I am still reeling from an amazing night in an unlikely location; a supper club and test kitchen in Dalston. Nuno Mendez developed his skills at the California Culinary Academy, El Bulli and his own pub/restaurant Bacchus in Hoxton. He is now using his home in Kingsland Road to host a series of elaborate and experimental dinners to develop the menu for Viajante, his next venture, which will be in Bethnal Green. Judging by the long waiting list for The Loft, Viajante is likely to be a huge success even in these credit crunched times. Nuno deserves the great reviews he has been getting for his 15 course (I can’t be sure as I lost count) tasting menu with cleverly matched wines. I will not try to do the menu justice here as other bloggers and critics have catalogued each course, and in some cases every ingredient, in their meals. I can however try to capture the special atmosphere he has created.
Nuno cooks in a surpringly small kitchen attached to the dining room and is supported by a trio of welcoming helpers. Twelve of us arrived at 7.30 on a Saturday and immediately started exchanging accounts of why and how we found ourselves thrown together in such a convivial way. The only things we all seemed to have in common were inquisitiveness, a London postcode and an interest in food. I really enjoyed getting to know everyone during the evening and was struck by how much this added to the experience. Following an ice-breaking lychee martini with sansyo pepper (the ground dried leaves of the prickly ash tree which produces Szechwan peppercorns) and snacks including gougeres with saffron we sat at the large communal dining table. We were welcome to wander over and watch Nuno at work and he regularly came over to tell us about a dish and to seek feedback from us. For most dishes this was unequivocal acclaim but, interestingly, in the case of one dish (which included cauliflower, milk, strawberries and a couple of things which escape me) unanimous bemusement. Nuno talked about the dish being challenging and what he was trying to achieve with it in a manner that made me warm to his openess, honesty and engagement. It is a dish that many people finished, despite their ambivalence, and I found myself going back to it repeatedly to try to make some sense of it. It was not the most enjoyable thing I ate that night but was the dish that really confused, subverted and extended my understanding of flavour and texture. Less challenging, but nonetheless enjoyable and interesting, dishes included a squid ink porridge with milk yuba that defies logic with its tastiness, ‘umami-tastic’ pork with scallop sashimi, an orange skin puree and lemongrass shot, wonderful shrimp and melon concoction with a pipette of shrimp essence that elicited gasps of pleasure and a white chocolate, passionfruit and black olive pud to die for. The numerous fish dishes, which included sea bass, sea trout and red mullet were testament to the fact that Nuno is particulalry adept in this area. A picture gallery of the venue and some of Nuno’s amazing creations can be found here.
Good company and great food is a fine combination but the addition of a series of matched wines took the evening to heady heights. A sparkling Vouvray, Verdejo from Valladolid, NZ Sauvignon Blanc, wonderful Jurancon and supple Givry all contributed. However, there was a nagging voice in my head suggesting alternatives for every course and I would love to plan a wine list for one of Nuno’s menus. Having said that I can’t complain about any element of the wonderful 5 hours I spent at the Loft. A big thanks to Nuno and his colleagues for hosting such a brilliant evening.