Viajante – Lofty Ambitions

Viajante
Patriot Square
London E2 9NF
Website
Map
Online Reservations

  • There are tasting menus of varying lengths (3, 6, 9 and 12 courses) and prices. We had the 3-course lunch for £25, which in reality comprised 9 different courses; the 12-course tasting menu is only available from 6.00-8.30pm
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal

Nuno Mendes’ new venture certainly warrants attention. Much like the “travelling” theme of the restaurant, it is clear that Viajante is embarking on a journey. Its kitchen has a fascinating pedigree and there are flashes of brilliance, both in the food itself and the design. I am eager to visit again once they have progressed further along their path to discover what it is they want to become. But for now, £25 for 3 courses with so many extras has to be one of the best fine dining values around!

Bringing it all together

True to form, I am pretty sure most London-based food bloggers have already reviewed Viajante, and if you are from London, you quite likely already know a bit about it. Nonetheless, I believe that some degree of context is always useful – but if you don’t need it, please skip ahead to the part about the meal.

Viajante is the newest venture of Nuno Mendes, an intriguing Portuguese chap who was formerly chef at London’s Bacchus and also runs a supper club called The Loft Project. Nuno also notably worked at El Bulli and has travelled the world working in various exciting kitchens. The Loft Project features notable chefs from all over the world who take up residence for a few nights to cook in an open kitchen to a table of 16 random paying guests (for reference, a review of the meal I had when Samuel Miller, Sous-Chef from noma, was cooking can be found here).

As I understand it, The Loft Project sort of proved as a testing ground for Viajante, while Nuno figured out what type of food and experience he wanted to offer diners. The restaurant itself took a long time to develop, and after a somewhat prolonged soft opening, it finally reached fruition.

Viajante, which is means ‘traveller’ and is therefore apt – also because the kitchen is made up of chefs who have done stints at major international restaurants – is located within the Town Hall Hotel in East London’s Bethnal Green.

There, now that wasn’t too painful , was it?

The travellers settle in

I dined there for lunch during my last week living in London (sob), and had the pleasure of sharing the meal with kindred foodie spirit (and actual person) @gourmetraveller. She, of course, had already dined here many aeons before our rendezvous. She said the food had been interesting and that it made for an engaging dining experience that was quite unique in London at the moment (see her review here), so she didn’t have a problem returning for another meal there. Either that or I’m irresistible.

In any case, I am pretty sure that she didn’t tag along just because the second part of her online identity shares the same meaning as the restaurant. Cue snare drums.

I had actually taken my first ever half-day off from work to have this lunch so that I wouldn’t have to rush back to the office, most likely too cheerful from inebriation that my colleagues would be highly suspicious given my otherwise rather cantankerous office disposition. I rode solo on the top deck of red London carriage and took in the rawness of the ever-effervescent East London landscape.

I see a street scene and I want to paint it red

It was a cold, wet and dreary afternoon, and I was all too happy to get inside the Town House Hotel’s front door a-sap.

A classic facade belies what's found inside

Upon stepping through the main entrance, there is a bar through the glass doors on the right, which interestingly is not housed within the dining room, while the restaurant proper lies through the glass doors to the left.

The hostess informed me that @gourmetraveller had already arrived and was in the bar. After some quick detective work (à la Jonathan Ames in Bored to Deathsans the horrible raincoat), I realized she was not there. It was just me plus Nuno and a couple of people who were obviously trying to pitch something to him over in the corner.

Some fishy information got me harpooned at the flash bar

A very friendly young barman gave me a drink list to peruse as I waited for the ghost of GT past to arrive. He said he could report no sightings of the said apparition, but I barely heard him as I was quite intrigued by the sound of some of the liberal libations on offer.

Breakfast Martini

Just as I was getting down and dirty (so to speak) with my Breakfast Martini, she appeared from the bowels of the building, where I presume she had been attending to her own bowels. Greetings were dispensed and a second drink menu was proffered for the good lady. Meanwhile, I was enjoying a slightly sweet concoction made from vodka (normally Chase Seville Orange Marmalade but they had run out so something else was substituted), Cointreau, fresh lemon juice, orange juice (or grapefruit if you prefer) and honey. It was certainly easy to drink.

A ‘Green Traveller’ for Gourmet Traveller

The tardy gourmand ordered the fascinating sounding (and looking) Green Traveller, seemingly not perturbed by the fact that she was taking this name similarity business to a whole new level. Her drink was made using fresh lemongrass, Tanqueray, Green Chartreuse, fresh lemon juice and orange bitters – with Thai basil bubbles to make you feel comfortable that the drink was worth what you were paying for it. She didn’t seem to be complaining, and my one sip had me liking this one better than my own pretty decent cocktail.

Appetites and livers duly whetted, we headed over to the other side for the culinary shenanigans to begin.

Three becomes nine

Our table was booked quite late in the lunch service, and unfortunately the more extended tasting menu was not available at this time. We settled for the seemingly good value 3-course menu at £25. As there was no menu to choose from – the kitchen decides what they will serve you on the day – we took in the surroundings. We were seated in the back part of the dining room, which is semi-separated by a wall in the middle with wide passages on both sides.

A minimalistic yet warm space...

I was digging the calming blues and warm wood tones of the place, and liked the natural light that was afforded by the large windows – although it made it hard to take decent photos of the food, given my still pretty limited abilities as a photographer.

...replete with its own slightly incongruous green fireplace

The only thing that stuck out – and it really did seem out of place – was the old-fashioned green tiled fireplace nestled directly behind us.

I don’t know how much the light fixtures cost, but I liked them

Otherwise, it was a fairly sparse modern space, but I certainly didn’t find it cold or off-putting. It is the kind of room you can tell has been scrutinized in painstaking detail even though it doesn’t seem like there’s that much to it. Stilted? Maybe, but I was quite comfortable at our table, which was well-spaced apart from the other diners.

Just before our first plate of food arrived, the sommelier stopped by to ask us what we wanted to drink. There was apparently a pairing for the meal (also very reasonable at £15), which seemed to be the only option from what we could make out from his very rushed and awkward spiel. So, presented with no other real alternatives, we said ‘sure’. He did initially come across very odd for a restaurant that I would imagine places some importance on the pairings of the food and drinks. But before I had much time to think about it, he had disappeared.

