“Nuno Mendes has come home. The chef most recently lauded for his launch of the Chiltern Firehouse restaurant……..has embraced his Portuguese heritage in Spitalfields Market. He looks wonderfully content. Wreathed in soft whiskers and smiles.” Fay Maschler
Lisbon born chef Nuno Mendes trained at the California Culinary Academy before cooking his way around the world, visiting Central America and Asia as well as working in the kitchens of Ferran Adrià and Wolfgang Puck. In 2006 he took over innovative gastropub Bacchus, receiving some great write-ups and leading to him opening Viajante in Bethnal Green’s Town Hall Hotel where he quickly earned a Michelin star. The restaurant drew on Mendes’ travelling experiences, with Latino and pan-Asian influences brought together with thoroughly modern techniques. Not everyone was convinced though, with Jay Rayner proclaiming that “at Viajante deliciousness is too often forced to give way to cleverness.” Mendes was tempted away from Bethnal Green by the big wallet of oligrach André Balazs who took over the Chiltern hotel in 2014 and wanted a fine dining centerpiece – the restaurant was an instant success, gaining favourable reviews, celebrity diners and a Michelin star within months of opening. The latest restaurant from Nuno is a more humble affair – it focuses on the cuisine of his homeland, and in particular the food of the south-central region of Alentejo. I went along for lunch in their opening week.
La Taberna occupies a prime slot in Old Spitalfields Market – it has around 40 covers, including some outdoor seating, and they are due to install an outdoor grill in the coming weeks. The decor is simple, with pine furnishings and whitewashed walls – it is a nice, neutral set up, though I think they have skimped a bit on the chairs which are flimsy and uncomfortable. It was surprisingly quiet on my visit, but I think given the recent stellar reviews it has received, it will become increasingly hard to snag a table. Mendes has delegated the running of the kitchen to his fellow countryman, Anthony Galapito (who worked under Mendes in Bethnal Green) although Mendes’ gentle yet hirsute presence was hard to miss on my visit – he was moving between the kitchen, bar and guests, giving the odd instruction to a waitress and warmly greeting various friends who had come to sample his new menu.
The menu is fairly short and simple, with the focus being on small sharing plates (£6-13) – there are also selection of portuguese cheeses (£6-13) and cold meats (£7-14), as well as some house prepared tinned fish (£5-7) and Portuguese sandwiches. We started with runner bean fritters (£5) which were wonderfully light and crispy – they came sitting in a clam juice broth which was packed with aromas of the sea and paired really well with the crunchy beans. A dish that was more than the sum of its parts. We moved on to prawn rissois which Ed Smith described as being like “mini Findus crispy pancakes” – I think that is a bit harsh, but not too far from the truth: the prawns had been mashed up and their flavour wasn’t obvious, they tasted of deep frying rather than anything else. We also sampled a few of the tinned fish dishes – the fish is cured, tinned and cooked in-house, then served in the tin along with some crusty bread. This is a nice little gimmick but the resulting dishes were underwhelming – turbot (which should probably never be served in a tin) was overcooked, mushy and tasteless; baby scallops were better as the flesh remained firm and the coral was light and sweet.
Cuttlefish with pig’s trotters (£10) sounds like a Portuguese peasant’s dream but the resultant dish was a let-down – the cuttlefish had been cooked sous-vide but it hadn’t been browned so it was lacking texture, the flavour of the pig’s trotters was dominated by garlic and the decorative coriander flowers. Far more pleasing was the beef prego (£9) – the meat melted in the mouth and was perfectly seasoned, the stone baked bread was crunchy and held the sandwich together well. I suspect that these portuguese sandwiches will be a hit with office workers nearby.
And finally, to the highlight of the meal, a pig fat and egg yolk pudding (£5) served with a port caramel – this is a traditional portuguese dessert apparently invented by nuns, who were replete with discarded egg yolks after using the whites to starch their habits. The pudding was dense and slightly chewy with a hint of salt and bags of richness, the slightly tart port sauce cut through the fatty notes to complete an unusual, exceptional dish.
Verdict: Portuguese food is far tastier than I thought; you must try the egg yolk pudding 7/10