We have to admit to having been really excited in a geeky, far-too-interested-in-eating-than-can-be-healthy sort of way about our lunch at Viajante. We'd been following the exploits of chef Nuno Mendes via the foodie blogosphere for over a year while he wowed visitors to his Loft project - an endeavour Mendes had set up following his departure from Bacchus when the gastropub changed direction. The Loft was where he'd spent the year honing the dishes he would eventually bring to this restaurant at the Bethnal Green Town Hall.
Then came the extended soft launch - where we knew the restaurant was open, couldn't book a table, and couldn't read about what others thought of it because all reporting, blogging and photography was banned. All this is the kind of guff that might turn the normal dining out public right off a place. It only further whet our appetite. So we waited, and waited, and eventually scored an invitation to lunch and an opportunity to interview Nuno afterwards.
Set just beside the Museum of Childhood, Bethnal Green Town Hall is a great spot for the final realisation of Mendes' dream. The renovation of this Edwardian Grade II listed building, afforded the chef an opportunity to lay the restaurant out exactly as he wished, so it was goodbye to the original plans for a basement kitchen and hello to the new open-plan one where Nuno and his team are effectively on display as they painstakingly put the dishes together in front of a select audience. There are just 40 covers and tables at Viajante, some of which are in a second room - ask for ones by the kitchen if you enjoy watching food as theatre.
At lunchtime, you can choose between a three, six or nine course menu (the 12-course tasting menu is reserved for dinner). We went for the three course with matched wines, but ended up prising a fourth dish out of the kitchen. Our meal began with a series of three canapes - first we had a crostine de romesco and gordal olives with almonds and Jerez (our waiter advised us to try and eat it in one go) then the not-particularly appetising sounding Smokey Aubergine with soy milk which was a heavenly sort of savoury creme caramel - quite one of the nicest dishes we'd had this year - it's probably a love it or hate it kind of dish. Finally we had Thai Explosion II - gorgeous, gently-scented crispy chicken skin sandwiched between two coconut wafers.
This had really sparked our appetite for the next course of three textures of beetroot - raw, pickled and jellied with tiny spots of whipped goats curd and green apple sauce. It's not Nuno's fault that one of the Hot Dinners duo really doesn't like beetroot, but this dish was almost enough to convert us. We both preferred the following course of roasted celeriac with ribbons of S Jorge cheese, hazelnut paste and a soupy sauce of tapioca which Nuno said he hoped reflected his childhood love for onion soup. This looked very odd and tasted fantastic.
Our favourite course was next - a fish dish inspired by the chef's love of yeasty champagne - lemon sole and brioche with yeast and cauliflower, paired with a glass of Duvel Leroy champagne. Utterly delicious with a delicate yeasty frothy sauce. We then had a lemon and Thai basil sorbet followed by dessert - 'Dark chocolate and Water'. We loved the dark chocolate mousse, but thought the cocoa granita didn't really work - as it melted quickly leaving a pool of only very slightly-flavoured icy water at the bottom of our dessert dish - the one off note in a meal that really challenged our perception of what to expect from a restaurant in London. The meal ended with Petits Fours including an astonishing mushroom truffle - blended with cepes and quite one of the oddest and loveliest chocolates we've ever eaten.
The service was great - we particularly enjoyed the ministrations of our waiter who always had some interesting note for us (in a friendly, non-patronising way) on the food and wine pairing - and it was good to see the chef out of the kitchen helping to serve certain dishes to the diners.