Review: Viajante, Bethnal Green


Savour a wide breadth of textures and flavours created by Nuno Mendes at this truffle of a Michelin-starred restaurant

NB and I should have known better than to book a table at a Michelin-starred restaurant for 9 o’clock on a Friday night. For what else to fill the intervening hours, between the leaving-on-the-dot workday and arriving at our table, than a bottle of rosé in my sunset-flushed back garden?

Followed, naturally, by decidedly pro-ethanol cocktails in the decidedly pro-cocktail Viajante bar. I suspect it was the one in the brass goblet served alight with emerald-indigo flames thanks to a litre or two of chartreuse, lit by a glowing match of star anise, that did it.

Or, wait, maybe it was the one topped with whiskey foam and grated nutmeg, served endearingly in a miniature glass tankard, to look exactly like a half-pint of frothy bitter. Crafted, ingeniously, to taste exactly like a half pint of frothy bitter. Although, I can now testify, rather more alcoholic that a half-pint of frothy bitter.

Viajante is that rare truffle of the occasionally rather fungal London restaurant scene; it is experimental and highly accomplished without being pretentious

Ah well. At least the waiting staff seemed to enjoy our most ebullient appraisal of Every. Single. Dish. All six of the dishes, in fact, plus three rounds of almost starter-size amuse bouche. (You can opt for the three-dish tasting menu for £28, six-dish for £50 or nine-dish for £70. There is no à la carte.)

Actually, I would have been just as appreciative – though perhaps a half decibel or two quieter – had I been sober. For Viajante is that rare truffle of the occasionally rather fungal London restaurant scene; it is experimental – and highly accomplished – without being pretentious.

In fact, it really is pretty good fun. I think this occurred to me just after the “Thai explosion”, a ducky, moussey mini-sandwich laced with a sudden rush of lemongrass. On my way to the loo, I clocked the little seat where you can just sit and listen to Beach Boys-type music through headphones.

Maybe it was the subliminal effect of the décor: Hawaii-cum-1950s-middle-America, with flashes of contemporary art to de-kitsch.  Or perhaps the immediate warmth and absolute unstuffiness of the waiting staff – so rare among Michelin-starred restaurants.

Maybe it was just the sheer tantalisation of savouring such a wide breadth of flavours and textures, curated and combined by ex-El Bulli chef Nuno Mendes (El Bulli, of course, being the restaurant that was almost always voted number one in the S Pellegrino ranking before closing in July 2011).

For example:

– A cod dish split across two servings, one of which came with a green-flecked sauce the precise consistency of PVA glue – entirely extra-terrestrial to my tongue.

– Home-made liquid cheese with flowers that tasted exactly how you would imagine if the whole of a grassy meadow were to dance across your palate, if you were lucky enough to be a JCB digger with a tongue digging up said meadow. “IT TASTES LIKE SUMMER!” I squealed, like a Care Bear with several learning difficulties, to the bemused waiter.

– The revelation that sour cherry complements baby gem lettuce to an unprecedented degree of perfection. Who knew?

I really don’t want to go into any more detail, for you must discover these wonders for yourselves, and to give away any more would be spoiling things.

The food was a little more challenging than most UK Michelin-starred eateries I’ve been to, and one or two dishes weren’t quite as full in flavour as others. But then you also learn to appreciate a range of flavour intensity that easily hops from a subtle broth and rawness in one dish, to rich, punchy, familiarly meatiness in the next.

NB and I also got to meet head chef Nuno towards the latter stages of the feast. Originally I believed he had come out just to thank us for all the warm praise we were filling his restaurant with at the tops of our voices, but gradually I realised he comes to meet each table. Which, again, is pretty special.

He wasn’t even intimidated by the fact we treated him like a minor deity. (Me: “You created this whole menu? Wow. WOW. Wow.” NB: “You have made us so happy with your talent, AND your hair is cool.”) For which I can only really thank Nuno Mendes, at the same time as thanking him for creating one of the finest restaurants I have been to in London.