Amuse Bouche 1: House Sashimi

The first dish was delivered on an interestingly textured circular plate, and we were told nothing about what was on it – this was part of the game, I suppose. Although the sashimi looked like a red fish of some sort, it was merely visual trickery as the deep red substance was in actual fact watermelon which had been slow-cooked and slightly charred. The melon had been topped with a variety of elements, including soy beans, sesame seeds and micro greens. It was a successful and refreshing start to the meal, and the textures worked well together to create some interest in the mouth. The only thing odd about it (besides the fact that ‘sashimi’ didn’t refer to fish) was that we were only brought one plate of it, and were meant to share it, which was slightly awkward given that we didn’t have little plates of our own. 7/10.

Amuse Bouche 2: Roasted Broad Bean

Next, a roasted broad bean was presented on a small square black slab of slate. Inside the beautifully presented specimen lurked a cream of the peeled beans themselves, which was pierced by three square shards of São Jorge cheese with a thin snake-like link of pea shoots residing on top. On the side, there was a dusting of toasted brioche crumbs.

It was a beautiful and dainty looking dish and it tasted very good. The peas themselves were just slightly seasoned, allowing their delicate natural flavor to shine, and they had a lovely soft texture. The cheese brought a nice sharpness to the dish, and I ate it with some of the crumbs which added a pleasant crunchiness. This was a very good second amuse, and further illustrated the inventiveness of the kitchen. 7/10.

Amuse Bouche 3: Thai Explosion

The third of the amuses was an Eastern offering. We were instructed to each take one of these miniature parcels in our hand off of our server’s plate and immediately pop it in our mouth and eat it in one bite. I took a quick photo of it, and didn’t really get the chance to ask what it was inside it. I believe that the exterior shells were made up of crisp bread on one side and crispy chicken skin on the other. Inside it tasted of an ever-so-sweet green Thai curry, with a gentle heat that lingered at the back of the throat after it had been eaten. The little coriander leaf was artfully placed on top and the flavor complemented the ‘explosion’ well. It was subtle and elegant, but it wasn’t out-of-this-world. 6/10.

Amuse Bouche 4: Ficelles with Whipped Brown Butter

The feast of amuses continued, and was brought to a brilliant finale with two ficelles (thin baguettes) and two artfully presented scoops of whipped brown butter – one pairing for each diner.

The ficelles themselves were extremely well made, and were probably some of the best baguettes I’ve eaten the in UK. They were perfectly crunchy and had a lovely softness inside. The real master stroke here though was the whipped brown butter. It was extremely light, slightly rich (with notes of caramelization, likely due to the fact that I believe it had been whipped with brown sugar), and it was garnished with purple potato powder, pancetta crumbs and bits of crisp chicken skin. I could have easily continued eating wooden tray after wooden tray of this brilliant combination well into the afternoon. 9/10.

Course 1: Cornish Crab, Textures of Beetroot, Goats Cheese, Leek Ash, Sunflower Seeds

The first course of the meal proper was an artfully arranged plate of food, to say the least. Unfortunately, I felt this dish didn’t quite come together, despite its curb appeal.

The flavour of the crab itself was almost entirely buried beneath everything else, while the ‘textures’ of the beets really only seemed to be one texture presented in multiple hues (crimson and gold). Also, there was quite a high proportion of goats cheese lying beneath it all, which had a strong flavor that almost drowned out everything else when you took a bite of it. Finally, there were simply too many seeds, so the texture became too crunch too easily. There were also some onions floating about in the fray, which were nicely cooked. Overall, it was style over substance in this dish, which both @gourmetraveller and I felt just didn’t integrate well as a whole. 5/10.

2007 Tokaj Dry Furmint, Szepsy

Luckily, the dry Tokaj wine was a perfect match for the freshness of our first course. It displayed subtle melon on the nose, had a nice streak of minerality and decent structure but a pretty short finish.

Bread, blue and wine

I liked this photo, so couldn’t resist including it in the post.

Course 2: Halibut, Courgette, Sofrito, Egg Yolk

The second course was a particularly memorable dish, especially as I don’t care for halibut all that much. The fish itself was cooked absolutely perfectly, and aside from being artistically arranged, the courgettes actually added a nice subtle flavor that married well with the meaty fish. I wasn’t sure how well the deep red sofrito would mesh with the green and white components of the dish, but it did so admirably, maybe because it was quite mild in spice.

Egg yolk and sofrito detail

But the ace up Mendes’ sleeve was the egg yolk, which when pierced produced a perfectly runny bright orange glue which bound the whole dish together by acting as a sauce. The flavor of the little orange orb worked surprisingly seamlessly with the mild fishy flavor of the halibut. It was a fairly simple but genius concoction which I really didn’t expect to work, but which totally proved my instincts to be wrong in this instance. Really clever cooking. 8/10.

2009 Sauvignon Blanc, Life from Stone (Springfield Estate, South Africa)

I found the matching wine to be a rather typical ‘big’ new world Sauvignon, with lots of zing and grassy gooseberry and a touch of something else (maybe peppers). I have to say that while I have gone off this style of Sauvignon over the last few months, it went exceedingly well with the halibut dish, cutting through the fish and sofrito just enough to keep interest on both the food and the wine – it was truly complementary.

Daylight breaking through

So maybe I just like pictures of wine glasses on restaurant tables…here’s another one. 🙂

Palate Cleanser: Green Tea Granita with Sisho

Another dish, another plate and bowl. The pre-dessert was a beautifully-presented green tea granita with a bit of sisho (the Japanese name for the green leaf that is part of the mint family) perched on top in the center of semi-open egg shell receptacle. It was mild in flavor but worked well as a palate cleanser. Neither of us had too much to say about this one. 6/10.

Course 3: Pannacotta Ice Cream, Thai Basil Powder, Hazelnut Crumbs, Apple

I rushed into the dessert before I got a chance to snap a photo of it, so unfortunately this picture was taken when it was nearly half eaten…but hopefully you can get a sense of what it may have looked like (again, very pretty – surprise, surprise).

This was a delicate and light dessert which provided a soft closing to the meal. The ice cream itself was excellent, with a luscious texture, and it paired well with the milder-than-expected Thai basil powder. There were also discs of sliced green apples and some excellent toasted hazelnut crumbs. It was a very pleasant sweet, but not too sweet, end to the meal. 7.5/10.

