Feast London! Now, it is not exactly news that East London is the capital’s most exciting place to be at the moment. It has become a cultural and creative hub, a hotspot for all things cool, young and hip.
Some might say that there are downsides to it, some might mourn the “loss of character” or dislike the descent of hipsters en masse to the area, but no one can deny that the place has become a foodie heaven, and that is surely a good thing. Gastronomy was sparsely found, practically non-existent in East London 10 years ago but since then, the place has undergone an amazing culinary transformation.
Everywhere you go you hear of local, organic and foraged produce; blink and there’s a new food market, an artisan baker, a craft brewery or supper club, so much so that it has been difficult for this here intrepid foodie to keep up, visit them all and at the same time keep a socially acceptable waistline! And this year – drum roll, drum roll, drum roll – Hackney has got its first Michelin star. Viajante, chef Nuno Mendes’ latest project is actually located on the borders of Hackney, in Tower Hamlets to be more precise (but whats a few yards between neighbouring boroughs) at the beautiful Bethnal Green Town Hall Hotel. Nuno is a Hackney champion. “I’ve lived in the area for 8 years and just love it here, it is as exciting as and reminds me of New York’s Williamsburg and Soho, or Miami years ago”, he told us.
The Viajante experience starts outside, with the grand exterior and the large windows where you can see the chefs in action from the street. Once in, you’re greeted by the attentive staff who will either take you to the Michelin starred restaurant, to Viajante Bar or to Corner Room, Mendes’ more affordably priced venture, all three located at the Town Hall Hotel. This time I felt like splashing, so Michelin Star it was. There is a contemporary and relaxed atmosphere in the restaurant, the kitchen is open plan and you can see Mendes in action, tasting dishes and supervising the whole operation. The menu couldn’t be simpler; you can either have 6, 9 or 12 blind tasting courses. That’s it. Of course the whole tasting menu idea has been around for a while, some might even consider it passé, but there is something undeniably enticing about not knowing what is going to come to your table, leaving your dining experience in the hands of the chefs. And what an experience it was!
I chose 9 courses that were preceded by 4 amuse bouche (little taste buds tantalisers). They were sublime, beautifully presented little pieces of delight that just made me the more excited about what was about to come. I wish I could go through all the courses in detail, but that would result in an essay, rather than a review! Each course is explained as they arrive on the table, each complement the previous one, and each executed to perfection and with such artistry I felt like taking pictures, frame and display them around the house. The first three courses were seafood based, my favourite being the razor clam paired with fermented turnip, something that sounds like it shouldn’t work but does. Those were followed by a carrot, horseradish and buttermilk dish that was so, so good I ranked it number one – mind you, in a menu that also contained sea bream, my favourite fish, accompanied by sea purslane and gooseberries, and Ibérico Presa, the very special pork from the black Iberian pig. The gran finale – the deserts – were, unsurprisingly, exquisite, especially Milk, a dish with 4 or 5 components all made from milk, including a very delicate milk skin cracker. I only wished there had been more meat based offerings, 5 out of the 9 dishes were from the sea, but that is just the carnivore in me talking (I knew I should have gone for the 12 courses, damn!). But I was truly satisfied.
The name Viajante, which means traveller in Mendes’ native Portuguese, is reflected in its cuisine with influences from around the globe. “Of course, my major influence is Portuguese but there are strong elements of Japanese and Scandinavian in my cooking, I find them similar in their treatment of fish, lightness and subtlety ” he told us.
As you might have guessed, Viajante is not cheap, so perhaps a visit is best saved for a special occasion, however the quality of ingredients, the modern, inventive dishes and the skill with which they are executed will make that occasion indeed, special. Ah, and the final little touch: they present you with a little menu at the end, with the date of your visit, the wines and dishes you had. So I guess I’ll have something to frame and display around the house after all.