We auditioned a new member of the Dad’s Dining Club last week with a probationary culinary challenge: choose a restaurant that would blow our palates away. The criteria is simple: fantastic food, great experience, within a two mile radius of central London – and for less than £100 a head, including wine.
But first there was the juvenile laying of clues to keep us all guessing about where he’d chosen. We were told this restaurant had no menu (although you can tell them about dietary restrictions in advance – in my case, an allergy to fish), but more cryptically: “A traveller goes east for a glass of Port.”
Can you guess where it is yet? I’ll give you a simpler clue. Just have a look at the title of this post! (Translation: Viajante = traveller in Portugeuse).
Located on the ground floor of the former Town Hall in Bethnal Green, my first impression was that this wasn’t my manor. With respect to the residents of that postcode, I had never associated it with high-end cuisine – but how wrong I was! This was a combination of gastronomy and theatre.
Danny had secured us a table looking onto the open kitchen, bustling with mad scientists preparing the most outrageous dishes under the supervision of the even madder scientist, bearded Head Chef Nuno Mendes, who conducted his team like a maestro at the front of an orchestra.
We chose a nine-course option (at £85 per head, excluding wine), which was in addition to five amuse bouches. Fifteen tasters that seemed to get better and better as the evening strolled along its winding exploration of Portuguese delicacies (lubricated by four splendid bottles of wine).
The first to excite our tastebuds was a ‘Thai explosion III’ – a mini-burger of spiced pork and half a quail’s egg. Delightful.
Part of the joy of the experience was the excited anticipation of what would come next, and although each new course wasn’t always to my taste, there were some incredible treats. ‘Bread and butter’ was so much more than its matter-of-fact description: pointed baguettes of granary bread with one of the butters flavoured with smoked bacon; charred presa with tomatoes and adobo was a beautifully rare slice of Iberico pork; even ‘Milk’ at the end of the meal could have been sued under the Trades Description Act – for this had nothing to do with your doorstep pinta: it was in fact shards of frozen milk set in an unbelievably soft milky ice cream.
As foodie experiences go, I’m not sure this can ever be topped, given our price bar (though we did go beyond our £100 limit by hammering the wine – which, at around £40 a heavily marked-up bottle, was the only downside to the night).
Food aside, the ambience was superb: well-spaced tables; a fantastic buzz in the room, attendant but not pushy, and certainly very knowledgable waiting staff; the theatre of tweezer-wielding chefs in the open-plan kitchen – who, to top it all, delivered their wares to our table and then described them in technicolour detail.
Having said all that, there was that feeling at the end of a three-hour dinner of still being less than full, which I suppose was down to the miniscule size of the dishes, but also because it stretched out for so long (not a bad thing).
So what are the scores on the doors?
Let’s start with the architecht of the evening, Danny:
Venue – 9.5 – Who’s have thought a town hall would contain such a place. Glad we got a chance to visit the bar which was cozy and really very nice, with some rare, tasty beers. The real icing on the cake was our table which was plenty big enough and the view of the kitchen and chefs was stunning!
Atmosphere – 9 – Very comfortable, close to other tables but never felt overheard. Distinct lack of pretentiousness.
Food – 9 – Rather brilliant. I remember the butter that first tasted of burnt plastic then developed into a yummy smoked bacon flavour. The scallop and frozen herbs, wow! Some of the courses were too small for what they were served in and a couple of dishes didn’t match the quality of the majority, but overall is was extremely enjoyable. Certainly one of the most interesting taster menus I’ve had.
Service – 9 – Friendly, very knowledgable, even rather attractive. There when you needed and not when you didn’t. Wine glasses filled at the right time. Napkins folded for you when visiting the loo, all the nice touches you expect from a Michelin restaurant.
VFM – 8.5 – A quite hefty bill at the end of the night which, the wine was to blame. Although very nice, it was overpriced. They really should put some sub £30 wines on the list. I will return.
Venue – 8 – The place itself is amazing, but too far off my beaten track for a homeboy like me. But if it was more centrally located, then Mr Mendez would be charging twice the amount, so definitely worth the trek.
Atmosphere – 8.5 – Informal and friendly, almost cosy. The space wasn’t huge but I never felt I was in someone’s stuffy living room. The tables were perfectly spaced so that even four rather loud and enthusiastic men (us) never spoilt the enjoyment of the group of rather loud and enthusiastic group of six women on the table next to us – and neither group spoilt the romantic evening of the couple in front of us.
Food – 9 – Superb, but at the same time, it’s not something I would want to eat once a month, or even a quarter. But that’s as it should be: Viajante is a destination restaurant. A treat, to be savoured and to look forward to visiting again. If people eat this level of cuisine on a regular basis, then they’ve got too much money to truly appreciate it.
Service – 9.5 – Brilliant. Our waitress got the measure of us straight away: she knew when to advise, when to back off, when humour us and when to indulge us. But the real USP of the service was to be served at our table by the guys who had cooked their mini-masterpieces in the first place. What a touch!
VFM – 8 – I wish we’d had three instead of four bottles between us, not least because of the monstrous hangover I had the next day. But even that wouldn’t have kept us under our budget. However, we could have chosen the six-course option, which would have been within our means, but if we’d have done that, I fear we would have all been heading for the kebab shop across the road after the meal. Tee-totallers would give this a 10 in VFM terms, but four ‘Don’t Get Out Much’ dads would have appreciated some tipple that wouldn’t have been so bruising on the wallet – hence the deduction of a couple of points.
Scott: Venue – 8.5 Atmosphere – 8.5 Food – 8.5 Service – 9.5 VFM – 7 (largely due to overpriced wine).
Dan: Venue – 7.5 Atmosphere – 7.5 Food – 8 Service – 9 VFM – 7.5
TOTAL AVERAGE SCORE OUT OF 10 – 8.475