Two dessert wine pairings

By this time, we had warmed to the sommelier a bit more, following the rather awkward initial exchange. I think he noticed we were quite interested in the wine pairings and therefore brought us a sampling of two wines to try with our dessert.

The first was a sweet German wine (2007 Ruster Ausbruch, Feiler-Artinger), which was made from a blend of Pinot Blanc, Riesling, Neuburger and Chardonnay grapes. I found it to be right on the edge of cloyingly sweet and, while nice to drink on its own as a dessert in its own right, it didn’t complement the subtle flavors of the dessert but rather overpowered them with strong notes of honey, caramel and biscuits.

The second wine was a simple Vin de Table Français (2007 Julien Courtois, Originel) which was quite dry and actually went pretty well with the dessert, though not perfectly. It was quite odd to drink on its own – not unpleasant, just strange. It was billed as a ‘natural’ wine and I believe he said it hadn’t been filtered or fined. The aroma was very muted to begin with, but both the smell and the taste seemed to develop dramatically in the glass after a short period of time. As I said, it was bone dry and fairly herbaceous, although there was some apple in there somewhere and possibly a touch of honey. It cut through the ice cream nicely and went well with the sweetness of the apple in the dessert. I suppose it was a welcome change from the ordinary as the wine definitely had a character of its own.

2008-2009 Clos Ouvert, Vino Puro

The sommelier let us try another ‘natural’ red wine after the dessert, which was interesting as it again evolved significantly the longer it spent in the glass. We couldn’t make our minds up as to whether we liked it or not, but certainly found it interesting. It developed some light raspberry flavor and I thought it had a touch of spice at the beginning that faded away after not too long (or maybe imagined it to begin with).

Petit Fours 1: Passion Fruit & Ginger Marshmallow and Cep Truffle

But hold your horses; our ‘3-course’ lunch was not yet over. After ordering some coffee (@gourmetraveller opted for tea) to finish the meal off once and for good, we were presented with an array of immaculate petit fours.

First, I tried the brown and orange duo which were presented on individual hollow ceramic cubes (each one is slightly different in color and design). The small orange box was a passion fruit and ginger marshmallow with a light crust, which was tasty. But more interesting was the dark chocolate and cep truffle, that had been topped off with a fleck of Maldon salt. I joked that they should make a ‘truffle’ truffle (i.e. truffle mushrooms in a chocolate truffle), but I guess that might be too obvious for the obviously clever kitchen. Anyway, the truffle worked well as you tasted the flavor of the cep, but not so much that it spoke louder than the chocolate itself. All in all, a delightful pair. 8/10.

Petit Fours 2: Crema Catalana

The other petit four was a fairly traditional Crema Catalana which had been infused with some citrus flavor. The texture was spot-on and the flavor was just superb – I just wish the glass had been half-full and not four-fifths empty! 🙂 8/10.

Single Macchiato

Aside from being one of the most striking coffee drinks I’ve been served in recent times, it was a perfect macchiato. I didn’t ask whose beans they used, but I think it may have been Square Mile. It was one of the best coffees I’ve been served in a restaurant. Or I was quite plastered by this time.

Artful surroundings

I couldn’t have been all that plastered, though, because I did find my way to the bathroom, ducking beneath a great vertical rectangular sign (or piece of artwork?) on my way down the stairs.

We were meant to continue the enjoyable afternoon by checking in on Ben Greeno, yet another former cook a noma, who at the time was preparing for dinner service at his now-closed Tudor Road supper club. Before heading out, however, Nuno came over to introduce himself – something I believe he was doing with all of the diners. I was struck by his shy modesty and his seemingly genuine intrigue in whatever we happened to be saying. He was exceedingly nice and polite and you could really tell why other chefs would be interested in collaborating with him. He made a distinct impression.

Refined, ambitious, almost there

As you can tell, I liked the space and design of the restaurant. In our conversation, Nuno had made a point of telling us that every dish was served on its own plate (or vessel) and he clearly believes that the serving medium is an essential component of each dish – indeed, he said that some of their culinary creations had actually taken direction from the shape and textures of the plate that had been selected. This could surely be seen as pretension taken to a new level, but coming from Nuno, it actually seemed to make sense, as did the conceit of the room, although it didn’t seem to be quite fully realized yet.

I had similar feelings about the food. All of it was tasty,  save for perhaps the crab dish which didn’t do much for me. Every dish – including the not insignificant extras – demanded attention, firstly because they had been presented so beautifully and secondly because (just like the Transformers) there was usually more than met the eye. The sheer diversity of the meal made it fun and engaging, and again reflected the name, and I suppose ethos, of the restaurant. While I don’t think any of the individual dishes will make my “Top Dishes of 2010” (watch this space), the overall experience was intriguing, and brimming with potential. And I don’t think you can find any other place in London serving such inventive food for a £25 meal in which you are given no less than nine individual courses (4 amuses, 3 courses, 1 pre-dessert and petit fours) – for that alone, it is an  amazing fine dining bargain.

My gut reaction is that Viajante is a place with a certain pedigree that is still in the process of defining itself, and is not in a particular hurry to get there. I, for one, am certainly interested to find out what it ends up becoming, because there is something very different about this place from any other restaurant I’ve visited in London as of late.

As my favorite poet put it, “Fare forward, travellers!

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 6/10

Food: 7/10

Wine: I didn’t actually see the wine list so can’t comment per se, but they do certainly have an interesting wine program, with a keen and increasing focus on natural wines.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at Viajante once, and it was for lunch*

Viajante on Urbanspoon

Viajante

The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from Noma

The Loft Project
Unit 2a, Quebec Wharf
315 Kingsland Road
London E8 3DJ
Website
Map
Reservations can be made via phone on +44 (0)7956 205 005 or via email

  • Multi-course tasting menu (ours was 12 courses) with wine pairing for the entire meal at £100/person plus VAT
  • For the full set of high-resolution photos, please visit my Flickr set for this meal; you can also click on any of the images below to get a larger image

The Loft Project is an innovative concept within the London underground restaurant scene. While its genesis consisted of its creator, Nuno Mendes, using the space an experimental kitchen to develop his cuisine and offer it up to paying diners, it has evolved into a kitchen that welcomes exciting guest chefs from around the world, who take up residence for 1 or 2 weekends with the permanent kitchen staff. The table of 16 is bookable by anyone on a first-come, first-serve basis and makes for a unique evening out, with high caliber and innovative food surrounded by a random group of diners. On this occasion, I had the pleasure of sampling Samuel Miller’s food, who is currently sous-chef at the world-famous Noma in Denmark. Both I and my dining companion were blown away by the food and the experience as a whole and I would highly recommend an evening at The Loft Project to anyone who is up for this type of experience.

