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D.Tonho Restaurant (Vila Nova de Gaia)

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Address: Avenida Diogo Leite 26 / Esplanada Calém / Cais de Gaia / 4400-111 Vila Nova de Gaia / Portugal

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      08.07.2013 10:38
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      Should you? I say 'oh don't'

      ~Wanted! Dinner for 14 in Porto~

      In the first week of June a colleague and I arranged a meeting for our respective teams in a hotel about half an hour north of Porto in northern Portugal. For the day that everyone arrived, we wanted to arrange an evening activity and so - on the advice of local colleagues - we booked a tour of one of the port wine cellars and dinner in a restaurant in Vila Nova de Gaia, on the opposite river bank overlooking the city of Porto.

      Neither of us was qualified to choose where to go so we left the task to the locals and the restaurant they picked was D.Tonho. There are two restaurants by this name - one on the Porto side of the river and the other in Vial Nova de Gaia. Our choice was the latter of the two and we picked it for several reasons. Firstly it was more convenient to walk there after the cellars rather than get everyone back in the cars, over the bridge, hunting for new parking spaces, secondly the Gaia restaurant has better views as it's right beside the river and thirdly, the Gaia restaurant is a bit cheaper than its Porto sister.

      Our group was to be fourteen people - not an outrageously enormous group by most people's standards - and we accepted that for operational reasons the restaurant would offer us a restricted menu. I thought that was fair enough but what wouldn't have been fair was their original suggestion - in effect, 'take it or leave it'. They wanted everyone to have exactly the same thing. Even our works canteen offers a choice so a 'proper' restaurant should be able to do better than that. After some negotiation, they agreed to do a meal with a choice of main course - either a veal dish or a monkfish and prawn 'arroz' (the local equivalent of risotto). We accepted the restriction but I thought it ridiculous that they wanted to know the numbers for each dish by 11 am the day before. We also negotiated a 'special' meal for one of the group who is allergic or intolerant to just about everything and they agreed to accommodate her with plain steak and vegetables. We sent the restaurant the numbers and left them to get on with the business of making sure we had a good meal.

      The port wine tour didn't take quite as long as we'd hoped and we were left with a bit of time to kill before our 8 o'clock appointment. Since 8 o'clock is already unfashionably early in a place like Portugal, there wasn't much hope of getting started with the food ahead of schedule. Instead we dithered around for a while, killed some time trying to work out how to put more credit on the parking meters and then decided to see if D.Tonho would serve us drinks before dinner so we didn't need to go and find a bar.

      ~Don't Box Me In~

      I had seen photos of the glass-walled restaurant before agreeing to the suggestion that we ate there. What I hadn't imagined was what the place would actually look like and it was a bit of a shock. Technically D.Tonho is a sort of temporary building, parked up close to the famous Ponte de Luis I bridge which was built by Eifel, the man better known for his iconic but less useful Parisian tower. This is one of several bridges that join Porto and Vila Nova de Gaia. The restaurant looks like a cross between a giant glass sided shipping container and a couple of train carriages. In effect it's a long metal box with glass walls that mean you can look over the river towards the old city of Porto or look away from the river at the wine cellars of Vila Nova de Gaia.

      It felt like we caused a lot of trouble by turning up 20 minutes early and asking if we could have drinks on the river bank before dinner. In fact by the time they'd fussed about setting up a table, putting up the parasols and taking our drinks orders, it was practically time to eat. We sat outside for a drink each - some taking advantage of the opportunity to put the recommendation of port and tonic to the test, others going for beer or soft drinks - before returning to our metal box. Fortunately by the time we returned, someone had turned on the air con and it was rather less like eating in a shipping container.

      ~Time to Eat~

      The restaurant is long and narrow so our party was split across two tables - each comprising four small square tables pushed together and each set for seven people. I'd have preferred if they had made one for six and the other for eight since on each table one person got left solo at the end with nobody opposite them.
      We'd been promised 'mixed starters' but I'd not tried to find out what they were. Placed in front of us were baskets of bread, plates of sliced cheese and a couple of plates of stuff they'd actually cooked in the restaurant. One of these was a meat-based rissole type thing typical of the area, the other was a plate of codfish fritters. Checking the menu on my return I discovered that the little brown rissoles were probably rabbit meat and I have no idea what happened to the coriander carrots which had been listed on the menu. I skipped the rissoles because I don't eat meat but the codfish fritters were very poor. They were served at a temperature too cool to be hot, too warm to be chilled and probably absolutely perfect for bug growth. My colleague from Lisbon said she makes them at home all the time but hers were a lot better and that the batter was too thick and the amount of fish too mean. I suspected they'd just been sitting around for ages and had been made a lot earlier.

