I recently turned thirty, which is the perfect excuse for a slap up meal. I've been cutting back recently due to an enormous building project at home. It's also the reason that I haven't been blogging much recently. I've been without proper facilities for three months now, and the extra effort required to do everyday tasks, on top of the constant decision-making, has just sapped so much of my energy for anything fun, like writing about food.
But I'm coming out of my slumber to write about Taberna do Mercado, Nuno Mendes' new restaurant. Yes, he of Chiltern Firehouse fame. Chiltern Firehouse may be what he's now best known for, but its prices and glitz seem out of character for Mendes, whose building block gigs at Viajante and the Loft Project were more low key and allowed the food to do the talking.
Ironically perhaps, Mendes' new joint Taberna do Mercado is his most down to earth yet. It's a Portuguese market canteen, on the edge of Spitalfields Market. Simple little restaurants in produce markets are the real deal in Portugal (where I'm half from) - it's where you'll see local nanas having a snack of seafood, or a friendly business meeting over a sandwich (prego), along with a crisp white wine or small glass of beer. The situation and menu of Taberna do Mercado are a big nod to that tradition.
The menu has cheese and cured meats, "tinned" fish, snacks, a couple of sandwiches, a reasonable selection of small plates, and a handful of eggy desserts. It's a whistlestop tour of Portuguese cuisine, which is warm and familiar to me, but not to many in London. Every dish has an extra twist of cheffy sophistication, an extra complexity or layer of flavour, than you'd expect from a classic Lisbon restaurant.
We ordered our food bit by bit, as it can come relatively quickly after you order. We started with lightly battered green beans (a dish my mum loves to make), which were perfectly crisp and came on top of a little bowl of a cool broth, which tasted of toasted onions. The rissois - crisp triangles stuffed with prawn and prawn flavoured roux - are another Portuguese classic, and the darker, crisper coating, the juicy prawns and richer seafoody roux inside made these the best I'd had.
The "tinned" fish menu has a number of delicious sounding options, but we went for cod cheeks with a sweet, paprika sauce. The fish is cooked, marinaded and served in a tin - in homage to the tinned seafood shacks of Portugal. Served with crunchy thins of cauliflower and toasted thick Portuguese bread, we devoured every last speck of this dish, spooning the sweet flavoured oil onto the bread when it would not soak up any more.
A fennel and asparagus migas had a great contrast between the crunchy textures and zingy, fresh flavours of the vegetables, and the rich, lardy, moist migas - breadcrumbs fried up with any number of ingredients and flavours with stock and oil, ending up tasting somewhere between dumplings and a hash.
A pig trotter and cuttlefish coentrada is a rich broth is creamy and full of porky flavour - almost like a ramen. The pig trotter meat is pungent, and the cuttle fish is perfectly cooked - just chewy enough, but till fresh tasting and not the least bit rubbery. Generous scatterings of micro coriander make this taste very Portuguese - that delicious mixture of pork, seafood and the fragrant aromas of fresh greens. The sauce is so perfect we order more bread to soak it up.
We finish our savoury voyage with a prego roll, with steak, watercress-like crunchy greens and a spicy, fragrant peppery sauce. The roll is incredibly authentic, slightly sour, crispy and lathered in butter. The steak is perfectly cooked, and the red peppery sauce mixes with the butter and echoes the taste of the classic bifana sandwich.
Portion are not too big, and the prices are just on the pricey side of keen. Ordering an extra bread was key to keeping my other half assured that he wasn't going to spend all that money and leave hungry.
On the plus side it means you certainly have time for dessert. Sweets are a big deal in Portugal, especially when they're made of egg yolk and dusted with cinnamon. As with everything else, the desserts at Taberna do Mercado manage to be both convincingly homely and next level. We shared a warm olive oil and egg cake, half cooked in parchment paper, so that it's crisp on top, gooey in the middle, wallowing with grade A olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. The fruitiness and the acidity of the olive oil stand out, and are gently balanced by the sugar in the cake. It's impeccable.
However, we're still not full and our waitress informs us that there's a dish that's proving a hit on instagram. We order it and 'gram it, naturally. Egg yolk is mixed with pork fat to make a particularly rich congealed custard slabs. It holds solidly, cuts easily, and is complemented with a thin, lightly sweet Port sauce with drops of fruity olive oil and flecks of sea salt.
The winelist is entirely Portuguese, and it's well priced with bottles starting in the early twenties. There's a good spread of regions covered, and with much available by the glass, so it offers a great chance to sample lots of interesting wines from across this not yet fully appreciated country.
The waiting staff are well briefed on the dishes and wines and were incredibly friendly, if not fully attentive - there were a few too many times where we all but disappeared from their consciousness, and it took minutes of craning and embarrassing signally. On the plus side, their 'no reservations' policy works well in practice - we waltzed to an outside table at 6.30 on a Tuesday, and were brought inside when a table became available. For later arrivals, punters' numbers were taken and they were called back when it was free.
Taberna do Mercado works well. The dishes are homely and unpretentious, while being painstakingly conceived and refined. The feel is informal and welcoming, and yet this is a chef who's best known for a restaurant in a flash hotel that has paparazzi stationed outside every evening. The cost may ratchet up (we ate and drank well and it came to just shy of £50 a head including service), but this is all top provenance cooking where every detail counts. The five star reviews are rolling in, so make sure you're early if you want to snap up a table without a wait.