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An El Bulli in Bethnal Green

Viajante
Patriot Square E2 9NF, tel: 020 7871 0461
www.viajante.co.uk

FOOD *****
SERVICE *****
ATMOSPHERE ****
Cost per person without wine: £25-£85

IT was love. As I bit off some buttered mini spelt-dusted baguette, lovingly served by Viajante’s chef and ex-El Bulli ingénu Nuno Mendes himself, I froze. My eyes began to roll back in my head and I felt chills on my spine. My mouth watered, literally, as my tongue probed the roof of my mouth in an attempt to squeeze every last dimension out of the bite. Then I snapped back into action and began tearing off the bread and scooping the butter up as fast as possible.

It wasn’t Mendes, who is quite sexy with his tattoos and his intense air, that made me crazed with passion. It was the bread and butter. It is magical, transformative butter, and worth going for dinner at Viajante just to try. Served in a caramel-coloured mound, it had been whipped with Iberico ham, chicken skin and potato flour till it felt as light as mousse and tasted of toffee. Just when I thought I had a handle on posh butter, Mendes comes along and changes my view about fat forever.

This inventiveness is probably why he landed a job at the world’s best restaurant (now on a long-term hiatus) El Bulli, working with food’s greatest innovator Ferran Adria. Equally, his spell at the restaurant must have fuelled and honed his creative instincts, which were also flexed at his restaurant Bacchus in Hoxton. When Bacchus closed in 2008, he opened The Loft, a restaurant in his own home where he served dinner to a dozen customers twice a week, asking for money enough to cover his costs so he could experiment.

Now his innovating spirit has found a home in a sleek redevelopment of the Bethnal Green Town Hall. Stepping out of the squalor of Bethnal Green Road into the chic interior with its high ceilings, open kitchen and lustrous finishes is rather shocking; like leaving a humid backstreet for an air-conditioned penthouse. Or a Chinese takeaway for a gastronomic palace. Which this is.

There’s a warmly lit, windowy bar on the right serving good vintage martinis such as the Martinez. Across the hall is the restaurant. The first room is amazingly intimate – just a few tables spitting distance from the completely open, glass-free kitchen.

ANIMAL AND GARDEN
The menu is very short: you can have six, nine or 12 courses with or without matching drinks (“drinks” not wine – beer and tea accompany some courses). We opted for nine, which began after a range of effervescent amuses bouches. The food is Spanish and Portuguese-influenced but has Greek and Asian elements too. Having already fallen in love with Viajante via the ham butter, I was not disappointed with the parade that followed. The drink was paired with ingenuity too – sour Belgian beer with a beetroot dish, for example.

We began with a layered mousse of soy milk and “smokey” aubergine: just as nuanced and multi-textured as it sounds. Squid tartare and pickled radishes, samphire and frozen squid ink jus was an extreme delight, less for the taste (not brilliant) but for the fact that we were eating squid ink granita as though it was a slush-puppy on the beach.

Mendes veers from the potent to the delicate, the animal to the garden. The Early Spring Garden was a light and simple array of seasonal veggies, and some razor clams dotted with fresh chilli and vinaigrette were as light and clean as spring water. Meanwhile a tender slab of beef was very ballsy with lots of garlic. Another favourite was a plate of celery involving roasted celeriac, onion tapioca (yes, onion tapioca), onion and hazelnut paste, and Saint Jorge cheese from Portugal. As close to celery heaven as can be constructed on earth. We also had some extraordinarily exciting skate wing (not usually the adjective that goes with skate) and a Thai basil sorbet that leapt off the tongue. All of it was exciting.

Mendes is constantly changing the menu so you can look forward to a bag of delightful surprises on your visit. This is the opening of the year, and all foodies should immediately set about the challenge of trying to get a table.

IN A NUTSHELL:
Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes opens one of London’s most exciting restaurants in years in the beautifully redeveloped Bethnal Green Town Hall. Food is served in extensive tasting menus, served straight from an open kitchen.