I do like a restaurant with a sense of whimsy.
I do like a restaurant where I’ll often look down at a dish that could double as an installation and mutter ‘there’s no way I could do this at home’.
I do like being taken by surprise by flavour pairings and quirky ingredients. 
I do like floor staff who have infectious enthusiasm for where they are and what they do. 

These are just four reasons why I like Viajante; lots.

Here are some more…

Nuno Mendes’  restaurant Viajante has proudly taken up residence in the lobby of the Bethnal Green Town Hall, East London. There’s a gritty coolness to the streets outside, that doesn’t just come from the December wind and the salted pavement. Upstairs there are hotel rooms and there’s a hip bar to the left. Straight ahead and down the stairs are bathrooms and a listening station of headphones and a nook, just in case you need a little time out from the conversation at your table. We know this because when we went I lost my husband, twice.

To the left is Viajante restaurant, proper.

The kitchen is white and open. It’s a place of calm and precision. There are two dining rooms, seating a maximum of 40 people. The first dining room is where we are seated- it brings the added benefit of being able to watch the kitchen’s combination of alchemy and accuracy, as tweezers are wielded while plating your meal and a clipboard marks off where everyone is up to in their degustations.

It’s a simple choice at night; it’s either six, nine or 12 courses. You can say if you have allergies, but that’s about it. There’s no menu to look at until the end, when it serves as a reminder of the good things that have passed. We pick the middle road of nine. We are celebrating; the birthday of a dear friend in London, known henceforth as the Art Director.

The Art Director looks quizically around the room. The floors are blonde parquet, the walls decorated with cornflower blue drapes. Their patterns resemble microscope slides viewed on high zoom. There are no table cloths. The chairs are low and blue. “The chairs make it feel a little more like a cafe…” is one comment. She’s right, as she always is. But this is far from your local cafe.

Viajante is Portugese for ‘traveller’. It’s a name that reflects both the journey of Nuno Mendes and his heritage. Over the next four hours we make our way through a menu that hitch-hikes all over the globe. Like any trip we find some experiences which startle and delight, and others that fall a little flat. But the plateaus are made more pronouced by the sheer pleasure found at the peaks.

The journey begins with a ‘thai explosion’- a novel bite of a flesh sandwiched with crispy chicken skin. The title of  ‘explosion’ may be overselling the texture slightly, but the other part of the title is located in the warmth from the Thai  basil, which lingers on your palette like smoke from a fire.

Here is another thing I like. I like warm bread. And I like butter. Always have, always will. So it makes sense that this following derivation of the staple blew me away. There are three elegant  ficelles, made in house. The crust has guts, but the interior is soft and welcoming.  With them is a cloud of whipped brown butter, adorned with skerricks of crispy chicken skin and a savoury powder of purple potato.

It is seriously grown up bread and butter. Atkins be gone.

The first dish we face is light and curious. Raw scallops, pumpkin puree and a frozen snow of mustard. Puddling about below is a pumpkin consomme split with rocket oil.

Over the top, balanced jenga-style are cigarillos of raw pumpkin.

To us there’s a reason that pumpkin isn’t often eaten raw.

Any territory lost is reclaimed with leek hearts that come with the next. They’re paired with the earthiness of hazelnuts and some splodges of ash mayonnaise. Blanketing it all are some milk skins- they may resemble burn bandages but they bring a delicate note of dairy that rounds the smokiness that’s smothering the aioli. It’s a dish that reminds us a lot of some of the restrained early vegetable dishes we ate at Mugaritz.

Here’s another thing I like. Agedashi tofu. I’ll always order it in a Japense restaurant and not just for the novetly value of watching bonito flakes dance. So there’s another good reason why I loved the next . It’s a puree of smoked eggplant, topped with the clipped helmets of enoki mushrooms, softly confited salmon and griddled eggplant. A moat of agedashi stock is floated around it all.

It’s a restrained symphony-the sweetness and salt in all waltz around holding hands. It’s here that we realise how inspiring Viajante’s wine pairings can be . We’ve made our way so far through a crisp and clear Australian riesling and some Gruner Vetliner. Here, with this very Japanese dish it’s a rose from 2000. It’s aged so it sweeps across your mouth like a dry sherry and lets the other flavours dance at the front. Very clever stuff.

The seafood theme continues for the next couple of courses. A long rectangular sheet of potato is protecting hunks of lobster and roasted potato. Under that, distended like a pregnant belly is a poached egg yolk. When this is pierced it floods the plate, binding the stock  into a lip sticking sauce.