When you can’t make it to the mountain…

Behind the times as usual (whether due to laziness, wallet consciousness or purposeful intention is anyone’s guess), I had been espying The Loft Project from the distant shores of my laptop for some time. Come to think of it, maybe this was because I was a veritable ‘underground restaurant’ (that’s ‘supperclub’ to us Yanks) virgin until I recently popped my proverbial cherry at the Hidden Tea Room (which, by the way, is fantastic – see my photos here). Buoyed by this experience, I had worked up sufficient courage to make another foray into this mysterious and very en vogue world; however this time it would be for dinner, it would be haute and it wouldn’t come cheap.

What tipped me over the edge, pray tell? Well, I have been aspiring to visit the now world-famous Noma in Copenhagen (along with a number of other restaurants in that fair city) for over a year now. Somehow, this culinary cruise ship has never pushed off shore, so when I saw that the sous-chef from Noma would be the ‘chef in residence’ at The Loft Project in London in a few month’s time, I quickly secured two places on one of the three nights that he would be presiding over this above-ground, subterranean epicurean mess hall. For once, the mountain (well, at least part of it) had come to me.

But let’s backtrack briefly as, in my haste, I seem to have gotten slightly ahead of myself. For those who are not already familiar with it, The Loft Project (TLP) is run by Nuno Mendes and his partner Clarise. Nuno is a Portuguese chef who formerly ran the kitchen at Bacchus in London and has had experience working with many modern-day culinary masters from around the world, including the likes of Ferran Adrià at El Bulli, Wolfgang Puck and Jean Georges Vongerichten. TLP started out as an experimental test kitchen where Nuno would invite paying guests to sample his innovative and ever-developing cuisine. As he has now finally opened his much talked about new restaurant Viajante (which in Portuguese means ‘travellers’), TLP has now evolved to host exciting, and mostly younger, chefs from around the world for a limited number of nights (normally over weekend evenings). They in effect become ‘chefs in residence’ for that week (or weeks). There are by my count three permanent kitchen staff who support the head chef and also a waiter-cum-sommelier who runs the floor. The visiting chef sleeps above the open-plan kitchen/dining room space, literally in the loft.

Samuel Miller, sous-chef at Noma & ‘chef in residence’ at TLP on my visit

Samuel Miller is a 28-year old Northerner from Fulford on the outskirts of York and is following a family tradition in food, i.e. his father is also a chef. He spent over two years at double Michelin-starred Champignon Sauvage in Cheltenham alongside David Everitt-Matthias (where he came second in the Young Chef of the Year awards in 2004), and since then had stints at Mugaritz and El Bulli, before going on to work for René Redzepi at Noma, which as most readers of this blog will know, was recently crowned the #1 restaurant in the San Pellegrino World’s 50 Best Restaurants awards in London.

My companion for the meal was the Phantom Medic (who not that long ago had dinner at El Bulli, which I interviewed him about), and we decided to go on a Friday, the first night of Sam’s three-day residency. As we rolled up a tad early, we decided to take a walk around the veritable mish-mash of buildings on the stretch of Kingsland Road that TLP occupies. We decided to duck down below to the canal, and after meandering for a while, and came upon a few surprising discoveries.

Modern developments & floating vegetable allotment

Firstly, once you got down to water level, things looked a bit nicer – there were a lot of modern developments along the waterside and we even singled out a floating vegetable allotment behind the complex where the loft is located.

Towpath, a cute cafe just off Kingsland Road in E8, serves fresh Italian-inspired food

Secondly, we stumbled upon a tiny café called Towpath occupying two carved-out open units overlooking Regent’s Canal. The food is Italian and looked extremely fresh and appetising (Time Out has done a little review of it here), and although we abstained as we were about to subject our stomachs to 12 courses of food, I will be back to sample the food on some sunny day this summer.

Light as a feather, I could eat forever

We eventually tore ourselves away from the friendly people at Towpath and entered TLP, along with the rest of the diners, who all seemed to arrive in unison, even though the group was made up of many different parties.

Entering The Loft Project

We were offered sparkling wine and had a chance to check out the scene.

Sam introduces himself to the guests & we soak up the atmosphere

We had a lovely time getting acquainted with the other diners, who ranged from Swedish and Irish businessmen (and their partners) to a group of serious Japanese foodies, including a restaurant owner, respected chef and a woman with a camera that was bigger than her face by a good measure. As we were chatting, Sam came out of the kitchen to introduce himself.  He was the consummate host: mild-mannered, friendly and genuine.

Let’s get this party started – some of the ingredients on offer as a chef ponders what to do with them and when

As we were talking, Sam explained that he had arrived fresh from Denmark that morning and had luckily managed to smuggle a bevy of beautiful produce and Nomadic (oh yeah, pun action) concoctions from Copenhagen in his luggage for his three nights at TLP. It turned out to be an exceedingly worthwhile risk, for us diners at least. 🙂

Prepping of Course 1

As the kitchen crew got to work preparing the first course, I found myself drawn like a (hungry) fly to the bright lights of the kitchen. One of the great things about TLP is that it is a completely open kitchen, and they chefs were happy to let me watch the goings on and take as many photos as I liked. I also asked a few questions here and there, when I thought I wouldn’t be bothering, or intruding upon, them too much.

