24 July 2012

Viajante, London – Restaurant Review

I was recently in London to embark on what can only be described as an epic week of eating. Over five days my fellow travelling companions and I ate at eight different restaurants with eight Michelin stars between them (reviews to follow, eventually). The damage to my waistline (and wallet) notwithstanding, it was a fantastic and truly memorable trip and confirmed to me just how exciting the food scene in London is right now. One of the highlights of the trip has to have been a monumentally good lunch at Viajante.

Viajante (the name means 'traveller' in Portuguese) opened in March 2010 and quickly established itself as one of the highlights of the London dining scene, gaining a Michelin star just 10 months after opening. It's located away from the glitz of the more established fine dining areas of Mayfair and the West End in the grand grade II listed Bethnal Green Town Hall.

The man behind Viajante is Portuguese-born chef Nuno Mendes, whose brand of avant-garde cooking first came to prominence when he opened Hoxton gastropub Bacchus in 2006. Mendes brought with him to London considerable experience gained from working with chefs such as Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Wolfgang Puck, and Ferran Adrià. I never got the chance to eat at Bacchus, but at a time when most gastropubs were serving staples such as lamb shanks and fishcakes, its dishes of scallops with "green apple air" and sardines with rosemary-sake spray (dispensed from an atomiser) must have seemed to come from another planet. By and large it received it mixed reviews. Perhaps it was a little too avant-garde for what used to be an old Victorian pub in Hackney?

Bacchus closed its doors in 2008 and Mendes focused on establishing The Loft Project, a temporary supper club that has turned into a platform for the next generation of talented chefs to showcase their food. Viajante therefore marks Mendes' permanent return to the London dining scene and my lunch here would be my first long overdue taste of Nuno's food.

The interior of the restaurant is calm and restrained. The furniture seems classically Scandinavian at first glance, their fluid aesthetic reminiscent of tree branches sprouting skywards. Next to us was an open kitchen where tweezer-wielding chefs spoke in hushed tones as they methodically and calmly assembled each dish.

Mendes himself greeted us with a warm smile and in a soft mid-Atlantic lilt (Mendes spent over 10 years working in the States) he explained that at Viajante there is no menu, you simply decide how many courses you'd like (your choice ranges from a 3-course lunch at priced at £35 to a 12-course dinner at £95). Mendes and his team had kindly offered to create a special menu for us and our only task was to say how hungry we were. "Very!" was our succinct reply. And the resulting 22-course lunch – with each dish presented by Nuno and his team – was one of the most memorable I've ever had.

Amuse Bouche 1: "Thai Explosion III." As its name suggests this is the third iteration of what has now become a classic little Viajante dish. Also as its name suggests, it packs quite a wallop of flavour. Soft Thai-spiced chicken confit and quail egg was sandwiched between crisp layers of chicken skin and coconut. I loved the way the fragrant notes of lemongrass, coriander and lime came through at different times, with the gentle kick of chilli heat only being detectable right at the end. This was a bold and lively way to wake up the taste buds.

Amuse Bouche 2: "Amaranth with Sorrel." Hay-smoked grains of amaranth (a staple grain of the Aztecs) had been toasted and served with sorrel purée. This was the first time I tried amaranth and its malty, nutty flavour was a good match with the lemony freshness of the sorrel.

Amuse Bouche 3: "Squid with Daikon." Thin strands of squid had been charred and were succulent yet still with a little bite to them, almost like udon noodles. The squid was wrapped with a thin sheet of daikon radish and served with squid ink and dill oil.

Amuse Bouche 4: "Potato with Yeast and Olive." Warm potato was wrapped with Ibérico ham and served with a yeast purée and dried black olives. Yeast isn't usually a flavour you see on its own so this dish was quite an unusual, yet delicious combination. The fragrant yeast wasn't as strong in flavour as its aroma suggested and the whole ensemble packed an intense umami punch.

Bread: Beautiful thin potato flutes and rustic chunks of bacon & walnut sourdough bread were served with two different kinds of butter: smoked butter with walnut and brown butter with chicken skin.

Course 1: "Scallop with Juice and Moss." Raw scallops were served at room temperature with frozen sea herbs and a shellfish reduction. This was a gentle and light dish. The sweet scallops were really lifted by the fresh grassiness of the sea herbs. I also really liked the contrast in temperatures and textures – a fantastic opening dish.

Course 2: "Leek Hearts with Pine Shoots and Frozen Milk." Lightly grilled leek hearts were served cool and were refreshing and crisp. They came with spruce shoots, spruce oil and granules of frozen pine milk. This dish had a fresh, clean taste of pine.

Course 3: "Oyster with Borlotti Beans." An enormous oyster had been lightly poached and deftly sliced. It was served with a cool borlotti bean soup and Alsace bacon oil. This was another light dish yet the oysters lent it a slight meatiness.

Course 4: "White Asparagus with Crème Fraîche Butter and Spiced Bread." I was focussing so much on the food that I completely forgot to take a picture of this next dish, but you can see a photo someone else took here. White asparagus was lightly grilled and served with crème fraîche butter, crisp spiced bread, leaves of wood sorrel and wood sorrel oil.

Course 5: "Cured Bream with Fennel Caramel and Toasted Oats" was a dish of gently cured sea bream belly that had been charred on the skin side. It was served with caramelised fennel purée, lightly charred chicory pressed in dill oil, slow roasted oats, lemon peel confit, celery and anise salt, and was finished with drops of dill oil. This was a light, multi-textured dish with the lemon peel, chicory and aniseed of the fennel giving it an aromatic and light flavour. One of my favourite dishes of the meal.

