momofuku ko – It is what it is

momofuku ko
163 First Avenue
(between 10th & 11th Streets)
New York, NY 10003
Website
Map
Online Reservations (online only…be forewarned!)

  • Tasting menu only for both lunch and dinner: lunch is served Fri-Sun, is currently $175, takes about 3 hours and is larger than the dinner meal (which is served 7 days a week, takes about 2 hours and is currently $125)
  • For both meals, the kitchen decides what it is cooking and there is no choice (although you can inform them of any allergies ahead of time and they will try to accommodate you)
  • The alcohol pairing for dinner was $95, and was both generous and diverse

Exciting, well conceived and executed food served to you by the chefs at your bar stool. To them, it’s just food; to you, it’s possibly one of the best meals you’ve had this year. It’s a pain to book, but if you get a golden ticket it is certainly worth the angst. ko...go.

That elusive peach

Just like so many others, I had tried to reserve one of the 12 fabled bar stools available at David Chang’s double Michelin-starred restaurant momofuku ko quite a few times.

When still living in London, I had attempted to reserve a spot for upcoming trips to Manhattan, but to no avail. As is well-known, reservations at ko are only available on the restaurant’s website, and you can reserve six days in advance. At 10.00am every morning (on their server’s time, not yours), hundreds or thousands of people presumably click away at the same time, hoping that the black-colored weekly calendar grid won’t be full of white x’s but instead littered with green checkmarks, meaning that there are actually seats (well, stools) available.

Seemingly like all things David Chang, this reservation policy has proven controversial – on the one hand it is democratic (albeit in the extreme) and on the other hand it is exceedingly frustrating for everyone trying to get a table, whether they be a celebrity, their PA or normal folks like you and me.

Anyhow, my blogger friend @catty was in town for a few weeks and we wanted to go out for dinner one night. I had booked somewhere (Minetta Tavern if you care to know), but thought I’d give the old reservation slot machine another whirl. And, ko and behold, when I clicked away at 10.00am on the dot (and I mean on the dot), the upcoming column of Monday dining times appeared and all the table times had a green checkmark next to them. I hastily selected one of the earlier slots and then on the next page a countdown began from 120 seconds, during which time you have to frantically enter all of your details and credit card number, etc. – otherwise, you will lose the temporarily held reservation. Luckily, I had my credit card to hand and all was good. I was finally going to take a bite out of that hopefully juicy peach.

Most bloggers will also aware of the fact that there is strictly no photography allowed in the restaurant, and in a sense I was actually looking forward to this. I could leave the camera in my bag and just focus on enjoying the food, not having to get that perfect shot of each dish. This is ostensibly the aim of the policy – but more on that later.

However, I knew I needed to provide at least some visual entertainment for my eventual post, so I took a snap of the luxurious gift I was bringing to @catty – two big boxes of an all-American treat that she just can’t get enough of. No, not me, Junior Mints.

I thought this might be the only photo I'd be allowed to take that evening

So there you go. Stunning, ain’t it?

Cold night, warm environs

I arrived a bit early – okay, an hour early – so I decided to brave the below-freezing weather and wander around the neighborhood as I hadn’t been down this way in a while. I wandered into the nearby Milk Bar and thought about getting some of the justifiably legendary Crack Pie (apparently, there is a trademark pending on that item plus a few others at Milk Bar); however, they informed me that the pie needed to stay refrigerated…so I decided to pick a few up on the way back, even though it was below freezing outside.

As I walked back to ko, I noticed David Chang was having a bite to eat before dinner service. He was noticeably enjoying his chat with the chefs. Still about 30 minutes early, I didn’t feel like crashing the party, so I took a quick snap of him in his signature skullcap behind the cage-like doors and kept walking, trying to keep warm.

David Chang filling up before heading out

Soon enough, I saw that @catty had checked in on Foursquare, so I headed back.

After having read a number of accounts regarding how the narrow dining room with L-shaped bar seating was cold, harsh and awkward, I was quite pleasantly surprised upon entering. There was a certain warmth about the place, with soft orange lighting and warm wood tones being the dominant features. The three chefs seemed totally at ease, and went about their work very quietly. One of the few people who was not behind the counter came over to enquire about drinks, and I decided to go for the suggested alcohol pairing. This cost $95 while the tasting menu itself was $125, so it was not particularly cheap given the cost of the meal. Still, I was looking forward to it as I’d heard that they do some interesting combinations, and not solely wine.