Course 1: Salt Baked Carrots, Fresh Cream, Thyme & Lingonberries

The first course was based around a central theme of orange and purple carrots. I thought the purple carrots were quite novel and had a nice contrasting effect on the plate. However, when I mentioned the novelty of the curly purple slices, the Irish gentleman sitting to my left proceeded to give me a brief lecture regarding the history of carrots, and explained that most people thought that the ‘original’ carrot was actually dark purple (if you are interested or curious, knock yourself out over on the Carrot Museum site – yes, it exists, for real). In any case, both carrots had a firm sweetness that was balanced well by the sweet and sour sharpness of the lingonberries, and subtly enhanced by the thyme oil and fresh cream. There was also an extra crunch provided by a few bits of bread salad and a few strands of mixed chewy herbs. It all held together well and was a very fresh opening to the evening.

Course 2: Mussels, Watercress & Frozen Yogurt

As I was diverted by the enthralling history of carrots, I missed the prep action for the second course. This was another pretty plate of food, where the flavors again gelled well despite some slightly unusual combinations. The mussels themselves were soft, meaty, delicately rich and fresh. They were also enriched with a ‘mussel gel’ which brought an intense preciseness to their flavor. The watercress sauce was a beautiful deep green hue and lent a slightly bitter (sort of radish-like) and peppery note to the mussels, which was not at all unpleasant. But what I loved about this dish was the frozen yogurt ‘snow’. Its gentle tanginess offset the mussels perfectly and the coolness brought a very engaging dynamic to the plate, which I thought augmented the dish nicely. Again, light, dainty, delicious.

Prepping of Course 3

As the table played its first round of musical chairs, I took the opportunity to dash off to the kitchen to check on the progress of the third course.

Course 3: Raw Mackerel, Hazelnuts, Mustard & Rye Crumbs

This course turned out to be one of my favorites. An oddly arranged plate was presented, with a creamy tapioca base and an alternating circle of yellow and green glistening spheres (which mirrored the tapioca’s translucent pearl beads) ensnaring a pink and wormlike sliver of raw mackerel which was topped with a rutted skin of mustard and rye crumbs. Somehow, this all worked. Again, an interesting play on textures was afoot here. The unctuous tapioca acted as a unifier, evening out the combination of sweet apple and cooling cucumber as they interplayed with the creamy and rich texture of the delectable raw mackerel. The crumbs were also clever as they provided a much-needed crunch an ever so slight hint of spice. The Phantom and I were both left speechless (and that’s saying something for him).

Prepping of Course 4

Things were noticeably beginning to step up a notch in the kitchen and I really enjoyed watching Sam steer his team into plating up the courses from then onward. There was generally a quiet calmness as all of the elements of the dishes finished cooking (or being prepared) in anticipation of plating. Then, a sudden and nearly silent intense flurry of activity ensued as Sam and the other chefs quickly and purposefully moved around the table (and sometimes the side counter), precisely plating up each dish and checking them for uniformity and flavor. It was quite an experience for me to witness a chef operating at this level as he moved resolutely and with a quiet confidence to ensure each plate was ready for his guests. An atmosphere of friendliness and comradery was also evident between him and the rest of the team, which I found interesting as I assumed that they had not worked together before.

Course 4: Asparagus, Rhubarb & Lovage

The fourth course of white and green asparagus was, for me, probably the most ho-hum of the evening. The asparagus spears were fresh and the rhubarb juice added a gentle sharpness. The lovage oil was very mild and offered up vaguely celery-like undertones. After the sublime mackerel dish, my reaction was kind of, “meh.”

Prepping of Course 5

Things hotted up as the meat made its first appearance. Earlier, Sam had promised us a nose-to-tail dining experience that would manage to remain very light, so I was curious to see how this would be delivered.

Course 5: Crispy Pork Tail, Jerusalem Artichoke & Ramson Onion Sauce

Well, the tail certainly hit the nail on the head, it was pure genius. A smiley face outlined by circular green streaks of Jerusalem artichoke and ramson onion sauce, with sliced ramson onions for eyes, was presented on a plain, white round plate. The onions themselves were to die for…so sweet and succulent. The pig tail was extremely crispy on the outside and gelatinous in texture inside, reminding me slightly of bone marrow in its consistency. Its fattiness against the snappy skin and the deepness of the green sauce made for a perfect trio. The toasted flavor of the sunflower seeds that had been sprinkled on top of the onions also worked well, in addition to providing textural alternation for both teeth and tongue.

Course 6: Poached Oyster, Potato & Seaweed

Course 6: Poached Oyster, Potato & Seaweed

After another round of musical chairs, I was busy catching up with my newly found Swedish friend who I had met during the welcome drinks. The next course was suddenly upon us. I have confessed before to not really knowing much about oysters (unlike other bloggers I know, who have even attended master classes and oyster-focused dinners). These oysters were presented in a new format for me: poached. The flavor of an oyster has a way of defying exact description (for me at least), so I won’t try to do it here. In fact, it is not the oysters I remember here, but the potatoes – they were transcendent. I think the potato purée must have been emulsified in butter, or something like that: it was luscious, soft and highly memorable, and a rich pot sabayon also added to the creamy delicacy that was this dish.

Prepping of Course 7

I spent a long time watching the brigade prepare the seventh course – it seemed to take the longest to prepare, and I had never had anything like it before.

Course 7: Lamb Tongue, Peas, Pine & Milk Skin

The lamb tongue was silently cavorting with an entourage of fresh green peas underneath a thin white sheet of milk skin, which had been covered with sorrel stems, a pine glazing and barbecued pea oil, then dusted off with some salad leaf stems. I suppose it was meant to enforce the element of surprise (which unfortunately I had spoiled for myself by watching them construct the dish from the plate upwards). It wasn’t an unappetizing presentation, but I guess many people wouldn’t naturally want to dive into it straight away either. How did it taste? Well, the intense meatiness of the tongue came through strongly, but not as harshly as I had imagined it might. The milk skin, a component in some of Noma’s famous dishes, was very mild in flavor, and seemed to be there more for texture and visual impact than anything else. The subtle pine flavor suited the almost gamey taste of the lamb well, and the peas’ sweetness and slight crunch pulled the dish through to make it very enjoyable amusement for my bouche.

Prepping of Course 8

I spied a pot full of oozy green liquid stuff in the kitchen and resumed my place on the observation deck.

