Nuno Mendes’s new restaurant has got the blogosphere humming. I’m not sure what gives the Portuguese chef this star quality, because he certainly doesn’t have it in person, where he come across as unassuming to the point of shyness. He once worked at El Bulli, but then as I understand it so have, literally, hundreds of others. Perhaps his reputation in the capital was created by The Loft, his supperclub project which invited Londoners to hand over £100, really quite a lot for one of these things, to eat at his home. But how many people really ate there, or even heard of it?
Anyway, he now has a proper restaurant all of his own. And it’s in Bethnal Green. It’s no surprise in this city to see a small army of chefs constructing cutting-edge dishes with tweezers and chemistry sets, but you probably wouldn’t expect to find them within spitting distance of York Hall. But, lured by the thrill of the new, by eating somewhere even before I’d seen it reviewed, I trotted off for lunch at the end of last week.
At 12.30 it was not busy. So not busy, in fact, that we were the only people there. By the time we left a couple of other tables were full. We had absolutely no idea what to expect, the website not giving much of a clue about the menu. As it turned out, the menu didn’t give much of a clue about the menu. It was tiny. It said: six courses; nine courses; 12 courses. It didn’t tell you what the courses were. There was also, we were told, a three-course lunch menu, which the menu itself was too minimalist to mention. If it was all right with us, we should just choose the number of courses we wanted and the chef would make us whatever he wanted.
I was, to be honest, happy to play his game. At l’Enclume, for example, you get menus that are almost totally useless. “Grown-up Yolk from the Golden Egg,” they’ll trumpet, as if that would give you the slightest clue as to what you might get. Best just do away with them altogether. Anyway, three courses, £25; matching drinks, £15.
With a small glass of champagne, the food started to come. A crunchy toasty stick with olivey stuff and peppery stuff. Nice enough. A “thai explosion” – crunchy biscuity stuff, this time, with spiced chicken and – we were told to just chuck it in our mouths rather than take any dainty bites, so I can’t be sure – what felt rather a lot like half a poached quail’s egg, something I’m pretty sure can’t exist. Nice. Then an aubergine and soya milk layered jelly thing, almost certainly the most offensive jelly thing that’s ever wobbled in my direction, an over-chilled festival of unpleasant flavours and texture, served with a fine aubergine baclawa. Bread, served with whipped beurre noisette sprinkled with tiny flecks of crisped chicken skin and pancetta and a black potato powder, was the first big hit. Moist, flavoursome bread presented with something that’s got to be a thousand times better than bog-standard butter, which is just so much churned milk.
We hadn’t yet had our first course: beetroot textures, apple puree, sour cream and crab. I like beetroot a lot, but there wasn’t much to excite here. A tiny sprinkling of chopped toasted hazelnuts added some welcome crunch, but this was a lot of effort for minimal impact. It was served with a dark, sensual beer (name unknown, I’m afraid), which was significantly more popular than the food. Then two cuts of slow-cooked pork with savoy cabbage, grated egg and fried capers. Lovely, soft meat with the capers providing salty explosions of saltiness. Very good. Then as a pre-desert, a lemon and thai basil sorbet with lemon sherbet, which was absolutely sensational, an overdose of zing. Finally, a mini chocolate fondant with blackcurrant sauce, chocolate praline, hazelnut ice cream and praline snow. A lot of fuss, to be sure, but delicious, intelligent, top-notch cooking. Filter coffee (all they had, as they were still waiting for the coffee machine) was exceptional and came with a petit four of dark chocolate filled with cep-infused white chocolate ganache. As weird as it sounds, but when your mouth got used to the bizarreness of it all, it told you it was very happy.
Service was extremely friendly, with Mendes himself bringing us several dishes and seemingly interested in our opinions. The food was, if truth be told, hit and miss, but its hits were emphatic and the misses relatively minor. But a 70% success rate is fine in a £25 lunch deal; if I’m handing over £100 for 12 courses I might feel less charitable.