Nuno Mendes's experimental cooking style has been making waves on the London restaurant scene. Kerstin Kühn finds out why.
Portugal-born Nuno Mendes has made a name for himself as one of London's most experimental chefs. After Bacchus and the Loft, his latest project, Viajante, has been one of the most talked about openings this year.
Translated as travelling salesman, the restaurant is exactly the kind of operation you'd expect from someone like Mendes, who has the air of an indie artist about him. Located at the Town Hall hotel in Bethnal Green, it is perched among the kind of run-down pubs and scruffy foreign grocers that you wouldn't find, say, in Mayfair.
"I love the ghetto-chic, the up-and-coming bohemian side of east London," he says.
As the name suggests, his playful, modern cooking, which toys with flavour, texture, temperature and even appearance, is inspired by cosmopolitan influences including Nordic, Japanese and Iberian cuisines. At the heart of it is a sense of "urban buzz".
"I guess there is no such term as urban cooking but my cuisine is very much inspired by the city," he says.
Diners at Viajante have little choice over their meal, opting from six-, nine- or 12-course tasting menus (£60/£75/£85), with the menus not handed out until after the meal. Things kick off with an amuse-bouche of Thai explosion II, a coconut chicken mousse with a quail's egg sandwiched in crispy chicken skin that in one bite encapsulates a sense of Thailand with flavours of coconut, lemongrass and coriander.
The first course is a dish of scallops with butternut squash and mustard, which in many ways epitomises Mendes' cooking style. Drawing on inspiration from Japanese and Nordic cuisines, both the scallops and the butternut are served raw along with a cold butternut squash consommé.
"If you see these ingredients on a menu you'd probably expect quite a stodgy dish, but because we serve everything cold and raw, it's incredibly light and refreshing," explains Mendes.
One of his signature dishes, which has been on the menu in seasonal variations since the opening, is charred leeks with milk skin. Currently it is served with cured, almost raw lobster, a charred leek emulsion and hazelnuts. "I've been cooking with milk skin for some years now. It's a Japanese technique called yuba, which is usually done with soy milk. I use fresh milk and I love the way the skin captures the very essence, the sweetness of the milk," he says.
Meanwhile. sea bass toast pays homage to the chef's Iberian roots. Pan-fried, crispy breadcrumbs replace the fish skin while Iberico ham and São Jorge cheese add a lovely umami flavour.
Desserts continue the playfulness. Chocolate with hazelnut and soil looks like a 3D painting of an earthy landscape while petits fours include mushroom-flavoured chocolate truffles.
Only two full-time front-of-house staff look after the 40-seat dining room, with chefs in whites also delivering and explaining plates from the open-plan kitchen. "I want it so the barriers between front and back of house disappear," explains the chef.
Mendes' cooking is no doubt one of the most exciting in London right now, and he finally looks set to make a lasting mark on the capital's dining scene.
SAMPLE DISHES FROM THE MENU
â- Bread and butter
â- Scallops with butternut squash and mustard
â- Charred leeks, lobster, hazelnuts and milk skin
â- Braised salmon skin and fried aubergine
â- Sea bass toast, garlic kale and SÁ£o Jorge
â- Duck, caramel, blackberries and girolles
â- Sea buckthorn and burnt meringue
â- Chocolate with hazelnut and soil
Six, nine or 12-course tasting menus £60, £75 or £85
"The approach is not that of molecular gastronomy but there is playfulness, ingenuity, empathy with vegetables, which are addressed almost more seriously than is protein, and a delight in surprise and shock in both texture and temperature"
Fay Maschler, Evening Standard