No restaurant in London polarises opinion quite as much as Viajante. Some have hailed Portugese-born, El Bulli-trained Nuno Mendes’ cooking as creative, innovative and inspirational; just as many dismissing it as whimsical and hit-and-miss. Always in search of unusual and inventive cuisine, it had been on my to-try list since the day it opened.
I didn’t much care for the dining space at Viajante, located in the old town hall in Patriot Square in Bethnal Green. We were seated in the secondary dining room which was featureless, dark and dingy, and most disappointingly, did not have a view of the open kitchen. The room did have rather large windows so I could imagine it looking much brighter and more cheery during the day with the benefit of natural lighting but on this evening, it just felt dull and dreary. The simple wooden tables and cheap-looking blue fabric on the chairs didn’t help either as Viajante struggled to make a positive first impression. Thankfully, it would get better. Much better.
Viajante offers a 6, 9 or 12-course tasting menu for dinner (3, 6 or 9 courses at lunch). Still recovering from a heavy meal at Hélène Darroze at the Connaught the night before, we went for 6 courses. Our waiter then explained that our menus would only be presented at the end of the evening as they wanted to keep each course as a surprise – I loved the sense of mystery and discovery this brought to the meal.
We started with an amuse bouche introduced to us as Thai Explosion II, a crispy little chicken and quails egg mousse sandwich with Thai spices – it was appetising, but being originally from Malaysia, I had tasted these flavours countless times before.
Next to arrive was Bread and butter – the bread warm and freshly baked, with two kinds of mousse-like butter, one topped with a fine sprinkling of chicken skin, iberico ham and potato, the other flavoured with black pudding - an unusual and successful spin on an everyday dish.
The first proper course of Scallops with carrot, mustard and watercress then followed. This was excellent. The mustard was presented in the form of a powder, and the dish was topped with a cold carrot jus that made it extremely refreshing. A very appetising start indeed.
The next course of Charred leeks, milk skin and leek ash emulsion again spoke to the chef’s creativity, crafting rarely used ingredients into a dish that worked. It was lovely.
The first of two fish courses, Braised salmon skin and fried aubergine, was then served by one of the sous chefs – apparently Mendes usually serves at least one course to each table himself but he was not at the restaurant this evening so the responsibility fell, presumably, to his second in command, whose passion for the dish shone like a beacon. It was a joy to see the smile on his face as he explained the dish to us. His enthusiasm for the dish was more than justified – confit salmon, topped with salmon skin, miso paste on the side with a clear light dashi – this dish clearly drew heavily from the influences of Japan, where Mendes has spent some time. It was a serene, outstanding dish.
The second fish course, Sea bass toast, garlic kale and S. Jorge was also very good. The fish was cooked perfectly, and well complemented with crispy Iberico ham, cheese shavings, and a garlic kale puree.
Unfortunately, the meat course, Roasted squab with beetroot and pistachio, was the least enjoyable of the evening. Having said that, for someone who usually cannot stand the sight of beetroot, I still finished everything on the plate, and found it tasty and well put together.
The pre-dessert of Frozen maple pannacotta with shiso granite and green apple was wonderfully refreshing and cleverly constructed, with just the right balance of cold, sweet, sour and crunch. It deserved a higher station than that of a mere palette cleanser, although it was, of course, more than up to the job. The dessert, Sea buckthorn with burnt meringue and yoghurt sorbet was also deliciously light, with the flavours again, very well balanced.
Despite what was clearly a very impressive meal, I was left feeling strangely unfulfilled at the end. Perhaps it was the niggling feeling that I had missed out on the crescendo of the meal – my least favourite dish, the squab, being served at the very point I was expecting the meal to reach its high point. Perhaps it was the knowledge that there were still another 6 courses in the room that I was not going to get to try this evening. Perhaps it was the slight rumble still in my stomach – servings were not large.
All told, this was a thoroughly enjoyable meal. The thing that really stood out, apart from the unusual ingredients and exciting combinations, was how light the meal was – one night after Hélène Darroze at the Connaught, this was a very welcome change. When reviewing meals of this type, I can’t help but make a comparison to the most brilliantly inventive and inspired meal I have ever had – at Cracco in Milan. Viajante didn’t really reach that exalted standard. No shame in that. This was still a very good meal, showcasing Mendes’ many talents and promising potential. I can’t wait to return to try Viajante’s full 12 course tasting menu.
In a nutshell…
Unique, creative, innovative food. Viajante is a very welcome addition to the London dining scene. Not yet the finished article, I look forward to even bigger and better things to come from this exciting young chef.
Patriot Square, London, E2 9NF
Average Price: £70
1 Michelin Star