Our first experience of Nuno Mendes‘ brand of creative gastronomy was back in 2006. We had heard rumblings of a promising El-Bulli and Jean-Georges trained chef foaming and sous-viding up a storm in a Hoxton gastropub, and could not resist moseying down to Bacchus. While the food there was definitely inventive and pioneering for London at the time, we found the beautifully presented dishes over-ambitious and ill-conceived, suffering from a lack of balance. One particularly vivid memory was the acrid aftertaste of an olive oil ice cream – bad on paper, worse on the palate (the Portuguese chef appeared to have an unusual fascination with olives and olive oil). When Bacchus unceremoniously shut two years later, Nuno set up The Loft Project as a interim project while he planned his next restaurant. Essentially a supper club set up in the living room of his and partner Clarise’s flat, it was the perfect setting for him to continue honing and perfecting his creations. The Loft Project has since evolved and now hosts up-and-coming young chefs from across the globe, who take up residency for 1 to 2 weeks at a time, to showcase their talents. Meanwhile, Mendes has taken up shiny new digs at the Grade II listed Bethnal Green Town Hall, refurbished and transformed into a boutique hotel. Viajante (‘traveller’ in Portuguese) has garnered much praise since it’s soft launch last month and we were keen to see first hand the evolution of Nuno’s cuisine.
We arrived at Viajante’s majestic entrance last Saturday with the full intention of choosing one of the shorter tasting menus, as we were both still stuffed from a blowout meal at Bar Boulud the night before, plus had a friend’s southern fried chicken feast lined up that evening. As we were led to the table, our waiter turned to us, smiled knowingly and assured us that “our request” would be catered to. We had no idea what he was talking about, thinking he must have been referring to a table with good lighting (I sometimes ask for one of those when booking). Turns out we had made a note with our reservation that we wanted to partake of the 12-course tasting and since they had made an exception for us (only the 3 and 6-course are usually served at lunch) we took a deep breath and went for it – hey, it would have been rude to do otherwise.
The dining space is small but airy, consisting of two adjoining rooms connected via two looming arched doorways. I found the minimal interiors disjointed, with an odd colour palate of blues, browns (wood) and red (lighting), set against stark white walls and a sleek black open kitchen. B especially disliked the peculiar wall art (I was indifferent). Despite the large windows the room seemed surprisingly dimly-lit, even with the sun shining brightly outside.
First up were a trio of amuse-bouches, starting with a Crostini of Romesco and Gordal Olives, Almonds and Jerez – thin melba toasts topped with slices of gherkins, slivered almonds, blobs of olive tapenade and romesco sauce and dainty microgreens. Not mind-blowing but a suitable opening bite – an elaborate bowl of olives if you will.
This was followed by Smoky Aubergine with Soy Milk which consisted of a silky soy milk custard below a layer of smoked aubergine dashi-based consommé jelly, crowned with aubergine caviar. The crispy nut-encrusted filo strips concealing aubergine purée which came alongside were tasty, but a tad salty and interfered with the smooth, delicate flavours of the main component. Nonetheless, I enjoyed this Japan-inspired dish.
Perhaps my favourite of the amuses was the dinky Thai Explosion II (presumably an improved version of the first) – chicken thigh and quail egg mousse, sandwiched between a coconut tuile and crisp chicken skin. The aptly-named mouthful was full of fresh oriental flavours and had an enticing mix of crunch and softness.
Our appetites piqued, we tucked into the warm baguettes, tearing apart the crusty mini loaves with our fingers and slathering on the unusual brown butter, dusted with purple potato powder, chicken skin bits and pancetta crumbs. The mild whipped butter tasted of caramel but without the sweetness and was quite special, although for me the perfectly baked bread stole the show.
Time for the first course proper: Squid Tartare and Pickled Radishes, Samphire and Frozen Squid Ink Jus. The pretty dill-flecked number was a great play on textures and reminded me of a similar Squid and White Currant dish I tasted at Noma. The accompanying late harvest Austrian Gruner Veltliner (Franz Hirtzberger, 2008) had a pleasing honeyed nose, floral elements and some diesel qualities. It tasted of ripe apricots and lychees, and had an acidity which soothed the hottish finish.