Course 6: "Razor Clam with Frozen Pinenut and Demi-Glace." A razor clam was cooked for just a few seconds before being served with frozen pinenut milk, and a chilled cognac-spiked shellfish demi-glace that was almost chocolatey in its intensity. This was another cold dish and was fresh-tasting as a result, although it was slightly richer than the previous dishes marking the progression toward the 'main' courses.

Course 7: "Brill with Spring Vegetables and Mussels." Brill skirt was served with crisp, lightly cured spring vegetables, mussel purée and a dollop of surprisingly yeasty and savoury cider foam.

Course 8: "Bacalhau dos Mundos – Collar with Bacalhau Dashi." The next two dishes would see us served two different preparations of bacalhau (dried salted cod). The first part was the bacalhau collar, which was has been grilled in nori. The nori is then powdered and sprinkled over the fish. It is served with a warm bacalhau dashi made with roasted garlic. What an amazing flavour this dish had – rich, intense and soothing, full of umami and fragrant garlic!

Course 9: "Bacalhau dos Mundos – Tripe with Onions, Parsley and Potatoes." The second part of the bacalhau course was cod tripe served with crisp shards of onion and potato and a light parsley-infused cod stock. Cod tripe was a first for me, but I loved its mild taste and dense gelatinous texture.

Course 10: "Smoked Bone Marrow with Beef Broth" was a small, but hearty dish. Smoked bone marrow was served in a beef broth with walnuts, delicate little mushrooms and onions.

Course 11: "Pig Tail with Pecan Molé, Bay Leaf Yoghurt and Sweet Cornbread." Confit pork tail was rich and flavoursome, the flesh being succulent while the skin was perfectly crisp. It was served with a thick, complex mole sauce, cornbread and yoghurt dusted with dried bay leaf.

Course 12: "Ibérico Pluma with Goat's Curd and Toasted Black Quinoa" was another standout dish. The soft flavoursome acorn-fed pork was cooked medium rare and was a real joy to eat.

Course 13: "Pickled and Raw Cucumber with Lemon" was a reviving dish and served to focus our palates again after experiencing such a multitude of flavours. Raw and pickled cucumber was served with reduced milk sorbet, cucumber jelly, cucumber granita, and mint oil. It tasted supremely fresh and crisp, with a great contrast of textures. It was stunning.

Course 14: "Caramel, Parfait, Flowers and Chocolate," like all of our desserts, was presented by the pastry chef himself, Meng, and despite his soft-spoken nature it's clear that he's such a creative talent. This, our first dessert proper, was an abstract work of art consisting of a smear of thick, intense caramel, dehydrated chocolate sponge cake, chocolate parfait, wild herbs and flowers and microwaved sponge cake. It was full of notes of chocolate, spice and caramel with a wonderful floral hint to it. It was served with a semi-sweet sake that brought a nice touch of freshness to the dish.

Course 15: "Milk" was the straightforward title of our next dessert and as it's name suggests it was simply different preparations of milk. Similar in taste to sweetened condensed milk, the real highlight was the interplay of the different textures and temperatures of milk. This dish was served with a milky looking unfiltered sake that added a delicate floral aroma. I adored this dish.

Course 16: "Duck and Wheatgrass" was a dessert that takes you so far outside your comfort zone, yet it was delicious and a work of utter creative brilliance. A puck of thick foie gras custard had a soft skin that yielded to a thick creamy centre, almost like an Époisses cheese in texture. It was served with sweet wheatgrass ice cream, while caramelised toasted grains and fried wheatgrass added a bit of crunch. The interplay of sweet milky richness from the ice cream and foie gras with the fresh bitterness of wheatgrass was extraordinary. I still can't stop thinking about this dessert – completely bonkers, yet completely amazing.

Course 17: "Jerusalem Artichokes, Chocolate Soil and Blood Orange." For our final course we were served crisp caramelised shards of Jerusalem artichoke with chocolate 'soil,' rosemary ice cream, blood orange, and Jerusalem artichoke syrup. This dish had a rich fragrant taste with great contrast in textures. Again, another superlative dessert.

As the restaurant's name suggests, this is food without a geographic locus. The cuisine seems influenced by a variety of regions: from Latin America to Southern Europe and Scandinavia, and eastwards to Japan and Southeast Asia. Ultimately though, these are mostly familiar ingredients that have been prepared and combined in new exciting ways such that you are able to see them in a new light – the foie gras and wheatgrass dessert, and potato with yeast amuse being prime examples of this.

Mendes' innovative cooking borders just on the right side of eccentric and in the end comes across as being more playful than overly conceptual. But this is not food you can casually eat; it demands every bit of your attention, however in return you're richly rewarded for your efforts. 

In all my years in London I think this was quite possibly one of the most epic lunches I've had, which surprised and delighted in equal measure. It's clear Mendes is a fierce talent and Viajante should be on every food-lovers list of restaurants to visit in London. Bring a healthy appetite and an open mind and prepare to be a traveller on one of the most remarkable culinary voyages in town.

Food:           9 / 10
Service:     10 / 10
Ambiance:  9 / 10

Viajante on Urbanspoon
Square Meal


  1. Wow, what an adventure. I really enjoyed our visit to Viajante. Not every dish was a hit but the experience overall was excellent. Your special menu sounds amazing.

  2. Beautiful review.. Love this restaurant

  3. Probably one of my fav 1 * places in town, though it's admittedly not always everybody's cup of tea. Glad to see you enjoyed it as well!