Talent is a randomly assigned thing. Many people try, but some people just can. Chef Nuno Mendes can. He heads the kitchen at the Michelin Starred, Viajante in Bethnal Green. The doe-eyed chef bears the likeness of a slightly tubby Jesus of Nazareth in an apron: the long dark locks, the devil-may-care beard, the humble demeanour. The similarities don’t end there. Just as Jesus was (allegedly) able to satiate the appetite of thousands, with what must have been such miniscule portions of food they were barely visible to the naked eye, Mendes too knows how to pull a crowd with his squint-worthy food. He has the kind of instant likeability that sends the critic in me into a tailspin, which would have made this review very hard to write, had I not liked his cooking.
His calming influence dials down the entropy of his open-plan kitchen to a harmonious simmer, challenging the conventions of friction and stress laid out for us by certain celebrity chefs, who’ve spent the better part of a decade slipping deeper into the bowels of obscurity. Which is just as well, because the sheer amount of precision tweezer work that goes on at the pass would be damn near impossible under the iron rule of a Kim Jong-Ramsay.
Beyond dietary requirements, there’s no heads-up on what you’ll be eating, as menus remain in the custody of the restaurant until after the fact. Before I’d even touched on my actual nine-course lunch (£80), I counted six, that’s SIX, rounds of canapés that set a precedent. “Thai Explosion III” was a hit of cool, lightly spiced chicken confit with a quail egg, sandwiched between razor-thin layers of crispy chicken skin. It was followed by what I can only describe as a mouthful of Michelin Star cereal bar, made from toasted amaranth grains with a sweet, caramelised inner, on a sorrel purée. “Gordal olive soup” was in fact a cool, creamy purée, the green of a Barbour gilet, with a tremendous, intense flavour honouring the olives that gave their lives for it. Then there was the bread. Oh, the bread. Warm, soft, crusty bliss, paired with the smokiest butters imaginable, one even sprinkled with chicken skin. Already enough highlights to qualify for a memorable meal, and technically it hadn’t even begun.
The ingredients used are of unquestionable quality and handled with due respect. Fresh scallops came dressed in all of the shellfishy juices contained within its shell, with only the natural salinity of some frozen herbs for seasoning. A Scottish langoustine was cooked with such sympathy, it was ripe with flavour and turgidity. Next came what many would consider a worryingly raw piece of Cornish sea bass with vanilla and yuba (milk skin), seared momentarily on one side a la plancha, then finished in the oven for what can’t have been very long. But what it looked like didn’t make a blind bit of difference to me. It was warm throughout and tasted great. Cod tripe with onions, parsley and potatoes is Mendes’ take on a Portuguese classic and my word, it was good: The warmth, the hint of acidity, the gelatinous versus the creaminess versus the crisp. If only there was more of it. Meltingly soft Iberico pork tails tell the story of their 14 hours at low heat. The crackling and the seasoning, spot on. The interplay between a fermented squash purée and the piggy roasting juices, marries the two into a hybrid that is altogether more deep and complex.
By this point I was well and truly on board with Mendes’ approach. It’s all very delicate, very intellectual, and generally very considered, in a way that few chefs can rival. The dishes always look as though they’re headed towards self-indulgence, but swerve to miss it at the crucial moment. The only time he crossed the line was during desserts, of which there were four: all of them good, including a superb dome of goat’s curd buried beneath an avalanche of walnut crumbs. But the remaining three were also just variations on the theme of milk, making it feel more like a crash course in calcium than a satisfying way to round off the meal. The last one was even entitled “Milk”- a neutral plate of cow’s milk in various guises, from frozen, brittle coils to creamy lumps of condensed milk to milk powder. It was a bit like holding a single chord for too long at the end of a very good song.
Thai explosion III
Amaranth with sorrel
Sea bass roe with pilpil and rock samphire
Gordal olive soup
Potato with yeast
Bread and butter
Scallop and frozen herbs
Langoustine with Brussels sprouts and rye
Sea bass with vanilla and yuba
Cod tripe with onions, parsley and potatoes
Salsify with spruce bark and black truffle
Iberico pigs tail with fermented squash
Teal with chanterelle mushroom and chestnuts
Cucumber with reduced milk and lemon
Walnut with goat’s curd
Black carrot with toasted caraway ice cream
food : 9/10
service : 9/10
ambience : 7/10
value : 8/10
Town Hall Hotel, Patriot Square, Bethnal Green, London E2 9NF
020 7871 0461