We were lucky enough to get the two seats located on the short side of the bar, which afforded us a good view of the goings on in the totally open kitchen.

So, without further adieu…

Son of a…this is good[1]

We attempted to scribble down notes about what we were eating on our blackberries (@catty doing an admirably better job than myself, maybe in part due to the alcohol setting in during the later courses for me). So, some things may be slightly inaccurate, but you should get the picture…so to speak ;-).

Amuse Bouches: things kicked off with a trio of pristinely presented little teasers. These included:

  1. Pork rinds seasoned with tōgarashi: these were impossibly delicate, light as O2, and just a tad seasoned with the chilli salt. If blind-folded, I for one wouldn’t have thought it was pork straight away. 8/10.
  2. Sweet Maine shrimp with mustard sauce: the little shrimp itself was of excellent quality and full of lovely sweetness, as advertised. This was married with a deep mustard sauce which complemented the sweetness perfectly. 8/10.
  3. Duck liver mousse with chopped nuts: this was ridiculously luscious – out of this world for such a small bite. The nuts worked well texturally too. We wanted fifteen more bites of this. 10/10.

These amuse bouches were paired with a brut Champagne (Christian Etienne, Cuvée Tradition Brut, NV) which went pretty well with all three nibbles.

Course 1 – Long Island fluke, fermented black bean paste, myoga: the fluke was nice and fresh (albeit nowhere as good on its own as the fluke I had at Le Bernardin last year), but the thing I loved about this dish was the delayed heat delivered via thin slices of deep red peppers. These peppers also lent a welcome rich and round flavor to the dish. 8/10.

This course was paired with a remarkable sweet sake – I wish I had gotten the name. 😦

Course 2 – Spanish red mackerel tataki, rice cereal, pickled onions, mustard sauce: as @catty kept reminding me, this dish was phenomenal in no small part due to the unbelievable texture of the mackerel – it was a very high sashimi grade based on my own experience of raw fish. I loved the way the pickled onions and mustard worked here, bringing sharpness and some more of that perfectly tuned heat. This was paired with the same sweet sake as the first course. 9/10.

The alcohol was beginning to kick in, which meant the first of many visits to the bathroom. I decided to take a picture of the more interesting elements of the room (well, no, not those ones) and had a good time looking at which books Mr. Chang was presumably reading at the moment. I only realized afterwards through the wonders of twitter that a food blog I often follow in the US has actually done a review about the books in ko’s bathroom. What can I say…

momofuku ko bathroom library

Anyway, I was pleased to see that Mr. Chang and I share many of the same books – notably the new noma cookbook (review on the restaurant soon to come, by the way) – and told myself I better not start leafing through them, otherwise I would start delaying the kitchen…and I didn’t want to piss those guys off, believe me.

As I was about to leave, I caught this guy staring at my posterior – how rude!

Crazy dude in the bathroom

Course 3 – Toasted brioche, caramelized onions, bone marrow, Gruyère cheese broth: back at my stool after loosening my own, a dainty rectangular slice of soft brioche was presented in the middle of a shallow bowl, after which the chef poured the translucent cheese broth around it. The aroma was immediate and totally off the chart. It was like you had just entered a sauna, but instead of normal steam, the air was infused with the intense smell of a massive cauldron of fondue. In a word: yum. The extreme scent belied a rather delicate but pointed broth, which worked seamlessly with the marrow and onions (which were particular amazing). I didn’t like the brioche itself though – it somehow reminded me of stale bread, but Catty couldn’t get enough of it…so one of us is crazy. I’ll leave you to guess who :). 7/10.

Course 4 – Smoked egg, American sturgeon, onions, greens, fingerling potato chips: this was visually one of the more arresting dishes – we’re talking stunning, stop-in-your tracks gorgeous. The egg, which I presumed to be cooked sous vide, was presented as a perfectly round white disc, with a single pie slice missing, where from the creamy yellow yolk oozed out. While you could smell the smoke quite clearly, it was much more subtle when eaten. The sturgeon, which I believe was Pacific white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) was good. It was slightly creamy and provided a nice texture and rich saltiness – but it wasn’t amazing. It was a very good course – mostly due to the amazingly cooked egg – but for me it wasn’t a standout dish from the evening. 7/10.

