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Nuno Mendes: the food nomad

18 May 2010
Published in Blog
by Giovanni Biglino

In that whirl of flavours which is the London food scene, click we have been observing and enjoying a number of restaurants in the East End. Everybody has a favourite – a steak at the Bistrotheque, ask raw food and a botanical drink at Saf, see brunch on the rooftop of The Boundary. But we couldn’t be more excited about chef Nuno Mendes’ latest project, Viajante, in Bethnal Green.

The name seems to be very appropriate. A Història do Viajante. The story of a traveller. Travelling by means of flavours, where a Japanese market meets and melts with a local orchard. But also the result of the chef’s own travels, from California to New York, from native Portugal to Japan, eventually landing in London.

Launched two weeks ago in the context of the stylish Bethnal Green Town Hall Hotel & Apartments just off the Cambridge Heath Road, the interior has been tastefully decorated with Scandinavian furniture and by the time you are sipping a cocktail before the meal you are ready to embark on a culinary experience which has few comparisons in London. Serving exclusively surprise set menus (but you have the option to choose the number of courses), the chef guides you in a journey that is made of colour, texture, temperature and of course taste.

The apparent beauty of the dishes – some resembling an Abstract Expressionist painting, almost as if the imaginary roving traveller also included a stop at the MoMA to contemplate Franz Kline – is just one component and is not glamorous colourful appearance to compensate a lack in the substance. Instead, under the skilfully presented form, lies a layer of combinations of textures that renders Mendes’ food so interesting. Mixing and juxtaposing solid, creamy, granular; powder, puree, broth, mousse. “I want my food to surprise and delight my guests. It’s not about being shocking, but it is about being playful” says the chef. This sensory experience also involves temperature, with an intriguing use of granita both in the first course as well as in the dessert, granita being clearly an interesting element both in terms of texture and in terms of temperature. Last but not least, the taste. “Each ingredient should taste as perfect as it possibly can” says Nuno and the vegetable course that was presented as the “spring garden” was so fresh that it epitomized his belief perfectly. The journey is completed by almost crafted amuse-bouche, sorbet (lemon and Thai basil, just excellent) and optional wine pairing including selections from small vineyards.

Food experiences of such level can sometimes be daunting or excessive or insanely expensive. But Viajante is all about being intrigued by the food and the atmosphere is refined but most of all relaxed. From the open-air kitchen, the chef supervises his project conceived carefully and passionately (“I have devoted the last two years to Viajante, to planning and experimenting with each dish, each menu”) and he himself is a pivotal element in the success of the restaurant. Far more talented than other popular chefs, Nuno Mendes strikes for his modesty. This inevitably reflects in his direct creation, his food, which is so much more enjoyable and interesting because it is not perceived as pretentious, despite its sophistication.

Trained at the California Culinary Academy, with a CV which includes experiences at Jean-Georges in New York City and El Bulli, Nuno Mendes’ first London-based project was Bacchus, a converted Victorian pub in Hoxton in which he amazed his clients with sous vide food, with the ingredients sealed in vacuum and cooked in a water bath with carefully (to the 0.5°C) controlled  temperature. Then he moved (towards Dalston, so not very far) on to an exciting private dining project, The Loft, in which a spectacular tasting menu can be enjoyed in the intimacy of a private apartment by a maximum of twelve people (incidentally, the project is still running in the form of collaboration with other chefs). Finally, he opened Viajante, without abandoning the East End. In fact he says: “The East End is the place I now call home”.

Home. A strange feeling for a viajante, a wanderer. But sometimes it can just be the intimacy of four people around a table, the conviviality. Sometimes a flavour. Sometimes the memory of that flavour – la madeleine de Proust – while the mind keeps travelling.

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