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.