Thursday, 4 June 2015

Taberna do Mercado, Spitalfields

Whenever people ask me which cuisine is the most badly represented or otherwise maligned in London my stock answer has always been 'Mexican'. Wahaca have a fair bash at it, and there are a couple of streetfood stalls that aren't completely hideous, but most of the time I'm baffled that food so full of joy and life on the streets of Mexico somehow morphs into Tex-Mex Las Iguanas slop when it hits these shores.

But perhaps I'm just more concerned about Mexican food in the UK because I know how good it can be when done properly. I've never been to Greece, for example, so the relative dearth of good Greek restaurants in London never really bothered me too much; perhaps if I'd spent many a happy summer holiday eating fresh sardines by the beach in Naxos then it would annoy me I couldn't do the same in London but nothing I've learned about spanakopita, moussaka, dolmades and the like really has me thinking I'm missing out on that much... (sorry Greece).

Similarly, and continuing in my efforts to insult the culinary traditions of as many of my fellow Europeans as possible in one blog post, Portugal. Unlike my knee-jerk prejudice against Greek food, I have at least actually been to Portugal - specifically Lisbon. I went to a chicken restaurant that the whole of Twitter said was the best in town - Bonjardim - to find a bit of overcooked bird without much to recommend it, and was doubly annoyed when I was charged extra for nibbling on a bit of factory baguette (this cover charge business is apparently a Thing over there). The next night we went to a Michelin starred place which served a kind of bland international cuisine that could have come from anywhere. And the famous Belem Pastel de Nata (custard tarts) were fine but hardly worth an international voyage.

So when I say that the food at Taberna do Mercado is better than anything I've ever had in Portugal, or any other Portuguese food in London (nobody say the N word), that's certainly true, but still not much of a recommendation. Let's start at the beginning, with an item on the menu under the heading "Snacks" called "Runner bean fritters and bulhão pato [white wine]". A giant mass of tempura batter, studded with onions and runner beans, slowly dissolving into a cold soup of some kind, it was exactly as weird as that sounds. Pulling apart the constituent vegetables into anything bitesize was a messy and difficult business, and although it didn't taste terrible, any of the batter that had come into contact with the white wine soup was the consistency of wallpaper paste. I have absolutely no idea what I was supposed to do with this, and £5 for a few beans and batter isn't exactly value.

Bisaro pork "cachaco" (smoked neck) was good, moist but not too fatty and with a nice paprika kick.

Alheira is apparently another type of Portuguese sausage, only these had been worked into strange misshappen croquette things with a faintly disturbing mushy texture. However, the "spring tomatoes" they came with were excellent, seasoned perfectly and with bags of flavour, and even the watercress on top was noteworthy thanks to a super dressing.

Our favourite of the savouries was this - Bisaro (a rare breed of pig from Fundão) pork tartare, Cozido (a Portuguese stew) broth and cabbage. Aggressive seasoning initially threatened to spoil it but once you'd got past the salty top layer it turned into an incredibly rewarding and commendably unusual dish, dainty cubes of flash-seared pork all smoky and tender from the grill, in a clear, rich broth. Well worth the £9.

But then a beef prego sandwich brought us back down to earth. The problem with a lot of steak sandwiches is that the steak either needs to be chopped into little bits (Philly-cheesesteak style) or impossibly thin, or impossibly tender (or all three) to be able to eat it without the entire filling being dragged out with your first bite. Which was exactly what happened here. There was nothing wrong with the beef, it just didn't belong in a sandwich, and combined with the tasteless dry bread and (though no doubt authentic) deeply unsettling seafood paste (dare I say Shippams? No, I'm not that cruel), it all added up to a very unsatisfying whole.

Which makes the dessert all the more bizarre. Because, somewhat against expectations by this point, it was completely wonderful. Not only did it look almost too precious to eat, with a luminescent orange center (thickened with pork fat, but don't let that put you off) resting in a port sauce dotted with oil the colour of rare gemstones, but the flavour was just as impressive, a salt custard flan so light it just dissolved in the mouth. As a statement of intent - accomplished, unique and brilliant - it's something Taberna do Mercado should be inordinately proud of. I just wish there'd be a few more dishes that lived up to it.

All said and done, though, at least this is something new - at least, new for London. And whether or not it does the food of Portugal (which of course I'm sure I've not seen the best of) justice, that's certainly not for me to judge. All I can tell you is it's a mid-priced European restaurant in the center of London that does a few things quite well, a few other things not so well, and one thing brilliantly. At least it's not another Nando's.


There's plenty of options in Spitalfields if Taberna do Mercado doesn't take your fancy. Use my app to find them.

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Chz said...

I had a Portuguese girlfriend for the better part of a decade, and I can quite honestly say that the sweeties were most assuredly the best part of the cuisine. This from someone who does not have a sweet tooth. Away from the seaside (and it doesn't take an expert to make fresh fish wonderful), there isn't all that much to it. The only memorable thing beyond puddings was an intensely sharp and spicy (despite lack of spices in it) cheese that knocked my socks off.

Nationwide said...

Interesting appraisal, not sure I'll be dashing there.
However the point about Lisbon restaurants is a tad unfair. All the recs I followed amounted to zilch, but what blew me away were small, cheap neighbourhood places with €15 three-courses-with-wine lunchtime specials, packed every day with residents and workers within walking distance. Last time I was there I ate in three (next door to each other) and skipped dinner each evening. I love the place.
But then again I not only love pastel de nats, I actually QUEUED at Belem - for a custard tart. The shame.

Anonymous said...

Why is vino Verdi no where to be seen, it has some top and bottom end prices, qualities to match. Its partner of Seafood and fish, are on menu's everywhere. Apart from the whatever its called in the round bottle, none to be seen. Surely a supermarket (I guess Waitrose) could change this.
Watch out for rough guide recommendations in Portugal. I find the quality of food in South Portugal has gone down the pan. I had some amazing food a long time ago in the North and South. My last visit was to the South, not as good as I remember.
The place you review is not top of my list, as a visitor to London I have to be choosey.
Cheers for the review.

Sara said...

Being Portuguese myself, I raced to go to this place. I agree that it isn't the highlight I was expecting, but it's so good to see a Portuguese place in London that is going in the redirection. There are lots of homely Portuguese places in East London and Stockwell, but nice to see a place that is a little more upmarket and not just catering for the local Portuguese.

And yes, I have to disagree with you about Lisbon and agree with Nationwide. The best places to eat in Portugal are the neighbourhood cafes. They may not be upmarket, but some are great hole in the wall places, serving great, down to earth food at really cheap prices. These are the places everyday Portuguese people eat at.

And at least Taberna Do Mercado might help some people realise that Nandos is NOT Portuguese food!

Pasta Bites said...

I must admit I do not know much about Portuguese food, apart from a weekend in Lisbon years ago, where I actually did really like the food (and the pastels de nata at Belem, of course!). This is on my list, just a shame you can't book for dinner.

Alex C said...

Near where I used to live is a little Portuguese cafe. It's on the opposite corner of the crossroads to San Genarro on the way from Battersea up to Chelsea bridge.

I'm not sure their food was earth-shattering or anything but the do lovely little Portuguese snacks (the custard tarts are very good and I liked those little deep fried things too).

If you are passing give it a try - the couple who own it are lovely too.