Next was the artfully-presented Spring Garden – a gorgeous composition of purple carrot, broccoli, leek fondant, parsnip, mushroom slice, cauliflower crumbs, pea purée and cheese foam. Each vegetable in the medley shines in its own right, but together combine perfectly to form a true homage to Spring. My only complaint would be the bitter cauliflower crumbs which overwhelmed the cleaner flavours on the plate, and lingered unpleasantly on the tongue. The chosen aperitif-like wine was an interesting blend of varietals typically used in Cava (Parés Baltà, Macabeu/Xarello, 2008) and the pairing was also fresh and clean, with a sweet fruity nose, honeyed texture and a dry finish.
My favourite of the twelve courses, hands-down, was the exquisite Set Milk with Crab, Cucumber Hearts and Beach Herbs. Fresh white crab meat, raw cauliflower, refreshing rounds of cucumber and dabs of brown crab cream resting on a creamy, light mayonnaise custard. It’s dressed crab, but not as you know it. Unfortunately the matching wine (Maculan ‘Pino and Tai’, 2008) failed to do the dish justice as we found it one-dimensional, with a dumb nose and shortish finish.
A Razor Clam with Smoked Yogurt and Rosemary Dashi was also exceptional. The chunks of clam, lightly “cooked” in lemon juice, were sweet, tender and tasted of the sea. Unfortunately, the wine again fell short – the full-bodied Pinot Grillio (Quercus 2008) was warm, slightly smoky with a floral aromatic nose, but lacked complexity and finesse.
Nuno, who had until now been quietly managing the kitchen, occasionally hopping onto the pass, came out to bring us our next dish – Braised Octopus with Pimenton Potatoes, Chorizo and Eggs. He carefully poured over the egg yolks that were merely warmed through to keep their silky liquid form. The octopus was wondrously soft (achieved by first steaming, then braising) and combined magically with the smoky-sweet paprika dusted potatoes, spicy chorizo, pickled jerusalem artichoke, wet egg and a scant sprinkle of toasted hazelnuts – an inspired interpretation of a Spanish classic. We were served a quirky White Sangiovese (Terruzi & Puthod ‘Carmen Puthod’, 2007), which although heavy with cherries and delicate fruitiness on the nose, was quite different on the palate – upfront initially but then quickly softening into more floral notes.
It would seem that Mendes’ soft spot for olives remains, as the second olive-centric dish of the day headed to our table in the hands of one of the young chefs. As he carefully poured the pea-green Olive Soup over the mound of yoghurt foam he gushed about how special the dish was. It was an intense liquid shot of pure olives, fragranced with lime zest, and accented with ginger and pistachio crumbs. A dream for olive lovers, but personally I was more taken by the accompanying Felton Road Vin Gris 2006 (made from Pinot Noir but as a white wine), which had an incredible nose full of roses and perfume. It was dry but still floral, full-bodied and very unusual – faintly spritzy with some Alsatian qualities.
Nuno brought over the next dish (and all the remaining mains), which had more than a faint whiff of Noma about it – Roasted Celeriac, Tapioca and São Jorge Cheese (reminiscent of the Danish restaurant’s ‘Onions from Læsø’). It was a delightful marriage of rich soy and sherry-infused onion broth, tapioca pearls and celeriac prepared three ways – raw, pickled and cooked. I found the tapioca a little acidic but it was helped along by the Gewurztraminer (Domanie Trapet ‘Beblenheim’, 2006) which was fairly atypical with its fragrant floral and lychee elements.
As the sommelier filled our glasses with Duval Leroy, Blanc de Chardonnay, 1999, he informed us that this was the chef patron’s favourite champagne, and that the next dish was actually inspired by it. Nuno expanded on this as he drizzled skate juices over the Skate Wing, Brioche and Cauliflower, telling us he was seeking to compliment and bring out the yeastiness of the champagne with the dish. The yeast elements (roasted and foam) actually lifted, rather than masked the subtle meltingly-soft fish, sweet cauliflower cream and plump gnocchi. The muse (Duval Leroy) was very yeasty and biscuity, elegant and rounded, with great length and acidity. It is a champagne we like with our food too and it was a winning combination; our respect for Nuno went up a notch after this dish as any chef who successfully creates a dish around a wine is a star in our books.
