I think the 79th best restaurant in the world deserves its own post, don’t you?
First of all, if you didn’t see the video from yesterday, here it is, with our trip to Vila Joya starting at the 4:58 mark.
Second of all, let me start this out by saying we’ve been to 14 Michelin restaurants so far, three of which have been in the top 100 in the world. By now, we’ve gotten a good idea of what the Michelin experience should be, and based upon some of the amazing restaurants we’ve been to that aren’t in the top 100, our expectations for those within it are very high.
I will do a separate post on what I believe to be the ideal Michelin experience to be, so for now I’ll stick with Vila Joya.
What we wore.
Vila Joya is a 2-star Michelin restaurant and the only 2-star restaurant in Portugal. The setting is incredible with gorgeous views in an incredibly posh resort. The dining area was intimate, if a little cramped, but the candle-light, rose petals and beautiful table setting were nice touches to their ambience. They neglected to print the price in my menu (it was only listed in my husband’s)–something I’ve run across a few times, and feel is a bit offensive–I’m not such a delicate woman that I can’t know what I’m paying for my meal.
A clever setting where our napkins looked like little tuxes.
The price per person was €165, and when we made our reservations we inquired about the cost of a wine pairing with the 8-course meal. They responded that it could be €90-120/person, depending on the sommelier that night. That was the single highest price point for a wine pairing we’ve ever encountered. Instead, we requested a custom wine pairing for €50/person since we thought that would get us a decent enough pairing without spending (even more) unnecessarily. The sommelier obliged.
The main floor manager impressively spoke an incredible amount of languages. Portuguese to one table, German to another, Spanish, and English. Judging by that amount of knowledge, I assumed he probably knew French as well. This really stood out to me as it showed the restaurant truly wanted each of their customers to feel welcome, no matter where they came from. Mike and I compared his job to being a sort of ambassador–he was gracious and accommodating without being too invasive.
The one place where I felt confused by him was because of a couple of comments he made to us, which I thought were strange. He repeatedly said “It’s a very lucky night,” which I didn’t quite get. If they had just received a shipment of white truffles in the off-season, that would be one kind of lucky that I could understand. But it seemed to me that he was implying that we were incredibly lucky to be there at his restaurant. This was a bit off-putting to me, as our being there had nothing to do with luck, but because of a good amount of planning and money.
And if he had just said it once, no big deal, I brushed it off. But he said it three times, so I finally asked what was so lucky about the evening. I can’t remember his words exactly, but they were somewhat along the lines of “well, it’s very lucky because you are enjoying yourself and the food is very good and that is a good night for us.” Um. Okay? Maybe it was just a difference in customs or culture, but it still struck me as odd that I would be told how lucky I was that I had made a reservation and paid for a nice dinner.
I get it, you’re in the top 100. Being humble about it is much more impressive to me than gloating, however.
Excuse the photo, I pulled it from our video footage.
The service revolved around one large serving table in the middle of the room, where the waitstaff would place trays and synchronously place your plate in front of you and your dining parter(s). This part of the service wasn’t working for them though, as they seemed to have too many tables for there to be two waiters at the same place at the same time. At a few points, one waiter would be hovering over my shoulder with my plate while another server rushed over to grab Mike’s just so they could lower it in front of us at the same time. I’ve seen this technique executed flawlessly in enough places to know that Vila Joya’s staff just seemed to be too few for the amount of tables in their area.
Also to the point of staff to customer ratio, bread was slow-going to get to us and had to be requested several times by us. It may seem like a small issue, but that small issue just points to the larger issue of being understaffed or disorganized.
Sommelier & Wine
The wines were all Portuguese wines, which I appreciated. There was an odd glass of wine that was served to us inbetween the fish and meat courses which had no pairing to go with it. After reflecting on that, we believe there may have been some sort of mix-up where that wine was supposed to be paired with something else but had been forgotten. That, or it was just to fill the very long gap we had between the fish and meat courses and they needed to keep us entertained. Still, I would have preferred to have been brought a glass of Port at the end of my meal instead of having an odd glass of wine without a pairing in the middle of the meal. I suppose that I could have gotten the best of both worlds had we paid another €40-70 per person for the regular wine pairing, but overall I thought that the wines we received for €50/person were more than sufficient.
The sommelier was where I was very turned off by Vila Joya. While serving me and my husband wine, he would look only to my husband. He made eye contact with me perhaps once all evening, which was baffling as I made conscious efforts to look at him the entire time he was speaking about the wine, even asking him questions about a few bottles.
At one point when the sommelier poured my husband a taste of wine, Mike asked him to pour the next taste to me first. The sommelier neglected to do so and continued serving my husband before me. I felt angry at being treated almost as if I didn’t exist, or that my palate did not matter as much as my husband’s.
I left the food for last because really, it was wonderful. And it would have to be wonderful for the restaurant to have made it so far, right? Every dish was spot on and delightful. They didn’t get too creative with their dishes (like, say, Akelarre), but the ingredients shined on their own.
Each flavor in the dishes worked well with each other and I specifically remember the second course being my favorite with the prawn ravioli, roasted tomato, baby cilantro and curry. I also heard the man behind me say that it was one of the best things he had ever eaten. I wouldn’t go that far personally, but it was very very delicious.
with Green Apple Bergamotte
Prawn Ravioli with Tomato and Curry
in Pata Negra Sauce
with Jerusalem artichokes and Ceps
Smoked Eel with roasted Goose Liver
and Broccoli Puree
with Onion Sauce and Green Beans
So if you’re going for the food, Vila Joya really does have wonderful, wonderful food. If you’re going for the true Michelin experience where you feel like a VIP and where you are delighted by the joys of truly flawless service, Vila Joya may not be that place.
I really struggle with my feelings in regard to some of these Michelin restaurants I go to. Are my expectations too high? When the service is lacking or if something doesn’t feel quite right about the meal, am I being too hard on them? Should I just judge them based upon the food? Who am I to be critiquing these amazing places we go to?
Later on our trip to Portugal, we went to another Michelin-star restaurant, where I took copious notes about both food and service, but again the service fell short.
It makes me feel like I’m missing something, or that I’m being too harsh, but then I think about our experience at Ikarus in Salzburg, Austria. A one-star restaurant where the service, the ambience, the food, the drinks, the presentation were all absolutely breathtakingly perfect. And what about Terrine in Munich? Another one-star with service so personal and detailed that the meal will forever stick in my mind. Those restaurants, despite how many stars they have and despite the fact that they aren’t on the top 100 list, made the Michelin experience incredibly special. Yes, the food is amazing at all of these places, so what truly sets them apart from each other are the personal touches in service and experience, and that is what I generally use to personally rate these restaurants.
That is why I’m hard on Vila Joya…because they had the opportunity to set themselves apart with their service, and unfortunately they did so in the wrong direction. No one will argue that the food wasn’t wonderful, but when a sommelier doesn’t look a woman in the eye? When we’re the last people in the restaurant, ask for our check and have to wait 15 minutes to receive it? When we’re told how lucky we are to be there despite the fact that we’re paying customers?
It’s no wonder I’m a bit hard on them. They know what people expect upon arriving, and they failed to deliver the whole experience.
I don’t regret going. The food was still fantastic. I had a great evening with my husband. I learned more about food and wine. I got to buy a new pretty dress for the occasion:
But on the scale of Really Really Good to Holy Moly Incredible, My Brain Just Exploded with Awesomeness, Vila Joya fell to the Really Really Good side of things. It’s still not a terrible night.
Our signed menu from that evening.