Posted on Wednesday, 18th August 2010
Note: Viajante was awarded a Michelin star in January 2011, subsequent to this visit.
After closing his critically acclaimed Bacchus in Hoxton in 2008 and an-almost two year hiatus, Nuno Mendes finally opened his eagerly anticipated restaurant, Viajante, in March. Mendes’ career spans stints under Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Ferran Adria at El Bulli, and his travels throughout Asia and South America have helped to formulate the concept that is behind Viajante, a word that means travelling in Portuguese.
To get the full Viajante experience, a restaurant located in the Bethnal Green Town Hall, we felt nothing less than the 12 course menu would do. So when we arrived for our 8pm booking, JK wasn’t particularly pleased to be told that we couldn’t be seated. A table of 16 had just arrived, and even though our table was available, we were asked to wait at the bar so that the restaurant could even out the service. We were led to believe we had to book an 8pm table if we wanted to do the 12 course tasting, so it seemed a bit odd that we couldn’t be seated AT 8pm.
The table we got was great though – right in front of the open kitchen and in full view of all the cooking action. The décor is pseudo-Scandinavian and looks a bit like an expensive version of Ikea. Nevertheless, it’s very comfortable and quite informal. Six, nine and twelve course tasting menus are available at dinner for £60, £75 and £85 respectively. Menus are not handed out before the meal as they’re surprise tastings, but brief explanations are given by the server as each course is presented.
Our 12 courses commenced with 4 different amuse bouches. The first amuse, which the waiter explained was the ‘house sashimi’ had us guessing as to what it was. It had the texture of roasted sweet peppers, but surprisingly (and delightfully) turned out to be roasted watermelon dressed with wasabi, white and black sesame seeds, umeboshi and togarashi seasoning. This was distinctively tasty and very interesting. It was also hard to believe that you could get a thick, compressed texture from watermelon.
Grilled broad beans with St George goat’s cheese, pea purée and brioche crumbs were a bit dull. There was also a slight bitter aftertaste to the beans.
Next was the ‘Thai explosion’, a fantastic spicy chicken confit in a Thai curry sauce with quail’s egg, sandwiched in between some delightfully sweet and crispy chicken skin. This went down a treat.
A plate of razor clams, cooked sous vide, and served with rosemary dashi, smoked yoghurt, sorrel purée and croutons was wonderful. The razor clams melted on your tongue. Other than the broad beans, the amuses were a great start to the meal.
Next was the bread, a wholemeal baguette with whipped butter topped with finely chopped Iberico ham and chicken skin. The texture of the butter was light and airy, but it was also extremely bland. It badly needed the ham and chicken skin to give it some flavour. The bread was good.
The first course was tomatoes with mozzarella and strawberry granite, finished with a little olive oil, tomato water and croutons. I didn’t understand the purpose of the strawberry granite in this dish. Seemingly a glamorous tomato and mozzarella salad with very nice ingredients, it screamed out for something aromatic to lift it, eg, basil.
Scallops sprinkled with ume shiso was accompanied by lightly pickled cucumber and frozen dashi topped with dehydrated purple potato powder. It was finished with a celery and cucumber juice, and was beautifully presented on a ‘plate’ designed by Mendes’ partner’s brother (as were the other plates). Conceptually this was a very interesting. I also enjoyed the use of ume shiso and the dehydrated powder as they gave the dish an alluring effect.
Next up was artichokes with olives, pickled onions, and pine nut milk. The milk was beautiful and creamy, and the use of crushed pine nuts added flavour to an otherwise boring dish.
Charred leeks with white asparagus, hazelnuts and milk skin smacked of a touch of René Redzepi who also uses milk skin at Noma, and who coincidentally consulted on Viajante. The vegetables were sweet, but it was the crunchiness of the hazelnuts that I enjoyed as it gave the dish much needed texture. I again found this dish dull.
Next was salmon with salmon caviar and an enoki broth. The salmon, slow cooked to give it an-almost raw texture, was delightful. The broth was light and flavoursome, although the accompanying braised salmon skin was quite fishy and a little sickly. To me, salmon skin is best served crispy.
Octopus with pimenton potatoes, crumbed chorizo, pickled rhubarb, pine nuts and egg foam was pleasant, but did not produce any exciting taste explosions. The octopus, slow cooked, was extremely tender, but I would have enjoyed it more with a bit of browning for more flavour.
King crab was juicy and succulent. It was finished with a hint of spicy paste and a nice chicken jus. However the crab was served in a very deep bowl which made it slightly awkward to eat.
The fish course of halibut was surprisingly a little overcooked and therefore a touch dry. It was accompanied by a confit egg yolk (slow cooked such that it was runny and resembled a raw yolk), asparagus ribbons, umeboshi lemon puree, and a coconut and basil tapioca, the texture of which was quite gooey. This dish wasn’t particularly arresting.
A touch of surf and turf graced our table next with an offering of slow cooked pork and langostine drizzled with caraway seeds. It was accompanied by two creams (one herb and one rye), and a herb emulsion. The pork was amazingly tender and flavoursome, and the langostine was wonderfully sweet. I found the creams to be interesting, and it gave the pork a nice earthy flavour.
The final savoury course of squab pigeon with stracciatella cheese, grilled radishes, sea purslane and pine salt was wonderful. The excellent pigeon was tender and tasty, and the pine salt was great with the squab, but I did secretly wish for some nice jus to go with it for more flavour.
Our pre-dessert was maple ice milk with Thai basil which was lovely.
Blueberries with goat’s curd, lemon thyme and caramel was pleasant but unspectacular. The savoury notes in the curd worked well with the acidity of the berries.
Confit fennel, crumbled polenta, lemon paste, strawberries and citrus powder was quite tangy. I thought the polenta a little soggy at first and the use of fennel a little unusual. But the dish grew on me and I found myself enjoying it very much.
Petit fours consisted of a wonderful crème Catalan and truffles, including a chocolate cep one. I found the hint of mushroom to be quite delectable but JK detested it.
The service was pretty good, but at times certain requests got overlooked. We had to ask for the same glass of wine and the bill more than once. But what was fantastic about the service was that Mendes and some of the other chefs took turns in bringing out the food (another Noma influence). This gave us an opportunity to meet and chat with the man himself. Mendes came across as a really nice person and it was a real pleasure to meet him.
Some have described Viajante as a mecca for food. At an intellectual level, I can understand why. I respected the thinking behind each of the dishes, I delighted in the quality of the ingredients, I respected the concept behind the menu, and I admired the complexity of the preparation and the execution of the food. My hat went off to Mendes for all his hard work.
But while it was all conceptually interesting, I enjoyed the experience of dining at Viajante more than I enjoyed the food itself. Other then starters, the meal lacked for the fantastic taste explosions that I was hoping for, and for this reason I found myself getting a little bored about halfway through the meal. Perhaps if I had ordered one of the smaller menus I might not have ended up feeling this way. I also felt that nine courses, instead of twelve, would have been more than enough to get a sense of what Viajante is about.
Note that the twelve course menu lasts for four hours, and I think the restaurant should relax its rule about only serving it at 8pm. An earlier start would have been more appropriate.
I’m glad I went to Viajante, but it didn’t rate as a ten out of ten on the satisfaction scale for me. However, as far as avante-garde dining experiences go, this was a pretty fantastic one. So if you are all about the avante-garde, then this will be the restaurant for you. But don’t expect any bold, heavy flavours.