Wednesday, 29 June 2011
Viajante revisited, Bethnal Green
The words "El Bulli-trained" have been attached to chef Nuno Mendes for as long as he has been working in London. It is a tag that has followed him from the ill-fated but briefly brilliant Bacchus in Hoxton in 2007, to the clandestine Loft supper club the year after (although how accurate a description the word "supper club" is to anywhere charging £100 a head is debatable) and then, from March last year, to Viajante, an ambitious and wilfully idiosyncratic operation in what must be the most unlikely location for a 5-star hotel in London, the old Bethnal Green Town Hall, nestled amongst the kebab shops and strip joints that surround Cambridge Heath station. Having worked at El Bulli is a big deal of course, and whatever you might think of Ferran Adria's tricks and foams you wouldn't deny any chef the opportunity to put it on his or her CV, but even Viajante's own press releases only coyly refer to Mendes doing a "stage" at the eponymous restaurant some time in the 90s, and it is his time with superchefs Wolfgang Puck and Jean-George Vongerichten that seem to have been more a more substantial feature of his culinary education.
Chef back stories are dull, and I only mention the above because however accurate or otherwise "El Bulli-trained" is as a shorthand for Nuno Mendes' cooking style, it is the one that he is, for better or worse, most associated with, and, crucially, the one that is foremost in most diners' minds as they take a seat in the strangely solemn dining room at Viajante. People, I'm guessing, come here for clever twists and techniques, unusual ingredients, an international and ultra-modern menu of shocks and surprises. They also come here for theatre - there's an open kitchen, which judging by the arrangement of tables and chairs in the room is almost literally a substitute stage, and perhaps they also come here to see Mendes himself. There was no sign of him last night, though, and as I stared out from our corner table as a half dozen chefs silently assembled plate after plate of elaborate bijou tasting dishes, I wondered what was supposed to be so entertaining about it. Surely an open kitchen should be full of fire and smoke, frantic activity, blood, sweat and tears. In Viajante, with all the "proper" cooking done in a prep area downstairs, all the show-kitchen chefs have to do is tweezer the prepared elements onto a selection of bizarre tableware and send it out. It all seemed a bit sterile.
But, to the food, and the first couple of amuses were very decent. "Thai Explosion" was a kind of biscuit made with familiarly Thai ingredients such as chicken, lemongrass and coriander, softly sweet and very clever, and "Crab doughnuts" were just that, inventive and very well put together, the kind of thing which in less skilled hands could have been a complete disaster (mmm fishy doughnuts) but here was great fun.
The first disappointment came with the "Bread and butter", a course in its own right thanks to a selection of two house "butter" creations, one involving chicken skin and one darker one allegedly somehow containing black pudding. Despite the bread being fresh and warm, neither of the "butters" really tasted of much other than, well, whipped butter, a particular blow to me as the chicken skin butter was the highlight of my first visit in summer last year. I don't know whether they've changed the recipe or I remember it being better than it was, but having hyped it to my friend it was a bit embarrassing when it turned out to be a bit of a let down.
And talking of let-downs, "Fresh cheese with peas and flowers" was pond water, the "cheese" being little more than thickened, opaque gunk and entirely unseasoned. The peas were nice but no more than that and the flowers made it all look quite pretty, but it was a hugely underwhelming, bafflingly unsuccessful course. It was also far too cold, seemingly straight out of the fridge, lending it a rather soul-less pre-prepared feel. All kinds of wrong.
The two courses "Squid with ink, pickled radishes and sea lettuce" and "White, green and wild asparagus with milk skin" both suffered from the same fridge-fresh temperature issue and both were lacking in flavour and seasoning. You could see what they were trying to do - the ribbon-cut squid in ink matched with fresh pickled radish should have been a home run, and there's not much you can do to asparagus to make them bland, but we could find anything to get excited about. Frosty, literally and metaphorically.
And then, shockingly, a flash of brilliance. "Leek heart with lobster and leek consommé" was astonishingly good, the lobster cooked two separate ways, boiled and I think a ceviche or marinade of some kind, and both deliciously moist and tasty. They came with fantastic charred leek pieces which added a smoky earthy note, and the resulting broth was scooped up with evangelical fervour. A really great dish, although it did occur to me how a kitchen capable of this could have served the peas and flowers thing with a straight face.
"Cod and potatoes with confit egg yolk and saffron" was also excellent. Lovely bright-white flakes of moist cod, a earthy smothering of saffron foam and - best of all - a fudgy, rich egg yolk to coat it all, it was a sort of deconstructed fish pie, at once familiar and unfamiliar.
And then just as we were beginning to think it may have been worth the trek to Bethnal Green after all, "Duck heart and tongue with mushroom floss and spiced broth" brought us crashing back to earth. Although the textures were interesting and the presentation pretty, the flavours were too subdued to be enjoyable, and a lack of seasoning meant all the pieces just merged into one vaguely edible stew. Not disgusting, and not that far off being right, but still wrong.
Even worse was "Pork secretos with artichoke and red wine tapioca", notable at least as the first dish using Iberico pork that I've ever not enjoyed. Simultaneously containing dry flesh and wobbly under-rendered fat, the pig itself was the biggest disappointment but with tough artichokes and a weird smear of underseasoned scarlet porridge to go with it, nothing else on the plate was enjoyable. It was, even taking into account the presentation which had at least been consistent up to this point, a sub-gastropub turn-off.
"Frozen maple with shiso and green apple" wasn't great but was at least interesting, the savoury sorbet working well as a palette cleanser and I liked the sharp shiso and the range of textures in the ice. Then, just in case we weren't discombobulated enough, the first of the desserts proper, "White chocolate with grapefruit and lemon", conspired to be surprisingly good. There was a really interesting blend of textures between the teeny meringue buttons and the soft white chocolate mousse, and the citrusy sauce finished the whole thing off very nicely.
Desserts in fact seemed to be amongst Viajante's strongest cards, the final one "Pickled and raw cucumber with milk sorbet" being just the right side of challenging and containing soft, sharp, crunchy and smooth elements all working in harmony. Pickled cucumber in a dessert, and it was quite nice - who knew?
But despite the odd highlight, I'm afraid the over-riding memory I will take with me from my experience at Viajante is of disappointment. Disappointment for a number of reasons, not least the niggling feeling that it was better the first time, that some of the dishes were so poor, that the room seemed even less conducive to having a relaxing evening. Disappointment that the odd superb dish was enough to remind me that they can produce world-class food when they want to and that I can't just write off it all as overthought nonsense. But mainly disappointment because this largely humdrum meal out in the furthest reaches of the gritty East End cost us, with only one bottle of cheapish Riesling between two and a Kir Royale each, the best part of £250, pitching it into battle with the Ledbury, Le Gavroche and pretty much every other fine dining restaurant in the capital. And based on my experience, it is a battle they are always going to lose.
So it seems, after all, that Viajante may be El Bulli's representative in London. Believe me, this isn't much of a compliment - I won the El Bulli lottery a couple of years back and trotted off to Girona only to suffer a self-important, maddeningly inconsistent meal of salty fruit, raw squid guts and other stomach-churning "experiments" interspersed with the odd edible treat. It was overlong, overwhelming and overpriced, and yet there was enough about it that was thought-provoking and challenging, and just about enough good courses to see what all the fuss was about. On the journey back from Bethnal Green last night I felt a very similar way to how I felt in the car back along those scary coastal roads north of Roses - slightly queasy, slightly confused and ever so slightly ripped off. Viajante is interesting all right, but it's not for me.