Course 8: Pigs Trotters Cooked in Beer & Burnt Leeks

The eighth course eventually arrived in all of its green swampy glory. Not the most appetizing bowl I’ve ever been served, but the ingredients had me curious and slightly excited. It actually wasn’t as heavy as I thought it might be, and the taste of the trotters was spot on – not overpowering at all – and melded well with the deep flavor of burnt leeks (in the dish there was leek oil, leek bouillon and actual leeks) and the hint of parsley. Sam’s subtle use of textures was again evident, with some cereal flakes being strewn across the top to add some crunch. It was an enjoyable course but not one of the ones that sticks out most in my memory of the meal.

The table was in full swing as Sam introduced Love Potion #9

With another spontaneous shift of positions at the table, I was now sitting next to someone else as Sam came out to introduce the ninth course.

Course 9: Skate, Radishes & Unripe Elderberries

The simple skate dish was one of the highlights of the evening for me. I thought it was presented beautifully, with a few radishes – stems still intact – scattered around the edges. The fish itself had been faultlessly cooked and was firm, flaky and soft at the same time. The roast bone sauce flaunted a perfect balance of acidity and richness and the dish was lifted by the pungency and tartness of the unripe elderberry capers (presumably flown in from Denmark with Sam) that topped the fish. Perfection on a plate, or skate, as the case may be.

Prepping of Course 10

The last of the savory courses was being prepared and it was an exciting one to witness, with a few more intriguing ingredients on display.

Course 10: Beef Cheeks Cooked in Hay, Onion & Roses

While presented in a simple fashion, there was a lot more going on flavor-wise than was immediately on show. Whatever they did to those beef cheeks, they were out of this world. Soft and intensely flavorsome, they were complemented (and I would say lightened) by the acidic astringency (both sweet and sour) of the beer- and rose-pickled onions, with the brown butter and thyme oil adding a further notes of harmonious delight. The way that the sharp rose flavor lifted the beef cheek was phenomenal and definitely one of the best flavor combinations of the meal.

Course 11: Glazed Beetroot, Apple & Crème Fraiche

The first of the dessert courses was a stark affair (and not Philippe), to say the least. The cored cylinder of an apple and two similarly barrel-shaped constructions of crème fraiche mousse and red beets lay scattered on the bare plate, dangling their feet in a little puddle of sorrel granita. It was fresh, clean and almost seemed like a palate cleanser of sorts to me. There was nothing particularly interesting, save for the sorrel juice, which had a sort of sour strawberry flavor that helped to tie together the other three elements. This seemed like the least thought-out and developed course of the meal – almost an afterthought. (Note: I do vaguely recall Sam telling me that desserts were not his strong suit and that he hadn’t done them in a while, so possibly he hadn’t spent as much time on this course as he had on the previous ones).

Course 12: Malt Parfait, Seabuckthorn & Freeze-dried Strawberry

Whatever was lacking in the eleventh course was more than made up for in the meal’s grand finale. A dark brown rectangular log of malt parfait was dressed with freeze-dried strawberry crystals and micro herbs, with a side smear of havtorn purée (yellow-orange Scandinavian berries, which I believe are also called Seabuckthorn). The parfait itself was so intensely malty it almost had a charred or burnt flavor about it – much different from the sickly sweet ‘malt’ flavors to which most people from the UK or US would be accustomed. But there was a slight underlying sweetness that kept it balanced.  The sweet, acidic and sharp notes of the English mustard colored purée perfectly offset the rich and slightly bitter intenseness of the malt, with the dry strawberry granules adding crunch and further bittersweet fruit to the mix. It all worked together perfectly and it was one of the best desserts I’ve had in recent memory.

(Lofty) Northern heights

The whole experience of eating at TLP was immensely enjoyable for both me and my dining companion. Everything was laid back but at the same time functioned in a timely and well-organized fashion. Wine was poured, explained and topped up; the chef presented each course; diners mingled endlessly and played musical chairs (even if there was no music); and there was a free flow between the table and the kitchen as people ducked off occasionally to watch the chefs at work and then wandered back to the table. The group of diners was diverse, interesting and the atmosphere at the table was exceedingly convivial.

One of the most amazing things about the evening – which we both commented on during the journey home – was that although we had eaten 12 courses, with some pretty intense ingredients and flavors, we felt extremely light afterwards. In fact, instead of feeling heavy and bloated – as I have been after similar tasting menus at expensive restaurants – I felt energized, completely awake and ready to take on the world. Even stranger, when I woke up the next morning, I was a full kilogram lighter than I was on the previous morning, despite eating very late, having 12 courses and having at about 6 glasses of wine (if not more), which is a lot for my delicate temperament. 😉 Possibly it was down to the Northern influences in the dining, but I still found it miraculous.

Much of the food was also full of little miracles for me. The menu had been well conceived and constructed, always slowly building, but not by too much or too quickly, and was never jarring. Some of the ingredients and flavor/texture/ temperature combinations were completely new to me, and will stick in my mind for some time to come (i.e. mussels/frozen yogurt, raw mackerel/tapioca and beef cheeks/rose-pickled onion, to name a few). Also interesting was that, while the menu was undoubtedly influenced by Redzepi’s cuisine at Noma, there was also a lot of Sam himself in the food (well, not literally), and the combination of the two for the most part worked brilliantly.

If you have the wherewithal and the financial means to do it, by all means go to TLP for one night this year. Just look at the calendar of chefs and pick one that speaks to you – because he or she will then cook for you. I doubt that you’ll be let down by the rather unique experience. Although the total cost is £115, in many ways it can be seen as pretty good value. After all, you are having an exciting and well-respected chef cook 10 or more courses for you, plus all of the wine you want and service is included in the price. You also have the rare opportunity to actually engage with the chef if you care to, in whatever way is most comfortable.

Or if you can’t be bothered with the whole process, why not check out Nuno’s own cooking at the newly-opened Viajante? His food will likely share a few similarities with the type of chefs that tend to frequent The Loft Project.

Rating

Ambience: 10/10 (though this is obviously variable depending on the 16 people who turn up on the selected evening)

Service: 7/10

Food: 9/10 (I think this is an apt score given the innovativeness of the menu and the general balance, creativity and precision to the food. While a few of the courses didn’t blow me away, the culinary experience as a whole certainly opened new doors and was a in many ways a quietly confident tour de force, utilising a vast array of primary ingredients and making them work well in their own right as individual dishes and also meshing seamlessly together as a progression of flavors and textures over the course of the evening).