For any pedants reading this post, I have forgotten the drinks served with both courses three and four, but I know that one of them came with a golden American beer that was light, creamy and had a hint of heat – it was pretty good.

Course 5 – Grilled beef tongue, horseradish, mustard, sauerkraut, homemade pasta: I really enjoyed this more ‘normal’ dish (‘normal’ in the sense that it was a little bowl of pasta which you could conceivably find in a good restaurant in Italy…minus the horseradish, mustard and sauerkraut, that is!). It was a comforting bowl of food, with the pillowy-soft ovular pasta (I thought they said it was tagliatelle but didn’t look like it to me) playing well with the richness of the tongue. The spicy and sour elements worked well to balance the richness of the meat. As I said, I really enjoyed this…although @catty thought it was a bit ‘meh’ and was maybe her least favorite dish of the meal. 7/10.

This was served with a German or Austrian white wine which I believe was made from Riesling, Grüner Veltliner and Traminer grapes. It cut nicely through the dish and complemented the sourness and spice quite well.

Course 6 – New Jersey scallop, razor clams, clam chowder, celery juice, dried pineapple: this was easily one of my favourite dishes of the meal. The few slices of scallops were simply to die for – and they were from New Jersey! 🙂 The clam chowder was served on top of the dish almost as a sauce and possessed a pronounced peppery heat – and no delay this time. The genius of the dish, though, lay in the two sweeter elements. First, the celery juice which we saw squeezed in front of us earlier on (through some type of archaic looking metal contraption), lay at the bottom of dish: a sort of translucent green pond. The natural sweetness of the celery – which you don’t always think of as being (only) sweet – worked amazingly well with the other flavors, bringing a new dimension to the dish. And there were three or four bits of dried fruit, which I guessed to be pineapple (the chef confirmed I was right – a dual affirmation that I am not a douche for getting it right, and that I am one, because I asked him). Anyhow, this was unexpected and brilliant. 9/10.

The dish was paired with a purposefully and profusely oxidized wine from the Jura appellation in France, which to me tasted distinctly like wet rope. I wasn’t feeling this one.

Course 7 – Shaved foie gras, lychees, pine nut brittle, Riesling gélee: this was certainly another one of the top dishes of the evening, and I guess it is one of the classic dishes at ko. When I got up the gumption to ask how they made the cool shavings, the chef matter-of-factly said: “We freeze a terrine and the grate it.” Basically, you should have known that, it’s so obvious. Well, I didn’t know 100%, but was glad for the confirmation. Anyway, the foie was shaved like grated cheese over the other components. The sweetness of the lychees and the sweet and tart Riesling Jell-O worked miraculously well with the foie shavings, which melted when they were placed in your mouth and became a deliciously gooey texture. It was rich yet light at the same time (therein lay the brilliance) and to me it tasted more like seared foie gras than a terrine once it had melted in the mouth…maybe due to the texture. The pine nut brittle was OTT too, and everything was complementary. I noted that they had also salted the dish well, which is important to bring out the flavour of foie gras properly. This was a really fun and great dish to eat. 9/10.

It was matched with a different and fairly sweet sake, which coincidentally I had been served with another foie gras dish not all that long ago at George Mendes’ Aldea.

Course 8 – Honey-glazed duck, turnip in pumpernickel crumbs, Chinese greens: this was the largest of the courses, which seemed to worry @catty when she first espied it, and was excellent. The duck breast looked more like a piece of red game, served in a roughly rectangular slab that displayed the purple-red hue of the flesh, with a very thin and very crispy skin on top. When we enquired, “Where’s the fat?”,  the chef replied, “Oh, we just rendered that all off.” Of course they had. Hailing from Napa Valley, the flavour of the bird was fantastic, as was the subtle sauce, which transported me to China although I couldn’t make out all the components of it. The single turnip that was breaded with pumpernickel crumbs was pretty to look at but didn’t quite provide the counterpunch I think the duck could have used. That said, the paste of green vegetables on the side was flavorsome. 8/10.

