Recently I told a long lost friend that I was living in East London. He looked at me, eyes brimming with pity, and asked whether I’d had to eat many jellied eels. If he wasn’t being deadly serious, I wouldn’t have been so shocked. But he was.
The East End has been shackled with a reputation of jellified, fish-based produce. People think that the 24-hour bagel shop is as good as it gets. Otherwise it’s Bethnal Green’s Chicken ‘n Ribs joints or a dodgy Brick Lane curry.
The truth couldn’t be further off though – a string of glorious bars and restaurants have been opening up in E2: Brawn, Worship Street Whistling Shop…and Viajante (I have to confess that restaurants are popping up so quickly that I can’t keep up. Viajante opened in April so is kind of old news—now it’s all about The Corner Room, which launched this week, and is an upstairs, cheaper and apparently brilliant extension of Viajante).
I was particularly interested to go to Viajante though, because I’d heard such mixed reviews about the venture set up by El Bulli-trained, Nuno Mendes in Bethnal Green’s old town hall.
AA Gill gave it a measly two stars. Guardian reviewer Matthew Norman couldn’t get over the stumbling block of there being no menus, and gave Mendes a hit rate of one in three dishes. Tracey MacLeod from The Independent also scored Viajante cruelly low, complaining about the open kitchen with “the spookily silent team of chefs, busily tweezering items onto plates from Tupperware boxes.”
Viajante’s selling point is the dining experience though—the mystery menu, and tweezering of spring garden salads is part of the fun. If Mendes had strived to create a formal and conventional restaurant, then it’s fair to slate him—because Viajante is anything but that. But it seems a little unfair to criticisise a restaurant for not being something it never set out to be.
When I went, I’d set aside an afternoon to work my way through the six-course taster menu. Setting aside time is key—the afternoon disappeared in a flurry of twelve beautiful little dishes whizzing on and off the table. They were formally introduced by charming waiters (and a few by Mendes himself).
Every detail had been thought through—broad beans and popcorn kept cropping up in dishes, tying the entire meal together, and stopping the courses from being detached and random. The mackerel with lemon and wood sorrel, for example, was served with a nutty popcorn dust, and then the meal finished with white chocolate ice cream fashioned into individual popcorn shapes.
The only negative point made by Mendes’ critics that I’d agree with is the hit-and-miss nature of the dishes. Some of them were definitely better than others. Perfection comes at a price though—if you want to pay triple the amount for a well-rehearsed, flawless meal, then there are plenty of places in London….but at £50 for 12 plates, I’d take a chance of Viajante any day.
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