Clad in hard-hat and hi-vis vest, Douglas Blyde previews Nuno Mendes’ latest venture, ‘Viajante’, Bethnal Green
‘Viajante – the traveller – is my nickname,’ says Mendes softly, ‘and this restaurant represents my journey. My experiences in Europe, Asia, Africa and America are present on the menus, which I see as an emotional story as well as a voice for flavours. It’s not just about nourishment; you could go somewhere cheaper for that.’
Neck craned, I gaze into an intricate chandelier at Bethnal Green’s ‘Town Hall’ hotel. Handmade by textile and jewellery designer, Tzuri Gueta, its wavy silicone fronds bring glowing glamour to the grand building, derelict for three decades. From first being seen from the street, on closer inspection the light becomes ‘as detailed as a painting’ according to French architects, Nathalie Rozencwajg and Michel da Costa Gonçalves of ‘Rare’. Other examples of sensual ‘digital craftsmanship’ in the restaurant include a contemporary take on traditional armchairs, and a ‘music box cocoon’ en-route to the loos.
Repair and Renewal
Owner, Peng Loh is responsible for the rehabilitation of the Grade II listed site, including the addition of a ‘triangulated’ storey. ‘Peng brings life to beautiful buildings on the verge of abandonment,’ says Mendes. ‘At 37, he’s only a year older than me. But seeing him work is inspiring. He tends to the smallest detail.’ As well as a meticulous nature, Loh shares Mendes’ sense of being gripped by gastronomy. ‘We went to ‘Noma’, Copenhagen. I remember all 20 courses, from king crab eggs with ashes and mussel emulsion to baby vegetables from chef René Redzepi’s garden.’
Born in Portugal, Mendes grew up on a farm. ‘We kept pigs, which I cared for after they were born, learning to respect them and feeling how strong their presence is. In fact, I’ve always wanted one as a pet.’ Unsurprisingly, Mendes is disturbed by the thought of taking an animal’s life. ‘Even shucking an oyster makes me think. It’s weird, isn’t it? When we killed pigs at festival time, we used everything – snout, ears, lungs and tripe.’
Mendes studied marine biology in Miami before giving up the dream to dive in favour of more practical cooking, enrolling at California Culinary Academy, San Francisco. He subsequently opened east coast eatery, ‘Jean-Georges’. However it was the Salvador Dalí of the kitchen, Ferran Adriá who opened his mind.
‘At the time I was running a restaurant by the border in Santa Fe. My food focussed on Native American, Spanish and Portuguese ingredients. But a stage at elbulli, Roses, made me question the rules. In many ways it was already a school back in 2003, although I wished I could have experienced its golden age towards the end of the 90’s, when they were still scratching for that third Michelin star.’
Parallels have been drawn between Mendes’ intricate, calibrated, plated perfectionism and Adriá’s. I wonder what he thinks of the Costa Brava chef’s oft quoted mission to craft a ‘new alphabet’ of cooking? ‘I’m ambitious,’ he says, ‘and I have my own language. But it’s within the known alphabet. Everything has a base, even ‘spheriphication’, which originates from Taiwanese bubble tea. I’m sure if you’d asked Ferran if he wanted to reinvent the alphabet 25 years ago, he’d have said that no, he just wanted to cook.’
Mendes’ love of food extends beyond the film of fine dining, however. ‘I was invited to train staff in Kenya where they had tremendous drive despite a limited range of equipment and ingredients. If I want something exotic in London, like Japanese seasoning, it’s here in a day. But there you’re restricted. As a chef you learn adapt to your environment and be very versatile.’
Mendes moved to East London five years ago, drawn by ‘its quirks’ and the notion of ‘bringing gastronomy to the ghetto.’ ‘I always want to cook where my friends are, where people can step out of the street and into my place. Somewhere that’s fun and exciting.’
His first project was ‘Bacchus’, Hoxton, where he offered multifaceted, molecular menus behind rolled steel shutters. ‘I took architects Michel and Nathalie to feel the honesty and magic of that old pub. Town Hall is obviously more majestic, but not glitzy - which I never wanted it to be.’
