Pilgrims who stayed in the 19th-century hostelry at the little pilgrimage church of Senhora do Carmo, near the UNESCO World Heritage city of Evora, would never believe the smart and stylish dining room Hotel Rural Monte do Carmo.
The décor deftly blends the compound’s traditional Portuguese country architecture of stucco walls, granite window seats and tile floors, with contemporary paintings, custom wooden furnishings and an outstanding collection of folk art. And the menu clearly did the same, relying on the finest local ingredients to create brilliant contemporary dishes.
We read as we nibbled on the couvert – a plate of local cheese, artisanal bread (which we later discovered was baked right here) green olives and delicate sausage made from porco preto – the local black pig, whose meat is darker, more tender and more flavorful than ordinary pork.
The appetizer we chose to share – shrimp and mushrooms – sounded prosaic enough, but what arrived was an architectural arrangement of curled paper-thin toast poised above succulent shrimp cooked to the exact second – tender, almost translucent and redolent of the sea, subtly flavored with garlic.
Our main courses were just as artistically presented -- tenderloin of porco preto cooked in rich Dao wine and finished in thick fresh cream. Only a chef with confidence in his ingredients and flavors would have dared serve a sauce of such vibrant pink, but the color added a playful note to a serious dish, and perfectly balanced the flavor of the dark meat. With it came a creamy risotto of long grain and wild rice.
The other entree was tender beef wrapped around a sausage of farina, a combination as well matched for flavor as it was for mouth-feel. With it were fresh-made potato chips that were the best we’d ever tasted, sprinkled with fleur de sel from the Algarve. The wine list included choices from Portugal’s top wine regions, very reasonably priced at between 10 and 15 Euros a bottle.
After dinner we conversed with the owners of Monte de Carmo, telling them how much we had enjoyed this outstanding dinner, and they asked if we’d like to meet the chef. We said yes, and out stepped this surprisingly young man – he turned out to be 22.
Chef Duarte Larajinho accepted our compliments, and told us that this was only his second posting after his three-year training in Evora. He appreciated the fact that the owners of Monte de Carmo gave him the freedom to create his own menu, using the freshest and finest of locally grown ingredients.
Like them, he was determined that this new inn’s restaurant would make it a dining destination in the Alentejo. We think this winning combination of fine lodging and exceptional dining is destined for greatness, and are glad we went while it was still possible to get a reservation.
Hotel Rural Monte do Carmo, Azaruja; tel: 266 970 050, fax: 266 978 070.