A few years back, I read blog posts about Bacchus, a Hoxton restaurant offering exciting, unusual cooking from chef Nuno Mendes. He was using avant-garde techniques I’d come to associate with chefs such as Ferran Adria and Heston Blumenthal – spherification, distillation, liquid nitrogen, sous-vide (water baths) and more. I was intrigued and I meant to go and meant to go but somehow I just didn’t get around to it.
In 2009 I read many blog posts and tweets about Mendes' Loft Project, an underground restaurant he established in his loft apartment, where he developed and served innovative dishes to an appreciative audience. It was the only underground restaurant I knew of that was commanding £100 a head for a meal yet leaving it’s diners utterly enchanted. I meant to go and meant to but somehow I just didn't get around to it.
In 2010 I read many blog posts and tweets about the launch of Mendes’ own restaurant, Viajante, and I salivated again over the descriptions and images of his unusual and appealing food. And I meant to go and meant to go but somehow I just didn't get around to it.
Finally, 2011 rolled around and I was determined to rectify my appalling misbehaviour.
I booked a table for lunch on the first Friday of the year and Pete and I duly made our way down to Bethnal Green.
Housed in what was once Bethnal Green town hall but is now a hotel, Viajante is a light and airy space.
As one comes in to the spacious lobby, to the right is a separate bar room (and stairs down to the toilets) and to the left, the dining area. The restaurant has been designed by a talented but light hand; its quirky décor is a charming blend of retro-modern wooden furnishings with some beautifully coloured, textured woven wall hangings, against high white walls with period features and old parquet flooring.
We were pleased to be seated close to the open kitchen area, where we could watch the chefs in their surprisingly quiet, carefully choreographed and rehearsed routines. The dining room is split into two rooms, by the way, so tables in the farther room won't be able to see the kitchen.
We opted for the 6 course tasting menu, priced at £50 a head.
We decided against the beverage pairings (which include wine and beer, so I believe). Mostly we stuck to still water which staff refilled regularly throughout the meal. To start, I fancied a cocktail but none on the cocktail menu appealed. Our waitress asked me what I liked and had the barman prepare something for me; whatever it was, I liked it. Pete started with a beer, before switching also to water.
Before our 6 menu courses, we were served the famous Thai explosion (Mark ll), a savoury mouthful of chicken mousse, quail's egg, coconut and Thai spices, sandwiched between paper thin crisped chicken skin. I'd read about this (and it's predecessor) in virtually every review and yet, nothing prepared me for the explosion of flavours and textures in my mouth – no, not even the name! If all fusion cooking were like this, I'd be a mouth-foaming disciple, screaming the message to every non-believer I met! What a start!
Next to arrive was a board of bread and butter. That simple title doesn't do justice to the beautifully shaped individual loafs and the two quenelles of whipped butters served alongside. One,was whipped brown butter topped with crispy chicken skin, Iberico ham and a scattering of pretty purple potato powder. The other was whipped black pudding brown butter sprinkled with potato skins. Both were tasty – creamy and light – but my favourite was the black pudding one, which had more flavour.
Finally, we were served the first of our menu dishes – scallops with carrot, mustard and watercress. Throughout our meal, we were looked after by a number of different staff, all of whom took time to explain the elements of the dish they were serving. All shared an obvious pride in what they placed in front of us. And no wonder – this dish was a revelation. Thin slices of raw scallop were slippery silk in the mouth and naturally sweet, enhanced by the sugars within the beautifully presented raw and lightly pickled carrots. I have no idea what alchemy Mendes' has invented to transform mustard into the frozen snow served on the dish, but the ice-cold feel contrasted with the fiery flavour in a most surprising and delightful way. The sauce poured over the top, that pulled the diverse elements together, was a carrot consommé with watercress oil, a herby delight.
Next to arrive, after we watch it being assembled in the kitchen, was lobster, potato, confit egg yolk and saffron. We both agreed fairly quickly that, whilst we loved the raw scallop, uncooked lobster is distinctly unpleasant in texture. The runny egg yolk was nice enough, though I've had many yolks with far more flavour – this one was a touch bland. Flavour came instead from the fish fumet (a concentrated fish stock). The pasta sheets added little, nor did the potato. Even the saffron just seemed to muddy the dish, rather than contribute. Interesting, certainly, but one we'd want to have again? No.