Because of an arguably intimidating location, Mendes amended Bacchus’ food from avant-garde to more traditional Mediterranean with a robust British accent. ‘It was hard to let go of, but hey, life goes on. A good friend of mine says: “when you close a door, you open a window.”’
The Loft Project was the “window”, a weekly supper-club held in Mendes’ apartment where six chefs cook for 16. ‘Our first guest chef was Ben Greeno from Noma – it’s cool to have one of the world’s finest food talents living in your house.’
Despite a lack of privacy, Mendes believes it has been the most eventful period of his career. ‘I’ve evolved as a chef and a person. It’s allowed me to strike a closer relationship with my guests whilst staying in the public eye. I’ve also met like minded talents, many of whom will join me at Viajante.’
Whilst the Loft continues, Mendes recently bought a house at London Fields, allowing him space ‘to finally recharge.’
No Obstacles Gastronomy
Like the Loft, Viajantes’ main kitchen is ‘inside’ the restaurant. ‘The architects originally wanted to build it downstairs, but I said, no, I want to cook for my guests. And at the Loft, we served the food ourselves, which we’re going to trial here. We’re also offering the option to pre-pay - to help get rid of anything that creates a drop in the evening.’
Totalling 80, Viajantes’ covers are divided between restaurant and bar. ‘Fine dining’s our first face, then there’s the bar where mixologist, Stuart Hudson will work with a second kitchen to create an integral part of a cocktail, or even its garnish.’
In addition, all of the hotel’s 98 rooms have kitchens equipped with standard appliances. ‘My chefs offer fantastic room service, like a six course tasting menu. We’ll also be hosting twice-monthly supper clubs in the Edwardian council chamber.’
Wine is selected by Filipino sommelier, Linda Violago, best known for her work at ‘Charlie Trotter’s’, Chicago. ‘Although we’re not a full on Portuguese restaurant, we want to bring in artisan Portuguese producers,’ he says.
As with Mendes’ initial incarnation of Bacchus, diners choose tasting menus, of 6, 9 or 12 instalments. ‘I follow some of the Japanese ruling over structure, for example, cool before cooked and steamed before fried.’ He also takes a rather Communistic approach to produce. ‘I don’t use so-called noble ingredients too much. I like to look at all the possibilities. Why does a potato have to be savoury? And a carrot can belong in the sweet world.’ Hence the carrot mousse, sweet and pickled, with buttermilk and granite.
Taking a silver spoon to a sugar bowl then sifting the grains at eye level, he rationalises, ‘Look at this. You can make something completely translucent, envelop a beautiful piece of fruit or meat just be applying a little heat, or incorporate nuts for feather light praline powder.’
Above all, Mendes loves seafood, and an octopus confit with pickled radishes, egg yolks and red pepper granite may well become his signature dish. ‘I also want to cure fish with citrus and give ceviche a new face, bringing it closer to the Japanese style.’
According to Rozencwajg. Mendes’ ‘very conceptual food’ echoes the architecture of Town Hall. ‘It’s a seamless blend of tastes, textures and visuals offering multiple layers of reading and a subtle work on colours. One bite delivers multiple experiences.’
When Bacchus closed its doors on fine dining, the capital’s foodies were quick to express their sorrow via forums. But I wonder what national critics will make of Mendes’ often tender, always thoughtful approach, especially now that it’s framed in such a high profile location. ‘First and foremost, a lot of people around here will like it and hopefully word will spread. Some won’t get it – and some will hate it, although I’m prepared for that.’
I joke that the restaurant’s powder blue walls will be ablaze with a lightening of food bloggers’ camera flashes come opening night. Indeed one already broke his trust by reporting, in detail, a friends and family only run-through of the new menu. This saddened him deeply. ‘This project is two and a half years in the making and I believe in it. I just wanted everything to be perfect before we went public...’
Viajante opens 15 April, one month ahead of Town Hall Hotel