Tuesday, 29 June 2010
Viajante, Bethnal Green
Way back when, in the very early days of this blog, I visited Nuno Mendes' first restaurant Bacchus in Hoxton. It was a lovely little restaurant, serving attractive and unusual dishes for not very much money, and I remember wondering why it wasn't more popular; even at the time I visited, rumours were abound that it was losing money and would soon have to close. Later that evening, I found out why. From the window of my friend's flat a couple of doors down, we watched two people beat each other (and, occasionally, surrounding vehicles) with iron bars, until the police arrived and chased them off. It seems that the lure of reasonably priced gourmet food - "Fine dining in trainers" was their unofficial tagline - wasn't enough to tempt discerning punters up Hoxton Street to enjoy a vicious street fight to follow their coffee and petits fours, and so very soon, Bacchus was no more.
Mendes disappeared for a little while, then resurfaced on Kingsland Road running a popup restaurant called The Loft. On occasional evenings, groups of 15 or so would be treated to a £100 mystery tasting menu of his experimental (he trained at El Bulli, naturally) cooking, and by all accounts the project on these regular nights was a great success. Unfortunately, my own experience of The Loft came at the hand of a group of enthusiastic but incompetent Central St Martin's students, who organised an event called Evocative Foods. I'm sure Nuno was doing his best with the presumably rather incoherent brief, but we paid £30 a head to queue up for few plates of cold vegetables and a weak cocktail, and after spending most of the evening thirsty, hungry and completely baffled, we eventually left for a few pints in a local pub then some soft-shelled crabs at Cay Tre. Andrew Webb, another unlucky victim of the Evocative Foods evening, wrote up the experience brilliantly here - it's well worth a read.
So I wasn't exactly chomping at the bit to try Viajante. I'm no fan of the overthought El Bulli school of shock-effect food, early reports from brave individuals were tilted towards the positive but still mixed, and perhaps Cambridge Heath Road is no Hoxton Street, but it's still hardly an area of town you'd otherwise make a special effort to visit. But in the end, peer pressure and a very reasonable 3-course Saturday lunchtime menu (£25 for 3 courses) forced my hand, and off I went.
First of a handful of amuses was a "crostini" of Romesco sauce, Gordal olives and I think the odd blob of goat's curd. Impressing mainly thanks to the intricate and attractive presentation, the ingredients nevertheless blended well and got the meal off to a good enough start.
Next was a whole roasted broad bean pod, which had been split and stuffed with cream and various micro herbs. It wasn't particularly memorable - the beans themselves hadn't been cooked very well (presumably as a result of baking inside the pod) and none of the flavours really stood out. Looked the part, though. Perhaps that was the point.
Yet another amuse which, as far as I know, didn't form part of the advertised three courses was this strange sandwich thing, tasting of some sort of oily fish, perhaps sardines or mackerel. This was actually pretty tasty, seasoned well and with good texture contrasts, but they insisted on serving it without cutlery, so it was difficult and messy to try and get this delicate sandwich paste from the serving plate into your mouth.
"Bread and butter" was far more enjoyable. Three thin sticks of freshly baked bread were dipped into a wonderful rich "butter" made from bacon, chicken skins, salt and sugar. It was incredibly addictive and an unusual mix of flavours which actually made sense as a whole. I could have eaten about six of these - sadly Viajante, and my arteries, conspired otherwise.
Five "courses" in, we were finally presented with the first of the three lunch menu items. This was a crab, beetroot, apple and goat's curd salad, which despite the fancy jellified and shaved beetroot was actually a very familiar - in fact almost clichéd, combination of ingredients. The crab was nice and fresh and the goat's curd was lovely, but there really wasn't anything here to set the heart racing.
The next course, however, was much better. A meaty and perfectly seasoned slice of lemon sole topped with shaved asparagus sat beside a weird confit egg yolk, the consistency of which was like nothing I've ever eaten - sort of fudgy and thick. It was topped with a tapioca sauce, presumably cooked in some kind of vegetable stock, and another couple of slices of asparagus, this time grilled. This was a great plate of food, and shows that when Mendes' experiments (although actually I didn't see him in the kitchen on Saturday) work, they really, really work.
Pre-dessert was an alarmingly sharp lemon and thai sweet basil sorbet, which didn't so much clean our palates as blast them clean away. The citrus explosion and the fragrant basil was a happy combination though, and again was something I'd not tried before.
I don't really know what to say about the dessert proper. On one level, it was a mixture of unadventurous but nice enough chocolate desserts which had been rather pointlessly topped with a couple of blocks of crushed ice. But just look at the ridiculous presentation - all the ingredients had been squeezed onto the very edge of a massive plate, and I do mean the very edge - some of the sauce very nearly dripped off onto the table. It was a presentation so pretentious it cried out for some sort of response, so in active protest I drew a big chocolate penis from the sauce with my spoon. I don't care if you think that was childish - I felt better for doing it.
Petits fours consisted of a gorgeous citrus marshmallow, delicate and ethereally light, and a mushroom chocolate truffle. Yes you did read that right - mushroom and chocolate. It actually wasn't anywhere near as disgusting as it sounds, particularly not if you, like me, are fans of some of Paul A Young's more offbeat offerings (blue cheese truffle, marmite truffle, etc.), and it closed up the meal quite appropriately - another brave experiment just treading the fine line between challenging and revolting.
Perhaps, despite my misgivings, London needs restaurants like Viajante. Certainly, I can count on one hand the number of times I've been served eight courses for £25 and even though some of them were irritatingly pretentious and put presentation ahead of flavour you do at least feel like you're getting your money's worth, especially considering the backbreaking effort that's gone into them. In fact, come to think of it, I can only think of one restaurant that has served food of this level of invention for such a reasonable cost, and that was Bacchus, so I suppose it all makes sense. If they can avoid the tendency toward nonsense and make the numbers work at this price point, Viajante should, and deserves to, do well.