Wine Comments: unfortunately, I did not take any wine notes as I was mostly concentrated on observing the kitchen and tasting the food, but nonetheless I do have a few comments. The first wine was a Gruner Veltliner (2008 Stift Kloster Neuburg, Autria) and was very pleasant, going well with both the first course of carrots and the second of mussels and frozen yogurt. I also recall that the German Pinot Noir that was served with the lamb tongue and pigs trotters worked very well and was a particularly good example (2006 Villa Wolf). A pleasant Côtes due Rhône complemented the final two savory courses of skate and beef cheeks (2008 Domaine Sarcin). The delicate and refreshing dessert wine was lovely with both sweet courses, and I could almost picture it with gentle bubbles, which would have made it into one of my favorite light sweet wines, Moscato d’Asti – it was however sans the gas and Spanish in origin, though perfectly lovely and floral in its own right, enhancing the sharper fruit notes of both desserts (2008 Enrique Mendoza, Moscatel de la Marina).

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at The Loft Project once and I paid for the meal.*

The Loft Project on Urbanspoon

Guest Interview: The Phantom Medic Does el Bulli

Welcome, Phantom.

First of all, thank you very much for agreeing to come onto Laissez Fare and share your dining experience with us.

 

As some readers may have already deduced, you are none other than the ‘Dr. J’ who cooked up a storm a while back at your home for moi, Mrs. LF and a bunch of other friends. So your culinary prowess precedes you :).

 

What readers may not know is that you have a very large appendage – by which I mean camera – that you carry around with you most places, and have been known to take a spectacular snap in your time. So, I am very happy to post your photos of this modern-day temple to gastronomy below, although I understand that they were taken with a rather smaller member than that which you usually carry. However, despite this appended appendage, there are still some great shots.

 

But first, let’s play 20 questions!

1. Before we get down to the nitty gritty, can you tell us a bit about who the Phantom Medic is and what makes you tick, tock, balk?

  • A long time ago, in a galaxy, far, far away…I’m not going to keep that one up, am I? Well, I am a doctor who turned to the dark side of medicine about 10 years ago (I’m only private now). I lead a team of specialists in a private clinic and our very generous patients often take us out to fantastic places to eat. And so my love of restaurants began. Apart from eating, I love climbing mountains and my big orange cat – all evil world-dominating mad geniuses have one, so why can’t I?

2. So, how the hell did you land a table at El Bulli in the first place? Did you have to use Jedi mind tricks? Who did you dine with?

  • Well, one of the Phantom’s patients called and said, “Phantom, what are you doing on Thursday?” I said, “Well, nothing much.” And he said, “Meet me in Barcelona, in the morning sometime.” I asked, “What are we doing there?” He said, “We’re going to have dinner.” I said, “Where?” He said, “Somewhere yummy,” and that was that. I think his new girlfriend had cancelled on him for that evening, and he owed me dinner, so there you go.

3. If you were writing a twitterishlength review of the overall experience, what would it say?

  • Experience is sometimes a place, sometimes a film, sometimes a big event. But never before for me has a truly great experience appeared in my mouth. It wasn’t a meal, it was a milestone.

4. Speaking of twitter, I hear something rather unexpected happened while you were there, thanks to the ever-increasing influence of social media?

 

  • Well, yes indeed. Upon entering the humble interior of El Bulli, a stunningly dressed woman caught my eye as she was enjoying what looked like a balloon of white chocolate. For her, El Bulli was already underway. I thought nothing much of it, turned and took my seat and soon our own show began. As every course manifested – not only with what it was, but with how to eat it – I sent messages via text to you (Laissez Fare), partly in my excitement and, of course, to generate sufficient envy as I know it is you who should have rightly been in my place. But hey, do not underestimate the power of the dark side. So, at course 29 (or thereabouts), I heard a shriek from the unexpectedly animated table behind us that had previously caught my attention. I saw glee emanating from the two diners who were ogling a chest of drawers that revealed a chocolate paradise that they were photographing intently before the final assault. One of the women suddenly turned towards me, lifted her head, and said, “I am a chocolate blogger, that’s why I’m so excited.She then said, “Can I ask you a question…? Are you Dr. J?” Flabbergasted, I said, “Uhh, yes,” wondering how on earth anyone could know who I was inside some random Northern Spanish region at the end of a single-tracked path. It turned out that you had been tweeting my texts, that @chocolateguide was following your tweets and she couldn’t believe that you were there in ethereal presence, sending one of your drones in place of yourself. So that is the power of the internet. Me texting you, you tweeting me, followed by her (who follows you), who’s looking for me, who didn’t see, and then a shriek, and then she saw. And there we were.

5. What was the most memorable thing you ate out of your 30-something courses?

  • By far, the olive. A mercury-like visual consistency, kind of wobbly, clearly not an olive, but deceptively olive-like when sitting still. The instructions were to place the olive in your mouth; that was all. I lifted this weird oil-wrapped ‘olive’ into my mouth and the simple pressure between tongue and palate made it burst open, the shell dissolving, and the full essence of thirty olives consumed me. It’s like a word just shouts in your brain, “O. L. I. V. E.” It was weird; I’ve never heard fruit speak to me. Mechanically incredible. Extraordinary.

The El Bulli ‘Spherical Olives’

6. What was one thing that really didn’t work for you on any level, if any?

  • Look, out of the 35 courses that the 8,000 people who visit this place every year will taste, by the law of averages, no one will like every single course. In fact, I was extremely surprised that I so deeply enjoyed the taste and didn’t “morally object to” the surreal courses that came our way. Almost every course was not only extraordinary and palatable, but has ingrained a memory in me that few entire meals ever have. The only thing that didn’t work for me was a magnificently crafted ‘black strawberry’. I don’t know, it just didn’t work, dude.

‘Black Strawberry’ at El Bulli

  • The other equally interesting bit was when the Maître d’ asked if we were allergic to any foods before we began. We said no. Then he said, in a slightly more sinister tone, “Are you allergic…to anything?” WTF?! And then, he said, “Do you have any moral objections to anything?” by which I presumed he meant certain types of food (i.e. offal or worse) that some may find questionable. I replied, “No, as long as it’s consenting.” I don’t he think he understood.

7. What was the craziest thing you ate?

  • I reckon the oyster leaf. A leaf that turned into an oyster. Uh, yeah.