      I was a bit confused because a few slices of cheese and some rissole things are typically served as pre-starters so I wasn't sure if these were just our nibbles and there was something more to come but I was pretty disappointed when I realised that they were supposed to be our assorted starters. They showed a remarkable lack of imagination and care - I felt we'd been fobbed off with second-rate and effortless food.

      ~The Main Disappointment~

      The main course had been a choice of Lafoes Veal or Monkfish and Prawn Arroz. I'd say the group was split pretty much down the middle on the numbers. As I'd predicted, the Brits had all said no to the veal, used as we are to it being quite a controversial meat. In Portugal veal is just young beef with none of the connotations of poor baby cows stuck in crates being force-fed milk to keep their meat white. The plates came out with massive chunks of dark brown meat in a rich gravy with vegetables. To me it looked and smelled utterly disgusting, like an old school stew, but I'm no judge of such things and those who had it said it was very good.

      The arroz was poor. I'd go so far as to say very poor based on my perception that I could have done a lot better myself at home. I'm not a great cook but this was just slop on a plate. The quantity was not especially generous but once we tasted it, nobody was looking for more. The rice was over-soft, the alleged monkfish lacked the chewiness that normally characterises this fish and tasted of very little. The prawns appeared to have come straight from the frozen cabinet of the local supermarket. The rice was swimming in thin, poorly flavoured tomato-based juice-like sauce. I ate it - having held back on the starters thinking they were nibbles, I was pretty hungry by that point - but I can't say I relished it in any way.

      ~Happy ever afters?~

      We'd been promised a choice of puddings but the waiter clearly was trying to influence that choice. He had a lot of chocolate mousse and he wanted us to have it. He had few dishes of crème brulee and even fewer plates of fresh pineapple. When our table all said no to the chocolate mousse after hearing the alternatives, he moved to the other table and pretty much forced the mousse on them. The crème brulees were overly sweet and the sugar had not so much been caramelised as burnt past the point of edibility. Of the three people around me who had the crème brulee, none of them ate more than half their dish. I was one of the lucky ones who got the fresh pineapple and it was very good - after all there's not too much you can do to muck up a slice of fruit, is there? We let the waiter leave one chocolate mousse on our table and a few of us had a few spoonfuls of it and I have to say that it was exceptionally good and far and away the best of the available options.

      By the time we'd got through three courses of less than exciting food, it was ten o'clock and we still had the drive back ahead of us so we all agreed to skip the coffees. Wine and water had been served with the meal but I can't comment on the wine as my small glass of port at the cellars earlier in the evening put me at my limit for the night. My advice is never volunteer to be designated driver for a night out like this! My colleague picked up the bill which came to around 540 euros for the 14 of us - just under Euro40 per person.

      ~Verdict?~

      Talking with my most honest Portuguese colleague the day after, we both agreed that the food had been lousy and the service very poor. We also agreed that neither of us would ever say that to the person who picked the restaurant and the menu as they'd had every reason to expect it would be a lot better. As Isabel summed it up "They treated us like tourists, gave us sub-standard food and were rude with the service. It really wasn't acceptable". Perhaps the intention had been to distract us with the views and they were undoubtedly the best thing about D.Tonho. Watching the sun set over the river and the old city of Porto light up as the sun faded was a spectacular privilege but one we could have had with a box of sandwiches sitting on the river bank rather than sitting in a glass box being served disappointing food.

      Several colleagues commented that the toilet was a bit of a disgrace and like something you'd find on a train. The lock didn't work so a lot of suggestions were made about the need to sing whilst you were using it to avoid anyone bursting in. Since I'm someone who judges a restaurant by how they keep their toilets (and someone who avoids using those toilets just in case they scare me about the food hygiene), I don't find it acceptable for the toilet door to be broken and nothing to have been done about it.

      In all honestly I can't recommend this place unless you have more money than sense and you'll eat any old slop they put in front of you without a murmur. Fortunately I knew that the venue for the following night's dinner was guaranteed to impress and that everyone would hopefully remember the wonderful views of Porto and the river and forget the sub-standard food and service. To be fair, a lot of restaurants in the river area in both Gaia and Porto will rip off unsuspecting tourists and I've had bad service and been charged over the odds in other places too, so D.Tonho is not out of step with some of its competitors.

      ~Details~
      D. Tonho
      Av. Diogo Leite 111
      Cais de Ribeira 13,
      Vila Nova de Gaia 4400, Portugal
      http://www.dtonho.com/

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