Restaurante do Forte in Funchal, Madeira is partly a historic monument and primarily a restaurant with inventive, fresh and cutting-edge cuisine.
Forte is located on the island of Madeira, a tropical paradise roughly 600 miles southwest of Lisbon in the Atlantic Ocean. Originally a volcanic island, Madeira is known as much for its profusion of exotic flowers as it is for its temperate climate and relaxed, friendly lifestyle. Built in 1614 as the fort of Sao Tiago, the structure stands on a promontory overlooking the Bay of Funchal, distinctive for both its sweeping views and vibrant, deep yellow color of its paint job.
At a recent lunch, we were welcomed with a glass of Prosecco as we watched sunbathers and swimmers cavort in the surf below. Cooking was inventive, and the presentations were elegant, minimal and stylish. There was no salt and pepper on the table (always a good sign), and none was needed. This is a place for seafood, as evidenced by one of the starters: slices of compressed scabbard fish eggs (a local specialty), grainy and slightly briny; pieces of sweetly cured salmon; a shot glass of crème fraiche, layered with black and red caviar. A pristine filet of sea bass was grilled to perfection, dressed in natural sea salt and olive oil. The kitchen even managed to breathe new life into one of the most tired culinary clichés, the seafood crepe---wrapped lightly in phyllo pastry and stuffed with delicately sautéed shrimp, totally free of the usual smothering cream sauce.
Service was a delightful as the food; the staff was attentive and spoke flawless English. The owners have opened a second restaurant, Mozart, in the old town area of Funchal; while the menu is similar, the ambiance of Forte is ideal for creating unparalleled memories.
Mark Spivak is the author of Iconic Spirits: An Intoxicating History, published by Lyons Press (Globe Pequot); for more information, go to amazon.com.