The next we don’t love quite as much. It’s a rectangle of sea bass, lolling across a smear of kale puree. There’s a bit of crunch and punch from jamon and toast. What makes it more curious are the slivers of a cow’s milk cheese from Portugal.

Sea bass, pureed greens and a cheese that falls firmly into the ‘itchy mouth cheese’ category. It’s a twirling turn on the flavour thesaurus- and not necessarily one I’d need to repeat.

That is the exact opposite of what comes next. It’s a bonus course, we think, after  we discovered a mutual friend working in the kitchen. It arrives on warmed rocks- a novelty in itself. Layered above, like good things found at the base of a fire is a buttress of smoked rosemary. Over that is a beautifully sweet section of langoustine tail and a tanlge of enoki mushrooms, mysterious as mermaid tresses. Draped over that is a cape of lardo which softly melts. You pick it all up with your finger tips and gobble in one bite. I’m sure cavemen never had it this good.

It’s an alchemic combination. When you eat it the melting pig fat adds a subtle sheen to your lips. It’s served with a miniature martini glass of chilled sake and a hot towel. It is one of the sexiest things I’ve ever eaten. Superb.

From here we head to the dark side- meats and red wine.

Viajante deftly avoids the formulaic paint-by-numbers appropach to meat so often seen in starred places.  Like the traditions of a third or fourth ‘white fish filler course’ we’ve come to expect a presentation of meat + squish + sauce. Or, a  ‘piece of sous vide and seared protein sitting on top of pureed vegetable, with a drizzling of butter heavy jus’

Both of our meat dishes couldn’t be further from that trope.

Venison is like a wander in the forrest, in search of Bambi.  We find her in the centre of a salad, seared and lightly charred amidst jerusalem artichokes, blackberries and mushrooms.

Around the perimeter there are little blobs of creme fraiche which give it a tart and creamy kick along. To drink there’s an obscure Chilean red, which brings as its cargo a strong dump of tannin.

The salad style presentation is also echoed in the next; a charming combination of squab and blushing beetroot. With it are three types of beetroot having a little party. Over the top there’s a dusting of pistachio crumbs. It’s one of the prettiest main courses I’ve had in a long time- bursting with colour, heights and textures. It seems a pity to destroy it with a fork.

Yet there’s still plenty of fun to be had. A palette cleanser of British sea buckthorn curd and granita is one. Snaking up the side is a toasted slick of meringue. It’s a fun combination of textures- the chewiness of the meringue and the slickness of the curd coupled with the melting freshness of the shaved ice. Meanwhile the sea buckthorn has a good citrus kick and a hint of bitterness. It’s as fresh as a campari and orange on a hot day.

We’re coming to the close of the meal, yet unlike others of similar calibres (Hibiscus…?) it doesn’t feel like we’ve been waterboarded by fat and food. There’s no need to call on the digestive miracle of the seperate dessert stomach- perhaps because of the lightness of flavours and reliance on salad style constructions, there’s still plenty of room at the inn.

Dessert isn’t always my favourite part of the meal- but for my dining companions, The Hungry One, and the Art Director, it’s a constant highlight. Their mutual ability to eat chocolate at any time of the day is constantly entertaining.

So the desserts that arrive firmly falls into the category of things they like. It’s plated on a grey stone, that looks like it’s endured a thumb print from a giant. In the curved centre is a log of hazelnut parfait. Around it are granules of coffee, hazelnut cream and dense chocolate cake. Over the top is a snorting of malt powder.

By this point we’re sated by both food and booze. Considerately there’s a Taiwanese oolong tea to sip, rather than a nip of muscat. The next morning my head is particularly grateful for this fact.

To close there are macchiattos that can hold there own and some delightful petit fours; a doll sized portion of creme catalan flavoured with burnt citrus and vanilla; a squish of clementine jelly and then a white truffle flavoured with cep mushrooms- a cute twist on a truffle/truffle.

It’s the sort of meal that helps you remember why you go out and occasionaly spend serious coin on dinner. It’s made all the more pleasant by the enthusiasm of the floor staff. Our Italian accented waiter had the effervescence of prosecco,  from the very get go we were swept up into the excitement of the experience.

Viajante may not be for everyone. I think the room benefits from an evening visit, when the lights are low. I think it helps if you have a good sense of fun and are willing to throw yourself into the experience, not quite knowing where you’ll end up, but happy to go along for the ride.

But this is the kind of dining I like. And if you’re anything like me, it’s a journey well worth taking.

Viajante
Patriot Square
Bethnal Green
London E2 9NF
+44 (0) 20 7871 0461

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