The first of the meat courses was Pigs Neck with Savoy Cabbage, Celeriac and Hazelnut Purée, Fried Capers and Grated Egg. I’m partial to porcine offerings and was frustrated by the outrageously over-seasoned pork. The slow-roasted cut was moist and succulent, and if it had not been blindingly-salty pork, it would have been a really lovely dish. The Calero ‘Mount Haman’ Pinot Noir 2006 was a natural pairing albeit a little weaker and more dilute than the Pinots we are generally accustomed to.
Up to this point our exchanges with Nuno had revolved around the food he was presenting, but upon hearing us discussing the Singaporean restaurants on the S. Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants list (Iggy’s and Jaan par André, if you were wondering) he animatedly joined in the conversation. After a brief ramble about his recent trip to Asia, he moved on to the task of introducing the Aged Sirloin with Chunky Miso, Ramson Onions and Burnt Fennel. The tender beef sat on a bed of greens (choi sum) in a rosemary-infused roasted vegetable broth, with a dollop of mellow, earthy miso and a pretty garnish of Damson flowers. Packed with umami, yet not too rich and well balanced, it was a perfect end to the savoury portion of the meal, marred slightly only by the not overly impressive Hungarian Cabernet Franc and Merlot blend from Bolyiki (Egri Bikaver, 2008). It smelt and tasted like Pinot (sweet spice and soft red fruits) but was highly acidic, had a watery finish and was a poor substitute for the Lebanese Chateau Musar (2001) printed on our menus (they were out of stock).
After a palate cleanser of Lemon and Thai Basil (very refreshing and surprisingly palatable in spite of my aversion to the anise-scented herb), came a tube of Carrot Mousse with Sweet and Pickled Carrots, Buttermilk, a thin slab of dehydrated Meringue, Ginger Crumbs, Granita of Carrot Greens and a Dill Oil. It felt like an extension of the palate cleanser – elegant, faintly sweet and a real pick-me-up. The Quebecois Leduc-Piedmonte Ice Cider was also outstanding – smelling of freshly pressed apples with a very unusual palate for a cider (honey, caramel and apricots) and a fantastically long finish; the deep and complex tipple was so delicious B had scribbled next to it “must find”!
Having polished off a staggering number of courses, I was reaching my limit and dreading the dessert of Dark Chocolate and Water. Thankfully the water aspect really lightened the Essence of Chocolate Granita, Dark Chocolate Sorbet, Milk Chocolate Jelly, Chocolate Crumbs and Brownie Dough. It was an unquestionably sophisticated dish, yet it make me mildly nostalgic, bringing to mind the chocolate ice lollies of my childhood. A warming cup of Wuyi Dark Rock Tea paired nicely with it, accentuating the deep fruity notes in the chocolate.
Petits fours (White Chocolate Truffles with Cep, Vanilla Pâtes de Fruits) and a small glass of egg-nog like Crema Catalana rounded off a thoroughly pleasurable lunch.
The seamless 12 courses were perfectly portioned and well-paced, leaving us satisfied rather than doubled up in pain. We enjoyed the menu immensely as a whole, although a handful of dishes would benefit from tweaking, and the wine list also has plenty room for fine-tuning. The dining experience itself was a relaxed one, the kitchen ran like clockwork and was remarkably calm throughout; clearly the restaurant has hit its stride as there wasn’t a trace of the flustered and uneven service reported during the soft opening.
Nuno Mendes has undoubtedly come a long way since we first sampled his food years ago, and after his brief hiatus of experimentation, has really come into his own. He displays real talent in using innovative techniques not just to dazzle, but to effectively showcase the ingredients and draw out the best they have to offer. In the already diverse London dining scene, Mendes manages to throw something new into the mix with the exciting and welcome addition that is Viajante.
London E2 9NF
t. 020 7871 0461