The next dish was definitely more my kind of thing than Pete's. The braised salmon skin and fried aubergine puree was served over confit salmon and salmon roe with spring onion, purple shiso and enoki mushrooms (one of my favourite herbs) in an agedashi broth. I enjoyed the salty sweet balance of the salmon, broth, roe, spring onions and mushrooms but the aubergine purée didn't capture the flavour of aubergine very much and I'd have much preferred the salmon skin crispy rather than flaccid and slimy.
Next to the table was seabass toast, garlic kale, Iberico ham and San Jorge. The crunchy, hammy toasted lid over the seabass was very satisfying and the fish cooked perfectly. The garlic and kale puree was richly vegetal and minerally. I liked the burst of juice and flavour from the shallot rings, and would have liked a few more to balance the last few mouthfuls of fish. The blanched radicchio leaf added little for me. The only thing I didn't think worked was the cheese, which to me was really discordant with the fish. The San Jorge was a lovely, powerful cheese, so it almost overpowered the seabass, for me.
Our seventh dish to be served was duck with beetroot and pistachio. The duck was served pink, with a good layer of fat. I liked the beetroot served in an array of colours and textures – thin, crunchy, rolled sheets, cooked and served in solid pieces and puréed. For me, the crunch of the pistachio didn't really enhance the rest, though I guess I didn't mind it. Pete's not a fan of nuts at all, so scraped his pistachios to one side.
Sea buckthorn is a trendy ingredient of late, though for all I know, Mendes' has been championing it as long as anyone. I have encountered it a few times in the last year and am rather fond of it's tart, citrusy, fruity flavour. So the sea buckthorn granite and burnt meringue pre-dessert was quite welcome. That said, I'd have liked a little more of the meringue than the little squiggle squirted up the side of the bowl!
I adore pears, especially Nashi. So I was surprised not to enjoy the dessert of grilled Williams pears and pickled Nashi pears, walnut dacquoise crumbs, crème fraiche and roasted pear ice cream. There was not enough sweet to balance the sour and the textures didn't work for me either. This may just be the first pear dessert I've had that I didn't like, let alone love. I left virtually all of mine, though Pete must have liked it more as he ate most of his.
Harmony was restored when the petits fours were served with the coffee. There were three offerings here – a cepe mushroom and white chocolate truffle, a clementine sponge and a Catalan cream. The mushroom truffle was another revelation – I would never in a million years have dreamt of combining the woody, earthiness of cepe with the rich, buttery sweetness of white chocolate (coated in a dusting of dark cocoa) – it was sensational! The clementine sponge was deeply moist and smacked both the nosebuds and tastebuds with intense, perfumed sweet citrus. The Catalan cream buzzed with orange and lemon flavours; an addictive little pot of custard. It took immense will power not to dash up to the kitchen service area a couple of metres away and steal the next set of petits fours, waiting to be taken to their table. Although I desperately wanted to ask for another truffle, for fear of making an arse of myself I didn't.
A word about the coffee though, asking for an extra milky caffe latte resulted in one of the strongest I've ever been served. The coffee maker did check back and happily offered to make another weaker one but it was still so strong I couldn't drink it.
And all of a sudden our meal was over and it was time to reflect upon it as we settled our bill and made the journey back to our distant corner of London.
Viajante is Portuguese for traveller and is a lovely way of referencing the global influences Mendes' brings to his cooking. Whilst it's not, in the main, what one would usually call fusion cooking, Mendes isn't shy about making use of ingredients, ideas and flavours from different cuisines.
The unexpected flavours, textures, combinations and presentations were refreshing. The whole meal was exciting and provoking.
That scallop dish actually made me grin with delight – it was surprising, enchanting and delicious – everything I'd hoped for in my long anticipation of finally tasting Mendes' cooking!
This meal was as much about that feeling of experiencing something new as enjoying the food, though that was part of it, of course.
The duck with beetroot and pistachio did showcase one downside of the Viajante approach – diners do not see a menu before the meal so, unless they remember to give a comprehensive list of their dislikes in advance, they may well be faced with something they really don't want. Even the least fussy eater has a few ingredients they simply don't like and yet one feels a bit guilty to state more than one or two unless one suffers a genuine allergy. I had failed to mention that Pete dislikes nuts. Next time, I shall not feel shy about asking in advance for our strongest dislikes to be avoided.
It seems our visit was opportunely timed; Michelin announced it's latest guide results just a couple of weeks later, Viajante was duly awarded it's first star. For a restaurant that's been open less than a year, I think this is an impressive achievement, and indicative of the quality of food and service, as well as Mendes' inventive approach.
I only hope it doesn't make it too difficult to secure a reservation, since I'm sure we'll want to return soon!