The Essence of the Sea: Dishes from chef Leonel Pe...

The Essence of the Sea: Dishes from chef Leonel Pereira

By: Alexandra Stilwell

Photo: Vasco Célio/Stills

Curiosity and creativity are what drove Chef Leonel Pereira to develop new dishes in his laboratory

On the ultimate quest for new marine flavours, Leonel Pereira is not your average chef. This former soldier has travelled and worked all over the world, including a stint at the Alain Ducasse Academy and the Lenôtre School in Paris as well as the New York Institute of Culinary Arts, before returning to his roots in the eastern Algarve. This is where, for the last few years, he has finally put his curiosity and creativity to work.

Chef Leonel Pereira

Having re-earned and maintained a Michelin star since 2014 (the restaurant’s Michelin star pre-Pereira was removed with the previous chef’s exit, but was quickly recovered by the Algarvean chef), the São Gabriel restaurant is a gastronomic reference, well-known beyond Portuguese borders. Foodies come from all over Europe to discover new flavours and experience an unforgettable sensory journey.

Behind the scenes, the chef created what he calls his lab. At the back of the kitchen, a narrow spiral staircase leads us down to what was once the restaurant’s wine cellar. “Above all, we are a creative cuisine restaurant”, says Leonel Pereira, standing behind the counter of his lab. “And creating new dishes in a kitchen, where the entire team is working, is complicated.” That is why he built this personal space where he can let his imagination run wild, while listening to loud music and drinking his favourite craft beer.

The chef is passionate about the products of the Portuguese coast and has even discovered how to cook a jellyfish – a complicated task since this creature is made up of about 95% water. “The purpose of the laboratory is to create new recipes for the restaurant, but also to offer training for professionals and non-professionals,” he explains. From August 2018 onwards, he says he plans to organise cookery workshops on various themes such as how to prepare a whole fish, for example, or making risotto, but also on how to cook under vacuum or at low temperature.

Leonel says he has no limits, the gastronomic world is his oyster. Apart from his own curiosity, he also feeds and encourages that of others and has just established a partnership with the University of the Algarve: “We received a €600,000 grant from the European Union, which will allow us to study the Ria Formosa and the invasive species of the Guadiana River, such as the blue crab, which comes from the United States,” he says, with a twinkle in his eye. For three years, all of the studies carried out by the University will be concluded in his famous laboratory.

Back in the main dining room of the restaurant, the São Gabriel team invites us to take a seat. We are about to discover the new tasting menu, which changes entirely every year. Made up of nine dishes, it is a genuine explosion of maritime flavours, along with some refined meat dishes. A two-hour culinary experience which we will savour in delicate bites. At the centre of the table, seaweed bread is carefully presented in vases shared with cacti. Fortunately, the chef informs us that the plants are not part of the couvert. Three types of butter are served: sea salt, plankton and scarlet prawn.

We start with the starfish, which isn’t an actual starfish, but rather the chef’s interpretation of what he believes this pretty creature tastes like. For that he uses a crisp tapioca star, flavoured with scarlet prawn and “sea sauce”, on which he places a piece of lobster, which we eat with large pincers.

We continue our journey to the bottom of the ocean with a Norwegian scallop “in salt apnea”. In order to “unearth our treasure”, the chef makes us dig into a crust of black salt from Loulé, revealing a seaweed envelope inside which he has tucked away our scallop. Once freed from its casing, we savour it either with a radish sauce or with sea lettuce and caviar. Then a three-clam chowder à Bulhão Pato (a sauce invented in honour of the famous Portuguese gourmand and epicurean) with coriander pesto, in which swims an oyster from the Ria Formosa.

The traditional textures of the Algarve come in the shape of xarém – corn purée –, to which the chef adds tetraselmis seaweed to accompany a scarlet prawn and its stuffed head. The more adventurous diners use their fingers to manipulate the head and extract more flavour from this beautiful creature. The plates are just as original as the dishes. The cuttlefish dobrada with beans and peas is served on a black plate shaped like a volcano, creating a rather dramatic effect.

Little by little, the flavours veer towards meat. The bluefin toro tuna, cooked at 48oC with a small onion and tomato, melts in the mouth while reminding us of a tender piece of beef. We continue with low-temperature cooking: tongue and oxtail cooked for 20 hours are accompanied by pan-fried foie gras and Milanese cabbage in a peppery jus.

Time for poultry: a breast of royal pigeon with a cauliflower praline and crunchy artichoke. To finish the main dishes in style, chef Leonel serves a 60-day matured Bísaro pork ribeye with Rocha pear, a black bean and orange truffle and mushrooms.

To pair with the menu, sommelier Vitor d’Avó serves a selection of wines that take us to every corner of Portugal: the Bairrada region, with Vinha Formal sparkling wine; the Alentejo, with a Vicentino Sauvignon Blanc 2017; the Douro, with a Bastardo Series by Real Companhia Velha, Burgundy style; the Dão, with a Fonte do Ouro 2014 Touriga Nacional. We end with a Blackett Extra Dry Port and then, for dessert, a batonnage of Pedro Ximénez, a white grape of Spanish origin. For this, the chef distilled the essence of wine lees dating from 1928, in order to add it to truffles.

We followed this up with homemade goat’s cheese with white chocolate, crunchy sweet beetroot and red berries, and finished with grilled Azorean pineapple with black Iranian lemon, lime gel and coconut meringue. After all this, you will feel strangely refreshed, as if you had dived into the Atlantic and had come out with a mouthful of its most stunning flavours.

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