The problem with Viajante is that it wants to play with the restaurant gods and is priced on that basis – 6 courses for £60, 9 courses for £65 or 12 courses for £85. But for those kind of prices you could go to Marcus Wareing at the Berkeley.
So let’s start with the “soft” side of the meal because that was their biggest failure. Marcus Wareing, Gordon Ramsay (here), Marcus McGuiness or any of their ilk who do similar “big” tasting menus like Viajante offer guaranteed good service. Napkins magically return to your lap. Chairs migrate in and out of the table in time with your movements and plates appear and disappear without you thinking about it.
Now I really really don’t care about good service. For me the best (cheap) meals come where it is warfare with the waiters. You sit unloved and ignored in the corner. But then the food. The juxtaposition between the brilliance of the food and the obnoxious service (and cheap prices) make those kind of meals something even more special (see Antpeliler here). Viajante wants to be more than that though. It wants to be haute molecular gastronomy Bethnal Green cuisine but it is striving to be so with shonky so so service. What is even more strange about this is when Nuno Mendes was at The Loft he oversaw an experience that was both fantastic on the food front but also had pleasant and paced service (here).
Viajante was tragic in comparison. It started by the waiter stating that we should not go for the 12 course menu as they didn’t want to keep the kitchen open late. Then the amuse bouche were rushed out in an overlapping mess. We felt they wanted to drive us out of the restaurant. Plates jarred and crashed and jilted and prodded. We didn’t know which way to look and couldn’t relax. It didn’t get better thereafter. Some courses had interminable gaps between them. Some came out so fast it felt like they had a passionate desire to be reunited after leaving the kitchen. We also didn’t know what we were meant to do. All of the normal interactions you have in such a restaurant were off kilter. We weren’t clear when we were meant to order. We didn’t really have the concept or the menus explained to us. It just felt wrong and stayed that way.
The next thing any “big” restaurant does well is the alcohol. Food is a feint for them. That is just meant to get you in the door. Alcohol makes them the money. And they offer it by the leather bound bookcase. Here we sat waiting lost and waiting for the wine list. Where was the usual and enjoyable interaction with the sommelier? That moment of the meal where you worry about how deep your pockets are? Well here, after chasing, we were referred to a couple of sides of paper at the back of the bar menu. Disheartened we chose one of the very few entry level bottles of wine. Where was the selection, the expertise and the excitement that can come from a good wine list and an experienced sommelier?
I also have to mention the cocktails. When we arrived in a flurry of excitement we had to wait for two of our table who were (as ever) late. So we had a look at the cocktail menu. It patently wasn’t 69 Colebrooke Row (here). The menus listed cocktails where the constituent parts seemed thrown together without thought to effect. However, at that stage we gave Viajante the benefit of the doubt and thought they probably know better than us and ordered. Bad. Sweets and sours clashing. Spirits and liqueurs detracting from each other. When our late guests arrived we steered them to traditional cocktails and despite the waiter’s insistence they did not elect to have wine in their whisky sours. They actually enjoyed them.
So to the food. I’ve eaten Nuno Mende’s food before at The Loft and enjoyed it. I even recognised some of the dishes as they, or parts of them, were tested on us at The Loft. And we began (obviously) with the amuse bouche. These are often the most enjoyable parts of a meal for me. It is where a chef can go crazy and be experimental and wow you with the ridiculous. Create an edifice of a course which disappears in one. Well Jen accurately described the crostini as a glorified Dorito. The jelly was rank and dank tasting in a foul textured shot. The Thai explosion was fun.
At this stage, after being harried through the amuse bouche by shoddy service, I started to panic. The food was so far unimpressive. The service terrible. The decor a touch tacky. The prices high. But we had to choose what menu to have. The waiter had already instructed us that we shouldn’t have the 12 so that was out but I was actually considering the 6 courses or leaving. Nonetheless, and with a sigh of doubt we went for the 9 courses.
I was relieved when the squid tartare came out. It was good. It was interesting. The frozen grated squid ink was the innovative component here. However, I kept remembering a frozen grated foie gras I had a Momofuku Ko last year that was so much more. The rich and light texture of the foie gras grated combined in your mouth and sent you to heaven. This just melted to a messy “jus”. Still Jen was a massive fan and it looked wondrous.
Then came our next course; a spring garden salad. And we were joyous. It was fresh. It was intricate. Each vegetable was perfect in itself and when combined with the pea soup sitting at the bottom or the grated cauliflower it was exceptional. I mentally punched the air at this point as I felt “that was it”, Nuno Mendes was hitting his stride, it was all going to be good now.
