Panoramic Views And Innovative Dishes At Madeira Rooftop Restaurant

Columbia Hillen

Enter the elevator at the 4-star Views Baía hotel in Madeira’s capital, Funchal, ride it all the way to the rooftop and you’ve arrived at one of the city’s newest upscale restaurants, Desarma, opened just last year. 

My first impression as the doors slid open was of a spacious room with a big open kitchen where a team of chefs dressed in white coats and caramel-colored aprons were hard at work as if in a laboratory concocting new flavors, while outside, through floor-to-ceiling windows, the lights of Funchal twinkled in velvet darkness.

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The restaurant, designed by Atelier Nini Andrade Silva, is well lit without being overly so, meaning fixtures are set at such a level of brightness one feels in a relaxed, almost intimate, atmosphere.

Tables throughout the room are of various sizes, many for couples, after all it is an attractive romantic setting, but near my companion and I was a larger table for six people visiting the island to produce a culinary program for RTE, Ireland’s national broadcasting company.

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A sense of Madeira’s exotic nature is reflected in a giant decorative banana palm leaf and two formidable wood sculptures representing thick tree trunks.

Madeira-born host Alexandre Nuno Fernandes Franco guided us quickly across a mosaic and polished wood floor to our table and almost immediately his colleague, Sergio Marques, a sommelier from Venezuela, began explaining the comprehensive house wine list. Within five minutes of stepping out of the elevator, we were off to the finest of starts, glasses of cool Mailly Grand Cru champagne made from 100 percent Pinot Noir in hand.

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The culinary philosophy of local executive chef, Octávio Freitas, is reflected in the name of the restaurant, best described by him as ‘a battle of senses fought in the mouth’ beginning with an ‘encounter,’ followed by an ‘attack’ and ending with ‘surrender.’ In other words, be prepared to be disarmed. 

Together with his team, Octávio has created a well-balanced land and sea menu that pays homage to iconic island produce. To savor it fully, my companion and I opted for the tasting menu with wine pairings over the à la carte one, which combined molecular gastronomy and plating to evoke Madeira’s history and landscape, including its rocky beaches and famed Laurisilva forest. 

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Our first course, presented in a black ceramic bowl resembling delicately carved prehistoric pottery, was a creamy blend of sweet potato, truffles and dashi topped off with hay-like flakes of sweet potato.

Espetada de atum, or spit-grilled tuna followed on a flat bronze plate with bay leaf and roasted garlic cooked slowly over hot coals, the texture of the tuna as soft as tartare, melting cleanly in our mouths. Next up was a crumbly, cookie-like combo of dry limpets with aged beef tartare and mushroom gel shaped like a mini-burger.

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Fish lovers will be thrilled by the intense flavor that bursts forth from a bonbon-like capsule of roe of black scabbard with rye crumb and shavings of bottarga sprinkled over it, as indeed they will by grilled trout harvested from the coastal city of Seixal, the creature’s delicate flesh combined with eel pudding and smoked seaweed broth. And if that isn’t enough culinary innovation, there’s also red scarlet shrimp with passion fruit jelly and apricot emulsion.

As Funchal was named after the Portuguese word for fennel, which covered large stretches of the island when it was first discovered, it was not long before this licorice-tasting herb made its appearance, as a refreshing accompaniment to parrot fish.

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Chef Octávio’s respect for naturally-grown Madeiran produce (he grows organic vegetables and produces his own wine on his land) continued in my companion’s choice of dessert, reconstructed Madeira cake, a light pastry choux with a custard of island cane honey inside and dried fruit and nuts, all under a mini-mountain top of cacao nibbles. My choice comprised a combo of pineapple and banana slices swimming in cane honey, surprisingly spiced by a slight dose of pepper sauce.

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Wine pairings throughout the evening served by sommelier Joao Barbosa provided excellent complement, including an intense white from Alentejo aged in clay. But it was the Madeiran Barbeito that captured our attention most, made from tinta negra grapes, dark in color with aromas of toffee, coffee, molasses, chocolate and jam and a full, soft body.

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With Madeira having such wonderful weather most of the year, guests at Disarma also have the choice of eating alfresco, on a cosy terrace, perfect for balmy island evenings. In addition, twelve counter seats around the open kitchen offer a Chef’s Table experience.

Sean Hillen

During an international media career spanning several decades in Europe and the US, Sean Hillen has worked for many leading publications including The Wall Street Journal, The Times London, The Daily Telegraph, Time magazine and The Irish Times Dublin, as well as at the United Nations Media Center in New York. Sean's travel writing for and has taken him across A...(Read More)

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