Last Friday, Tim and I headed to London for a long belated “Christmas party” hosted by Tim’s company, Well Informed Limited. Bear in mind, Tim’s company has only two full time employees – Tim and his partner – so this party / double date was destined to be a fairly intimate affair. All I knew was that the four of us were going somewhere nice for dinner (“jeans OK”). Little did I know that when we rocked up to Viajante in Bethnal Green that evening, that I was about to have one of the most memorable dining experiences of my life.
Viajante is in the old town hall on Bethnal Green, an area better known for its grit than its granache. On the walk to the restaurant, the street seemed to be teaming with wrestling fanatics – apparently a “fight” or some sort was about to take place at a nearby arena. The mood was definitely rough around the edges, which made Viajante seem all the more grand in comparison. I believe my first words upon entering where: “whoa”. Everything seemed to gleam, from the floor to the chandelier in the chic bar, where we had a few tasty cocktails before sitting down for dinner.
The restaurant itself was a pleasant surprise with a clean, modern design, very comfortable chairs and an open plan kitchen-dining area so foodies like me can oggle at the chefs as they prepare minuscule portions of incredibly delicious food. Speaking of chefs, the head chef at Viajante is Nuno Mendes, who the Guardian calls “one of the hottest young chefs around.” In his own words:
I have devoted the last two years to Viajante, to planning and experimenting with each dish, each menu. I am passionate about the food I cook, from the ingredients we source to ensuring that every meal is indulgent but healthy – and I hope that passion can be felt the moment you enter Viajante.
If I didn’t feel the passion in the cocktail bar, I was about to get a taste as we moved on to our meal. Now, I don’t eat out very often – one of the down sides to living in a barn in the middle of no where – and when I do, it’s usually somewhere fairly casual, and definitely no more than three courses. So when I learned that we were going for the 12 course tasting menu (WITH wine pairings), I was almost scared.
The waiter said that it would take about 4 hours to do the tasting and I could barely comprehend this reality. As it turns out, it’s very easy to eat for four hours straight, especially when the company is grand, the portions are tiny, and there’s plenty of wine to wash it all down with. Plus, the staff (including Nuno himself) spent a good deal of time explaining the inspiration for each dish and why each wine was chosen to go with it.
I realised early on in the evening that my camera was out of battery – how gutting! But I made do with Tim’s compact camera and hand-written notes (pen and paper courtesy of Viajante). Here’s the low-down on the 12-course food orgy:
Crostini de romesco and gordal olives, almonds and Jerez
Smokey aubergine with soy milk
A cracker sandwidth thing
Bread with brown butter
Course 1: Cucumber tartar with pickled radishes and samphire
(Meat option: squid tartare and pickled radishes, samphire and frozen squid ink jus)
Wine pairing: Standt Krems, ‘Looserterasen’ Gruner Veltliner 2009, Austria
I enjoyed the strong flavor of dill in this. “Very polish,” said I. And look at those cute little mushrooms. Believe it or not, this is what the dish looked like after just one bite… this was not going to be a filling meal!
Course 2: “Spring Garden”
Wine pairing: Adega de Monaco Vinho Verde 2009, Portugal
Cauliflower “couscous” with leeks and parsnip, plus some kind of pesto “soup” and some other kind of “foam”. A radish. Some tiny broccoli. Very tasty. Served with a 2008 Blanc de Pas (?) from Catelonia.
Course 3: Pickled cauliflower with cep custard, cucumber hearts and “beach herbs”
(Meat option: Set crab milk with cauliflower, cucumber hearts and beach herbs.)
Wine pairing: Quercus Pinot Grillio, 2008 Slovenia
The meaties had a crab custard instead of cep. I think I won. Served with Quercus Pino Grillio, 2008, Slovenia.
Course 4: Something with beetroot and purees
(Meat option: Razor clam, smoked yogurt, Rosemary Dashi. Wine not beer.)
Wine pairing: Gran cru beer
I was too distracted by the pairing of beer with this course that I forgot to write down what it was… or what the beer was for that matter.
Course 5: Parsnip and toasted hazelnuts with warm egg yolk sauce
(Meat option: braised octopus with Pimenton potatoes, chorizo and eggs)
Wine pairing: A&P de Villaine Bourgogne Aligate 2007, France.
My favorite course so far. Very crunchy. Meat eaters had braised octopus with Pimenton potatoes, chorizo and eggs. Served with something Teruzzi & Puthod from Tuscany… a white sangiovese. Menu says A&P de Villaine Bourgogne Aligate 2007, France. Perhaps they are one in the same.
Course 6: Olive soup with Greek Yogurt, ginger and pistachios crumbs
I wrote “yogurt foam” and “pistachio lime”. A lot going on here. “Quite a challenging dish,” says Henry. Served with Felton Road Vin Gris 2006, NZ (Henry’s island). Coincided with a toast to Erwan and his Team of 5.
Course 7: Roasted celeriac, tapioca and S. Jorge Cheese
Wine pairing: Domanie Trapet “Beblenheim’ Gewurztraminer 2006, France. Note: we were still on white wine at this point.
Plus some sort of mushroom stock. The cheese was awesome. The tapioca was interesting – mostly for the texture. Now THIS was my favorite dish so far.
Course 8: Pureed brioche, gnocchi, yeast and poached egg
(Meat option: Skate wing Brioche, yeast and cauliflower)
Wine pairing: Duvel Leroy, 1999 Blanc de Chardonnay
Meat eaters had skate wing Brioche, yeast and cauliflower. Another standout dish. Pureed brioche – “sup w/ dat?” Whatever was “sup” with it, I liked. Chef presented the meal to explain that he invented this dish to go with Champagne (because of the yeast).
Course 9: Savoy cabbage emulsion with carrots and fried capers
(Meat option: Pigs neck and prawn, savoy cabbage and fried capers)
Wine pairing: something Hungarian and red
Who ever thought that pureed savoy cabbage would actually be good? Meat eaters had Pigs neck and prawn with their savoy cabbage. Served with a Hungarian red wine, some kind of mix of cabernet franc, merlot and pinot noir? (Notes are getting hazy at this point, and menu claims Calero ‘Mount Haman’ Pinot Noir 2006 USA which I think is incorrect!)
Course 10: Roasted bread with chunky miso
(Meat option: Aged sirloin of beef and chunky miso, ramson onions and burnt fennel)
Wine pairing: something red and Portugese
And some carrot for fun! Here we start with the red wine. Served with a Portugese tinto, “more about the flavor than aromatics body and texture”.
Palette Cleanser: Lemon and Thai basil sorbet
With melon I think. Wow, this was “extradorinary”, “amazing”, “h3est flavor ice cream we ever had”, “damn”.
Course 11: Carrots mousse, sweet and pickled, buttermilk and granite
Wine pairing: Icded cider from Quebec
Loved the cinnamon in this dish. Reminded me of a churro. A “frozen surprise” carrot canneloni. Served with the Canadian iced cider.
Course 12: Dark chocolate and Water
Wine pairing: I can’t read my scribble
The least memorable dish of the evening. I think there was supposed to be rosemary in there somewhere. It tasted like boring ol’ chocolate ice cream to me.
Endings: Tea and Petit Fours
And a wicked hangover the next day!