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A review by Uwe Heitkamp, photos by Graciete João

Eating out is a challenge.
A review by Uwe Heitkamp, photos by Graciete João

A review by Uwe Heitkamp, photos by Graciete João

Saturday May 6th, 2023.

Let’s grab a bite to eat? It’s Friday, 2pm, and we’re on our way to Monchique to sample a Pizza Margherita in the recently re-opened Miradouro restaurant just above Caldas de Monchique. Very early on in my life, the Italian head chef Carlo Padulo, who taught me how to make pizza a long time ago advised me to always start with a Pizza Margherita. Tomato sauce and cheese are unlikely to upset your stomach. Today’s dough however is very odd and hardly cooked. The same thing happens with a second pizza by the name of „Quatro Estações“. When I enquire I‘m told that the pizza dough comes from the chilled section of a supermarket. We finish our test meal with no further comment. In the WCs the toilet paper is spilling out from the buckets. It’s better to leave. We pay €30.50 for three. The owner is not (yet) able to work the coffee machine properly, and the computer refuses to issue a receipt. After waiting for quarter of an hour we say our polite goodbyes. We are told to pop back in later on. Should we do that, really?

Second attempt, the following day. By now it’s Saturday, 1.15pm. Now we’re in Loulé, visiting the Cantina dos Sabores restaurant for lunch. Over the course of 32 years I’ve eaten there exactly 113 times, and have always been very happy. This is why I’ve chosen this restaurant – also to do my best to forget about our experience on Friday. To me, the diversity of the Cantina dos Sabores menu provides an opportunity for everyone and anyone in our party to find something tasty and healthy to eat and drink. With Loulé located some 80 km from the editorial offices I brought up the restaurant website the day before and made a reservation because I wanted to make sure to get a table for four. More often than not the restaurant is full, with a cluster of people waiting outside to be let in. Having to wait half an hour at lunchtime is a common occurrence.

The car fully charged with solar power from our own panels, the road trip may begin. An hour later, driving the electric car and creating zero emissions we reach the restaurant. I find out that the table reservation by email didn’t work, as the restaurant management no longer has a password to access the protected area of the website and was unable to accept my reservation. I should have called. Right, so how am I supposed to gather that? This means we have to wait 25 minutes to be assigned a free table. While we wait (standing) we are asked to decide what we want to eat. This, they say, will shorten the waiting time quite a bit…

I head for the WC to first of all wash my hands. Especially in the wake of the Corona pandemic – but in other respects too – I try really hard to not be negligent with my hand hygiene. The roll of towels from the dispenser has finished. The tail end, dangling loose from the machine, has been used several times already. It’s midday on a Saturday, the weekend is nigh, so why bother offering their guests a clean hand towel? I head across to the „Ladies“, to check whether they might still have a clean towel to dry my hands. Yet there simply are no more clean towels, neither in the Ladies‘ WC nor at the third washbasin, in the washroom. So the test meal kicks off with moist hands.

Having studied the daily menu standing, Rafael quickly ascertains what he wants to eat: a hamburger with sweet potatoes and salad. The response to my question how the hamburger is made and where the meat comes from is that the meat is from Argentina. Right, so Argentinian meat is now a seal of quality? That’s news to me. I had assumed that meat on the plates of a restaurant in Portugal would be from the nearest abattoir. I’m lost for words. The Cantina dos Sabores chef buys the Argentinian beef from the butcher’s the restaurant uses in Loulé, our host tells us. Top quality meat.

In times of climate change, this dead animal, the way I’m envisaging this, travels a whopping 7000 kilometres from Buenos Aires via Lisbon to Loulé and its Cantina dos Sabores restaurant: bon voyage. That’s a relief then. So maybe I’m not in a vegetarian restaurant where meat-free cuisine is highly valued (as suggested on the website); where am I now exactly? Has „the management“ changed, I ask, or is there a new chef? No, everything is the same.

Catarina chooses the shrimp spaghetti from the menu, while Graciete goes for the canneloni with ricotta and spinach. I myself decide on the seitan meatballs with tomato sauce and sweet potatoes. In truth I could finish my story here, for the way many kitchens work is to plate up the dishes of the day before the customers actually order them, so that following an order all they have to do is place the salad on the dish.

These seitan meatballs must have been prepared hours ago. The sauce on top of them has dried out, the seven slices of sweet potato are cold and dry, and the salad comes without dressing. I try my neighbour’s spaghetti. I’ve never tasted shrimp spaghetti this dry. Haven’t they heard of good olive oil at the Cantino dos Sabores? Am I maybe in an industrial kitchen, a canteen? A sense of disappointment is spreading. Either the chef is incompetent, or the working conditions in the kitchen aren’t right. Something is going seriously wrong here today. Too many guests?

For dessert I choose a fruits of the forest mousse. However, it’s in vain that I look for actual forest fruits (frutos silvestres). What did I expect, there is no longer any forest in the Algarve. That explains a lot. I end up ordering a slice of the white chocolate cake with dark chocolate sauce. Not only am I still hungry, I also feel I’m missing a proper ending. I note that it’s not really white chocolate but rather a „Tarte de Natas“ drowned in dark chocolate sauce.

If it hadn’t been for the freshly squeezed fruit juices, the highlight – the Cantina dos Sabores would warrant an entry in the complaints’ book. At the end I pay out a robust 82 euros for four. This might just have been my last visit to Cantina dos Sabores in Loulé.

All’s well that ends well? Not really. Wait for this.

On Sunday we visit „Mc Doh“ in Portimão to try the new veggie burger made from artificial meat. Let me tell you straight away what this tastes like: peat and earthworm. The meaty hamburger at least comes from Spain, which doesn’t tell us much. The toilets however are clean, and I am able to blow-dry my washed hands. The meal including all those hamburgers only costs €36.60 for four food testers. At least I receive a receipt. Over the course of three days ECO123 has tested three restaurants. Take-home lesson: the Algarve definitely has too many restaurants. Everyone who reckons they’re able to wield a wooden spoon thinks they have to open a restaurant as well. It’s a real challenge to find out which restaurant is really worth recommending. Maybe it might be an idea to introduce a very basic test, like we have for people who repeatedly fail their drivers‘ licence. Today, for once, I’ll pass on the grading part.

I’ve lost the will to try out yet another restaurant this weekend. On Workers’ Day, 1 May, I prefer to cook myself at home behind the stove, to prepare something tasty for my family. In our next edition we’ll provide a very simple recipe, as I enjoy frying my own meat-free hamburgers. How? All will be revealed next week.

So, well, the ECO123 restaurant review. Every week we are looking for a good restaurant, with a fair balance of price and quality. The restaurants are graded. 15 points mean „excellent“, 12 points „good“, eight points at least still „satisfactory“. So this week we’ll not come down too hard on the shortcomings of the tested restaurants. For chefs too can have a bad day…

 

 

Uwe Heitkamp (62)

trained TV journalist, book author and hobby botanist, father of two grown-up children, knows Portugal for 30 years, founder of ECO123. Translations: Dina Adão, John Elliot, Ruth Correia, Patrícia Lara, Kathleen Becker
Photos: Graciete João

 

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