This summer, Vila Joya’s Beach Shack offers ...

This summer, Vila Joya’s Beach Shack offers explosive Mexican flavours and traditional Japanese cuisine paired with exquisite signature cocktails

By: Alexandra Stilwell

Vila Joya’s melting pot 

Forrest Gump could not have said it better: “Life’s like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get.”

Well, Vila Joya’s beachside restaurant Sea is a bit like a box of chocolates. Every year, the menu, the decoration, and the experience change.

This year, we are getting a melting pot concept, bringing Mexico and Japan together under the same roof on a Portuguese beach.

However, one thing is always guaranteed at Vila Joya Sea: a five-star experience, influenced by chef Dieter Koschina’s gastronomic institution up in the main house.

What feels like the Algarve’s most exclusive and exquisite pop-up restaurant, thanks to its ever-changing concept, is one of Joy Jung’s singular works of art.

The Vila Joya owner is responsible for perpetuating her mother’s legacy, keeping it fresh by adding her creative touch.

Overlooking Xiringuito beach, below the five-star hotel, Sea is known as the “Beach Shack”. Its simple and inviting white structure shaded by large straw mats, and white minimalistic interior contrasting with the deep blue sea and the colourful collection of wooden plaques dangling from the ceiling with drawings and writing, is what every beach restaurant should look like: low-key yet luxurious and oozing tranquillity.

It is the perfect setting for a leisurely lunch or a chilled sundowner.

The large bar is where the action takes place, from the bartending station where signature cocktails are prepared to the open kitchen where the poise of Japanese culture shares the floor with Mexico’s explosive flavours.

So why Mexican and Japanese? “The inspiration came from a trip to Lisbon, where we ate in a tiny Mexican restaurant with just six seats,” reveals Joy. A unique gastronomic experience that gave rise to her latest concept.

The international menu starts with a fresh suggestion: oysters, Mexican or Japanese style, and caviar paired with Champagne. From here, you can choose one of two journeys – through the flavours of Mexico or the traditions of Japan. Or you can mix them up as you go.

Chef Hiram Gonzalez from Guadalajara, “the land of Tequila”, oversees the Mexican menu.

The young chef’s experience with Mexican gastronomic superstars such as Enrique Olvera (Pujol restaurant, Mexico City) has given him plenty of baggage to create a refined vision of his homeland.

Mexican food is emotional. When you taste it, it doesn’t have to be serious. There must be laughter, emotions, celebration and sharing,” says the chef, whose suggestions include classics such as Guacamole with Pico de Gallo, Tuna Tostada, a shrimp and octopus Vuelve a la Vida Ceviche and raw scarlet shrimp Aguachile, with jalapeño and habanero sauce.

There are also three types of tacos: pork, fish and mushrooms, and plenty of fresh coriander. Other dishes include Snapper a la Veracruzana, in tomato sauce with olives, Roast Beef Quesadilla, and Pescado Zarandeado with black beans, cucumber, apple pickles and tortillas served with the essential sauces: salsa verde, salsa roja, frijoles and ensaladita.

Chef Hiram’s childhood memories are transformed into the two desserts. The traditional frozen mangos with Tajin chilli he ate on hot summer days become a Mangonada made with mango, orange and Tajin Chili ice cream; and the classic Mexican Tres Leches celebration cake is served with coffee ice cream, almonds and salted caramel.

Of course, it would not be a traditional Mexican meal without Tequila and Mezcal. Vila Joya’s discerning head barman, Nathan Otten, created a selection of signature cocktails to enhance the flavours of every dish.

Margaritas and a Mezcalita to cool the heat of the spice, but also unique creations such as the “No Me Kahlo”, where the smokiness of the Mezcal keeps on giving, and the “Bésame Mucho”, made with Tequila, Rum, Kahlua, cinnamon and honey cream which pairs beautifully with the Tres Leches.

“It’s about the quality of the ingredients, having the absolute best and treating them with respect, making the flavours shine and presenting them beautifully,” says Otten about his creations.

With 10 years of experience in some of New York’s top joints, he brings his expertise and creativity to Vila Joya, where he is responsible for the two-Michelin-star restaurant’s bar and the Beach Shack’s pairings.

Originally from Saint Paul, Minnesota (USA), Notten came to Portugal “by way of Vienna”, where he met Joy and chef Dieter Koschina, who promptly invited him to join the team in the Algarve.

Passionate about his trade and possessing an incredible knowledge of every substance’s provenance, the barman makes a point of telling a story with every cocktail.

Taking us across the North Pacific ocean, chef Rafael Oyama is in charge of the Japanese menu. Originally from São Paulo, Brazil, where he did a stint at the Michelin-starred Kinoshita restaurant, Oyama got some very traditional training during his four years in Japan, where he learnt the graceful cuisine’s genuine techniques and rituals.

At Vila Joya Sea, he brings “a little piece of Japan, right here”, he says, with the intent of transporting us to the land of cherry blossom and tea rituals.

You will not find a much more authentic experience than sitting at the chef’s counter, watching him meticulously prepare each morsel, the traditional way.

His Japanese menu starts with Usuzukuri, a fish carpaccio with ponzu, Edamame and Scallop Gyozas, Aburi Hotate, grilled scallops with Oscietra caviar, Usuzukuri Takô, octopus carpaccio with curry powder, Tuna Tataki with spicy miso sauce and fish eggs, and Kushiyaki skewers.

“The name of every dish has a meaning and story”, explains the chef, who insists that his idea of fusion is “tuna with foie gras, and that’s all”, an incredible melt-in-the-mouth combination listed as one of the 22 sushi options on the menu, along with succulent bites of Toro tuna, A5 Wagyu beef with Oscietra caviar, octopus and more.

Two desserts round off the menu: Anmitsu with adzuki beans, yuzo ice cream and fruit, and Matcha, made with matcha cream, lychees and ginger foam.

To accompany these nuanced flavours, there is fine Sake and beautiful cocktails, such as the delicate “Blushing Geisha”.

But chef Rafael’s favourite is the Ikigai, “which in Japanese means something that gives you a sense of purpose, a reason for living”.

Something he and his team found in an open kitchen, working in close contact with their guests at the Algarve’s most exclusive “beach shack”.

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