The El Bulli ‘Oyster Leaf with Dew of Vinegar’

8. What was the most interesting part of your evening?

  • Well, being bamboozled by a cocktail of surreal gustatory delight, and the power of twitter.

9. How long were you there for all in all – did you get bored at any point?

  • C’mon, bored? I left at 4am on Thursday and arrived at home at 8pm on the following day. There was not much time for boredom. Incidentally, the restaurant at the hotel we stayed at, Mas Pau, whose head chefs are apprentices of Adrià, would rate in London as a top-10 dining destination.

10. What’s the overall vibe? For being the so-called best restaurant in the world, was it stuffy, relaxed, or a bit of both? Was the service good overall?  Clinical?  Theatrical?

  • It was definitely serious, but not stuffy. You walk in and they take you to the kitchen. If the plethora of silent machines were not clothed but naked, the gleaming aluminium worktops and military precision could well have been mistaken for a coke factory. To the left, there was a hot room, where hot stuff was being made, and opposite, what must have been an extremely cold room with dry ice, like clouds of frosty air, billowing from the door frame. And that was even before we sat down…it was also a nice bit of theater to shake Adrià’s hand even before we ate. The waiters were very attentive and friendly, but it was weird. The place felt more like a relaxed North London trattoria, or a Greek place like Vrisaki (which is pretty good, by the way), but had none of the airs and graces of a 3-star joint, and I liked that.

11. Did you get full, or was each course small enough that you didn’t need to make your excuses halfway through, hurl everything up in the bathroom, and re-emerge ready to tackle your next 15-odd courses?

  • So here’s the thing. You try eating 30 mouthfuls of everything and you’ll get pretty full. And not everything was a ‘mouthful’; some were little plates of food. So, yes, there is no question, if you can stomach everything, you will be stuffed by the end. However, the total running time for the show was near enough five hours – that’s normally the distance between my lunch and dinner. So everything sort of flowed kind of at the same pace as my digestive track…let’s leave it at that.

12. Was the food just ‘interesting’ (i.e. made for the people of Tatooine) or did you actually really enjoy the cooking? Is this the kind of food you’d love to have every week or every month, or just once in a blue moon?

  • Honestly, some things are only special because they happen the once, or perhaps the first time is always the best. If it was my last meal, then no, I know exactly where I’d want to eat my final fillet steak…and that is for another guest blog entry on Laissez Fare…but I feel seriously privileged to have tasted something the once that is like what I guess a classic symphony is in the world of music. I think my definition of food has changed; it’s not food as you know it here. It’s art that you can see and touch and taste. As a doctor, I’m dubious as to the nutritional value of the food, but that’s the very last thing you think about at this place. I normally consider it a bonus if the food is good for you at other amazing restaurants I’ve been to, but that just didn’t matter here. I suspect one might start looking a bit like Alexander Litvinenko in his final days after his small but rather fatal dose of Polonium 210 if they ate at El Bulli often. No, that’s not fair, the food was no doubt of the utmost quality, but would you go to Dali’s museum every year?  More than that would be an overdose for me…decadent.

13. One thing I always wondered about El Bulli is what recommendations they make for wine. Given all of the weird and wonderful culinary concoctions they serve, what did they suggest you do for drink, and what did you do? I assume you didn’t just opt for a pint of accarrgm?

 

  • As the founder of Sarment Wine was with us, I assumed he would know a thing or two about fermented grape juice, but the menu we had that day was very weighted towards foods that lent themselves to whites and we too readily went red, in my humble opinion. That might have seriously put a spanner in the works in many other meals, but quite honestly, the wine was totally surpassed by what we saw, handled and tasted. The Pinot Gris at the end (Trimbach 2000), was exceptional, I have to say.

14. How do you feel now that Adrià is closing/evolving El Bulli into something else from 2012?

  • His insignificant rebellion will soon be crushed.

15. What was it like in the kitchen? Noisy?  Quiet? Was it like an assembly line of robots – did you spot R2-D2 or C-3PO?

  • Refer to above commentary, Laissez Fare. There were something like 40 or 50 R2-D2s, none of them said a word. It was like Attack of the Clones, except everyone was nice.

16. This may be a bit sensitive, but how much did it cost all-in-all?

 

 

  • I would say to allow £1,000 for the 38 hours door-to-door, bells and whistles included (i.e. flight from London, hotel, wine, etc.).

17. Did you do anything else in the area around El Bulli? Is it a nice part of Spain?

 

  • Surreal is the operative word, however clichéd. Catalonia oozes oddness. It seeps from the brickwork to the paintings and, in El Bulli, to the food too. The following morning we went to the Dali museum. It was twenty years almost to the day since I’d been there. I left dizzy, bamboozled, amazed. Just like I did those years ago, and the same as I felt the day before at the restaurant. There is a weird congruity between the artists, maybe something in the Catalan air.

18. How would you advise someone to prepare for El Bulli?

 

  • I guess I’d love it if everyone that went to El Bulli could be as surprised as I was, hearing that I would be going just a couple of days before, and knowing that I would never have made it by going through the X-year waiting list. I’d recommend not over-planning El Bulli and waiting for serendipity. But then again, if everyone did that, then no one would go.

19. Is the force strong with Ferran Adrià (i.e. was there a vergence in the force on May 14, 1962 in L’Hospitalet de Llobregat)?

  • Well, look. The table sitting next to us had been bought on auction by four bankers for charity for $17,000. A couple of weeks earlier, Roman Abromivich et al had been turned away at the door: he hadn’t booked. Adrià must be doing something right. I don’t think it’s all just hard work; there is a serious stroke of genius there. The force is strong with this one.

20. And finally, if El Bulli were one of the Star Wars films, which one would it be and why?

  • Hmm. Well, I’d say it was A New Hope, then the Fat Duck and others appeared, and then the Empire Struck Back, raising the bar yet again. I guess with its ‘closure’ / ‘transformation’, we can only wait for The Return of the Jedi.

If you would like to see the full El Bulli menu, the Phantom Medic has compiled a short video below, humming Star Wars music in the background…

 

…Now, please enjoy some more the good doctor’s photos, in no particular order. If you wish to clone them, please ask me for the Phantom Medic’s permission, otherwise a war on your hands you might have.