Then it was a razor clam which you shovelled down your throat like an oyster. Again it was refreshing, light and clever. It was also evident by this stage that Nuno Mendes learnt well from his Ferran Adria / El Bulli heritage and is a master of presentation. He takes what you know and slightly alters it so the unfamiliarity makes it interesting again. Given the beauty of food it is a bit of a shame how limited the surroundings are. Bethnal Green Town Hall itself (which is where Viajante is located) is a magnificent old clunker. Wood floors. High ceilings. Municipal wonder. The architects/ interior decorators have attempted to do something similar to Sketch and “funk” up an old building. They either didn’t quite have the money or the talent. It is a touch garish, a touch cheap Eurotrash or wannabe design hotel.
The vegetarian Californian dishes kept coming with a beetroot dish. The beetroot was pickled, jellied and cut into ribbons. It was fun and adventurous. The highlight was the jellied beetroot which was like a rich jam in the mouth. This was Jen’s dish of the night. By this stage we were relaxing into the meal and comfortable despite the best efforts of the waiters to throw us off tempo.
From the smells coming from the kitchen and our neighbours’ plates I knew the next dish was some form of celeriac and I trembled in fear. When I last went to The Loft Ben Greeno was in “residence” and served a salted baked heather infused celeriac “thing” which I described at the time as a noxious mess (here). The head chef (not Mendes who I think is described as a “patron”) came over to our table at this point. Seeing my winces he reassured me that this was different. Better. He was right. This was my dish of the night, the onion gravied tapioca was the perfect broth for the celeriac.
Unfortunately that was it for the exceptional side of the food. Judging by the above Nuno Mendes should open next to Saf in Shoreditch and give it a thorough spanking as he does vegetarian or light pretty food with gusto and talent. Next came the fish course, a skate with a yeast foam or sauce. It was tasty but slightly overmeddled for me. I am not sure what the yeast added other than a slight memory of a brewery. Jen has, however, informed me that I am wrong and it was great.
The following two meat courses skidded together for me. They were competent. Good even. But not a patch on the earlier vegetarian efforts. The pork was moist but the grated egg on top of it was a mismatch for me. I had hoped that given the fact that Nuno Mendes is from the region where pork is king and is cured and fried and fatted into genius it might be amazing. Oh well. The beef was rather surprisingly a bit tough but overall enjoyable.
However, we were now at the stage where it was time to be wowed again. If mains are for those who need food, for those who need calories or something to prevent the alcohol running rampant, starters and puddings are where the joy is. Where a chef can give in to whimsy and fancy. After the brilliance of the starters I began to get excited again. I shouldn’t have.
Deserts are where the food fell off a cliff. The pretty factor remained, the effort was even sustained but the results said nothing. We were prepared for it by a lemon and thai basil sorbet. I have read other reviews which have described it as refreshing. I would call it a corruption of both and a failure in the extreme. It tasted like novelty washing up liquid.
The frozen carrot desert was like some cheap Haagen Daas which has been left to defrost and refreeze in your local corner store and came crystallised and defouled. Four of us left it untouched on our plates.
The dark chocolate pudding and “water” was an irrelevance and didn’t leave you with that taste of sultry joy that a proper chocolate pudding can. The petit fours attempted to be interesting but a mushroom taste in chocolate is not going to catch on for the simple reason that it isn’t enjoyable and tasted like you were licking chocolate that had been left to mould in a cellar.
So now I have to come back to the service. When our red was brought out it was the temperature of luke warm bathwater. I noted this to the sommelier and asked her to put it on ice to cool it down and she said that she already knew it was warm. Why the hell did she serve it that way then? How can you pretend to be a serious haute cuisine destination when your wine list sits insipidly at the back of your bar menu and wines are served 5 degrees or more out?
But there were still some patches of good service. Whenever the chefs themselves came to the table with one of their dishes (every second course or so) they were a breath of fresh air. They believed in what they were doing, were proud of it and it showed when they interacted with you. I’ve already mentioned the bearer of the celeriac dish above who was a charm to talk to. The other standout person is Nuno Mendes himself who is such a nice guy. Such a nice guy I feel mean about every mediocre complaint I have listed above about the service, the odd lacklustre dish, the slightly cheap decor. The greatest success of Viajante is placing him front and centre.
Where Viajante works it really works and it is the influence of Nuno Mendes in the food. In the end the service will probably bed down, the alcohol list will grow and improve and they might even get a proper “mixologist” in. Still, at this stage, and at those prices, with those lacklustre puddings I’m off to Marcus Wareing next time.
- Price – £above a hundred a head – easily
- Patriot Square, Bethnal Green, London E2 9NF
PS this review was after the soft opening. So a full price no holds barred cash fest.
EDIT – PPS quite a few people have been for the £25 set lunch at Viajante since it opened and I thought it was worth linking to two recent reviews by Essex Eating and The London Foodie on it so you can see their thoughts on why the set lunch is a good and affordable intro to Mendes’ food. I have to say I can see why they had a better experience as you get to experience all that Mendes does well (the brilliance of the vegetable and fish courses, the use of colour and beautiful plating) without the “issues” that I experienced, i.e. a busy Friday night and a restaurant not up to the standards of the peers it is trying to emulate. Links here and here.