private dining room, at a large, oval table set for six, we explored the menu eagerly. It wasn’t giving much away.

‘An Evolution of Aromas’ started with langoustine, chicken skin and nori and ended, eighteen courses later, with coffee and mignardises. Yes, I had to look up that word, too. It means ‘bite-sized desserts.’ Of course. It is a tasting menu after all.

The only problem with such an immense tasting menu is retaining the high level of concentration required to focus on each mouthful, while also maintaining one’s place in the dinner table conversation. I sadly lapsed on the latter, as I delved eagerly into each beautifully presented morsel. Everything becomes a character in the operatic theatre of such a dinner. Not just the ingredients themselves, but the cutlery, the crockery, the matching wines, the waiters, even the lighting. It is hard to keep any sense of self amongst such a star-studded cast. And it is hard to recall the taste of each ephemeral flavour as the next one steps into the spotlight to take its place.

So, I’m not going to describe every dish that passed before my eager eyes. Firstly, because I would soon run out of convincing adjectives. And secondly, despite having the menu by my side, covered in copious notes, I am struggling to recall everything that passed my lips, and could not do them justice if I could. I will say, quite simply, it was a truly awesome gastronomic experience.

I do recall the aroma of the smoked cauliflower being surprisingly strong, and the velvety texture of the custard-creamy sea urchin, whose subtle taste I have learned to appreciate but will never long for. And I remember the bizarre combination of tuna (in tiny cubes), pomegranate gel and foie gras in a most unexpected colour and form (rose pink ball bearings, or crumbs) that literally melted in the mouth, giving off an intensity of flavour that created an ecstatic response from my taste buds. Even the hot Douro bread, with its satisfyingly crunchy crust giving way to a satin-soft and spongy inner sanctum was a joy to chew upon, dipped in a pungent olive oil. (As a quick aside, apparently the pros taste olive oil like wine, swirling it in a glass to help release the aromas, then slurp it noisily into their mouths to emulsify the oil and spread it over their tastebuds, to bring every flavour to the surface. We didn’t do this, but I feel we got equal satisfaction by dipping into it heartily with that divine bread.) And there was that national tapa pastéis de bacalhau –somewhat heavy, dry, fried codfish balls – that had been reformatted into a light, soft, moist meringue, that slid down my throat almost as soon as it touched my tongue.

And, of course I noted every fork and each tactile, unusually shaped and often warmed bowl or plate that arrived at the table, even before my eyes and nose started dissecting the much heralded arrangement upon it. I do wish I had remembered to take a photo of everything – but multi-tasking has never been my strong suit, and anyway, I was too busy tasting!

Our waiter, Sara, did a marvellous job of introducing each dish, although her heavy Portuguese accent meant I often had to waylay her for a personalized repeat performance. Oh! to be able to speak Portuguese. To date, I have only mastered ‘Obrigada’, which is useful, but pretty feeble for a lengthy conversation. Nonetheless, Sara and I had lots of long chats on the way through the menu, to clarify as many details as possible. It became a master class in Portuguese flavours and Asian fusion, and I loved every moment. But I do regret the ephemeral nature of any meal, that leaves me struggling to recreate more than a tiny impression of each dish.

Chef Sowek (aka Lord Voldemort) in the movie was very put out when a client who had come often to his restaurant could not recall a single dish he had eaten there over the years. To be fair, it is actually hard to do, even when one thinks one is utterly focussed. It is the nature of the beast. But I think I will remember, forever, the surprised delight of those soft pink foie gras crumbs. And there were so many of these extraordinary experiences during the meal – those moments when what my eyes looked upon did not equate to the texture and taste on my tongue. It was pure magic.

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