Hotel restaurants can be strange places, however wonderful the food. On many occasions, I have walked through a glitzy lobby with lofty ceilings, a grand piano tinkling winsomely in the background, along a Persian-carpeted corridor lined with exclusive boutiques and fragrant with designer perfumes, only to arrive at a dining room that is shoehorned into a defunct ballroom, overlooks an unloved courtyard, and is about a mile's route march from the nearest toilets.
There are, however, glorious exceptions to the rule. One such is Vila Vita Parc in the Algarve, a hotel with such a passion for the arts of the table that - were they not so lovely - you might think that the rooms were a mere afterthought, just dormitories for gourmets.
I first visited Vila Vita nearly a decade ago, to have dinner at the jewel in the hotel's crown: Hans Neuner's Ocean Restaurant. It is aptly named, with its huge picture windows overlooking the Atlantic: I feasted, amongst other things, on a clever little cornetto of smoked eel as an amuse-bouche, a fat, sweet prawn with a pleasantly sharp pickle of vegetables, and a masterly fillet of red mullet with an intense "paella sauce", cleverly capturing the saffron and iodine-tinged essence of paella in a spoonful.
Neuner had just been awarded a second Michelin star, which he has retained ever since. Chatting to him recently, I was curious to know how a young chef from Austria had ended up so happily settled on the westernmost fringes of Europe. I also wanted to know how he had been spending his time over the last year and a half, when guests were few and far between.
Restaurants were in his blood. "In fact, I grew up above my parents' restaurant. When I was a baby, my mother used to tie me around her front when she was in the kitchen. If you did that today, someone would probably sue you or call the police, but it was natural back then.
We served hearty Austrian food, not haute cuisine. My father used to say that a star was for the front of a Mercedes, not for a restaurant.
That all changed when the young Neuner started work in classical French kitchens: aged 18, he worked at The Dorchester under head chef Willi Elsener, then at the Hotel Adlon in Berlin, under his mentor Karlheinz Hauser, whom he followed to Hamburg to become head chef of Hauser's restaurant in the Hotel Süllberg. "Then I went on a sort of world tour: the 'new wave' Spanish cuisine was starting to take off, especially El Bulli.
"Ferran Adriá's cooking wasn't as product oriented as I had been used to - his spherified liquid peas, for instance, were made with frozen peas - but some of the techniques he used were amazing." And so, in 2007, thoroughly schooled in both the old-school and the new-wave, a still fresh-faced Neuner joined managing director Kurt Gillig at Vila Vita, with the aim of establishing a gastronomic restaurant in the Algarve, where the restaurant "scene", if one even existed, was just a clutch of cheap and cheerful tourist joints aimed at package holidaymakers from northern Europe. "It was all burgers and fries," he recalls. "Even the seafood was frozen, and the mussels were horrible. But we were convinced that our guests were looking for more than that."
They were right. "Although, when I started, I didn't know any suppliers, not the way I do now, so I played it safe a little bit. I'd get deliveries from Rungis [the famous Paris wholesale market] twice a week. It took me a while to discover the treasures we have on our doorstep: pork from the Portuguese black pig, for example, or olive oil from 300 year-old trees."