This was paired with a lovely little Grenache wine from the south of France, which I thought was just right.

Course 9 – Earl grey crème brûlée, honeyed buckwheat, calamansi sorbet: what a fantastic petite pre-dessert. The sorbet was one of the best things of the evening (I know, I keep saying that). The earl grey brûlée was good too, but was both literally and figuratively buried beneath the bright orange sorbet. I also liked the buckwheat with it; it sort of reminded me of Scandinavian desserts I’ve had. 9/10.

This was paired with a special ko cocktail of ginger beer and amaretto which I didn’t like at first (it seemed quite watery), but grew to enjoy more as the spiciness of the ginger revealed itself.

Course 10 – Caramelized apple cake, oatmeal ice cream, burned apple sauce: the main dessert was unfortunately a slight let-down for the finale of the dinner. The little cube of apple cake was very tasty, and it went really well with the creamy oatmeal ice cream, but neither of us felt that it was an ‘amazing’ dessert, despite the efforts of the dark ‘burnt’ apple sauce to make it different. It was pleasant but not much more than that. 6/10.

Petit Four – Buttermilk, corn & mint mallow: the last bite that we had, however, was fantastic. Sweet corn flavour in a marshmallow form, with a delayed strong kick of mint which lingered on your palate. I joked that they had brushed our teeth for us. It was a fun and delightful ending to a generally great meal. 8/10.

Goodbye my sweet little metal cage

Worth a bit of clicking

A meal at ko is pretty extremely prescriptive. I’ve discussed the reservation system already, so you know they control you through that. They say on their website that dinner will take two hours and, lo and behold, when I gazed at my watch as we were finishing my meal, it had been almost exactly two hours. They decide what they will cook for you that night, and you will eat it. With such authoritarian posturing, you would think that you were their prisoners the moment you step through the metal cage facade.

But this was hardly the case on our visit. I immediately felt relaxed and loved being able to watch the chefs work in near silence in their exacting way. It reminded me of the ground floor of L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in London, but without the pomp and circumstance (and not so many green leaves on the wall). It was a relaxed and enjoyable ambience.

At ko, one of the chefs serves you your dish and then matter-of-factly states what it is. There is no pretence – or at least that’s the idea. They will not tell you proudly how complicated it was to both conceive the dish and execute all of the processes to make it. When you ask them a question (which they don’t openly welcome by their posturing), they will answer you with simple facts and probably in one sentence. They will not look annoyed, but they will make you ask yourself why you are asking in the first place.

This is all well and fine, and I suppose it is just their schtick. But I do think it is in some ways hypocritical. Why? Well, if you read about David Chang or have seen him interviewed, you will know that one of his passions is cookbooks and the top chefs who’s food they are abut (just look at his/ko’s bathroom). He respects some of the top chefs around the world immensely and is very interested in what they are doing in all aspects of their food. Therefore, when diners at his own restaurants – and particularly at ko, which seems to be the jewel in the momofuku crown – demonstrate the same interest in passion about his (or his team’s) food, I think it is only fair that the people who present the dishes don’t just brush off the questioner (and may I note, paying diner) with a nonchalant response that only a pretty highly trained chef or knowledgeable foodie might understand without having to think about it. They shouldn’t rebuff their diners’ culinary passion as being foolish and naive, but should embrace it…at least a little more than they seem to do. That’s my two cents anyway.

But the main point about ko is that the food being served is extremely interesting, pretty flawlessly prepared, surprisingly diverse (Chang would call this ‘American’, I suppose) and engaging. And, because of the way a meal transpires at ko, I really didn’t really see it coming, but it was a brilliantly orchestrated culinary progression that left me wanting more.

All in all, it’s worth a bit of clicking…just hope Lady Luck smiles on you sooner rather than later.

Rating

Ambience: 7/10

Service: 5/10

Food: 8/10

Wine: apologies…I didn’t really get a chance to peruse the wine list, but it looked pretty interesting from the little gander I did have.

For more about my rating scale, click here.

*Note: I have dined at momofuku ko once, and it was for dinner*


[1] ‘Ko’ means ‘son of’ in Japanese

Momofuku Ko on Urbanspoon

New York Restaurants

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*

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Viajante