Nuno Mendes owes me a night out with my brother. One where we sit down, share good food and wine and talk about our lives, our loves, our let-downs – the sorts of things siblings share when they haven’t seen each other for two years. As it happened, when we reunited at Mendes’ off-beat fine-dining venue Viajante – in the restored Town Hall Hotel in London’s east end district of Bethnal Green – all we talked about was his food. I’m not exaggerating. It was the sole topic of conversation. I’m not sure how I feel about that. Never before have I been out for a meal where the chef’s concoctions demanded my complete attention – and almost three hours’ worth of conversation. Mendes might as well have pulled up a chair.
We were so deep in discussion that we didn’t even notice when Mendes humbly served one of our dishes himself. We didn’t so much as blink in his direction and only realised our shameful error as he retreated. I’m not sure how Mendes would have felt about that. Snubbed, perhaps. Or smug, knowing he’d created a stir. That’s what Mendes does – he creates a stir. You either love his food, or hate it. Either way it will hijack your conversation. So if you live at the other side of the world from a loved one, eat somewhere else for your next reunion.
There’s a hospital-like hue at Viajante where the chairs are upholstered in a wan light-blue fabric and early evening summer light spills through a huge window behind an open kitchen that is so clean, clinical and totally uncluttered that we thought it was where the final touches were added to dishes. It wasn’t. It was the thick of it. The genesis of 12 plates of food that our tasting menu comprised – and we only ordered the six-course menu. Mendes likes to send out what he calls “snacks”. Thank goodness we didn’t order the 12-course menu – i’ve known for a while my degustation days are numbered.
If freshly whipped butter isn’t naughty enough, brown butter quenelles with cheeky toppings of crispy chicken skin and bacon, and black pudding and crispy potato skins are despicably bad. Smeared on potato bread that was elegantly – yet quirkily – shaped in super long, slim rolls they wiped the floor with our pact not to “fill up on bread”. A trio of amuse bouches and two pre-courses – mackerel with lemon and wood sorbet, and fresh cheese with peas and flowers – arrived in staggered procession. It felt like a delayed kick-off. I wanted the real show to start – for me, the curtain raiser didn’t quite hit the mark.
The first act more than compensated. A dish of squid noodles and pickled radishes draped in a vivid green tissue-thin sheath of sea lettuce was an homage to the sea. Inspired by a Japanese technique of serving squid somen, the squid was blast frozen then sliced into perfect thin silken ribbons that were only just cooked by a warm dashi and squid ink broth poured on top. Sticks of samphire added crunch, salt and bite. The sea lettuce – which looked like an exra-terrestrial food source – stuck unappealingly to the roof of the mouth. It was weird. But together the dish worked. Excelled, in fact. It was evoked thoughts of Australian summertimes and the sea. It stole the show.
White, green and wild asparagus with milk skin showcased these sticks of dynamite flavour in full seasonal splendour. The wild asparagus was grassy in taste – which wasn’t altogether bad, and slimy in texture – which wasn’t altogether good. A pool of gelled asparagus juice accentuated the freshness. Droplets of milk skin added an element of fat and bite.
In a dish of leek heart with lobster and leek consommé the seafood served two ways – cured and poached – took a back seat. This dish was all about the leeks, which were served in an ash broth created from their own slow-cooked, charred outer skins. It was a bonfire moment. The earthiness of ashy broth complimented the sweetness of caramelised leek. Hazelnuts and lobster trimmings used to make a Japanese-style dried seasoning added breadcrumb-like texture.
Salt cod and potato confit with egg yolk, saffron and dill, which showcased Mendes’ Portuguese Iberian roots, didn’t work for me. I haven’t acquired a taste for salt cod, the egg yolk was unpleasantly claggy, and dill and saffron are my least favourite herb and spice. My brother, on the other hand, wiped his plate clean. Our mother would have been proud.
The light vegetable and seafood-laden menu appealed, but the carnivore in me was clammering for a heartier protein at that point. Iberico pork with cereals, hot potato gel and clams made a welcome entrance. Acorn-fed black pork was cooked sous vide – a Mendes trademark – then roasted. The mealiness of the cereal component was challenging at first, but it complimented the subtle fattiness and softness of the pork.
A pallet cleanser of frozen maple leaf panacotta with green apple and shisho granita was a refreshing set-up for the final dessert course. We lucked it with white chocolate and grapefruit and lemon sorbet. Only one chocolate dessert has closed the ever-changing menu since Viajante opened in April 2010. White chocolate mousse was served two ways: an aerated lightly frozen foam and liquid nitrogen stunned popcorn-like pieces. Carrot, cauliflower and cucumber are more frequent dessert debutantes at Viajante. I’m pleased we missed those particular numbers.
It was a challenging menu. At Viajante, which translates as traveller, Mendes took us on a journey over sea and land that meandered through his Iberian roots and branched off with Japanese inspiration. As with most journeys, there were high and low moments – and ultimately, a lot to take in. The dining room was at first light and stark, but it warmed and softened with candlelight as the meal progressed. The whole culinary episode was a journey. And in Mendes, we had a knowledgeable and experienced guide.
London E2 9NF
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