Update: Viajante is now closed. Also: please see September 2013 update at the base of this post.

Viajante is fine dining in Bethnal Green. The chef-patron is a guy call Nuno Mendes. Young, Portuguese, feted, El Bulli trained, and founder of the insanely cool Loft Project. There’s no menu – just a choice of 6, 9 or 12 courses. We went for 9. With matching wines.  And set ourselves, as is appropriate given the name of the restaurant, for a gastronomic journey.

The food was certainly interesting and, in every case, presented beautifully; each dish a piece of art. I don’t take pictures, but take a look at London Eater and Gourmet Traveller‘s posts taken of their experiences earlier the year. You’ll get the idea. They, as we, were both served bread with chicken skin and iberico ham butter and thai chicken explosion tasters to warm up the stomachs. The butter was interesting (chicken skin dominant); the thai bits were nice, but no real pyrotechnics.

The first three (four?) dishes were quite showy – pretty bowls of raw scallops, butternut squash and mustard; charred leeks, hazelnuts and milk skin; and braised salmon skin and fried aubergine, were placed in front of us before broths and sauces were poured over them at the table.

The highlight of the first dish was the mustard – a frozen “powder” which disappeared when it touched the tongue. I didn’t think the curls of raw butternut squash were particularly flavoursome. In fact, other than the powder, the dish was quite bland. I appreciated the techniques and textures in the leek with milk skin dish, but again, the sum of its parts didn’t wow me.  On the other hand, braised salmon skin on top of a beautifully pink (lightly poached maybe?) hunk of salmon, a scattering of salmon roe balls, a smudge of smokey sweet aubergine puree with a light, very Japanese broth spooned over the top was the standout savoury dish. Really super good.

There was something cool and technically exciting in each of the next 4 dishes (still all savoury). I loved the confit egg yolk hiding amongst the sweet pieces of lobster, potato and saffron; and sea bass toast was a square crisp of I don’t what on top of the fish whilst the smear of vivid green garlic kale was definitely flavoursome. Venison and raw mushrooms with smoked yoghurt was good and looked fabulous however, like the squab with beetroot yoghurt and pistachio praline (and in fact most of these dishes), it was served at a temperature somewhere below tepid (but not quite cold). Now I suspect there’s method in this – maybe at this temperature, flavours should be more pronounced. Yet we weren’t completely convinced by the result.

As a general remark at this, the mid-way stage, I was utterly impressed with the cooking and design and have no idea how much of the food was produced. But I’m not sure that the kitchen was as successful with flavour as it was with texture and presentation.

I liked the drizzle/spiral of burnt meringue and the subtle and cooling sea buckthorn pulp served as a palate cleanser before two sweets.  The first of which was maple and toasted oats with green apple and sweet mayonnaise. Pleasant … but the apple mayonnaise had a very delicate taste (i.e. too subtle). Overall this was probably the least impressive of the courses and most people on my table wondered (somewhat dismissively) why we were being served weak apple yoghurt on top of something from a muesli packet.

The second sweet course was the other (alongside the salmon) standout dish of the dinner: “chocolate with hazelnut and soil”. A kind of deconstructed brownie with cream. There were a number of different textures here – blobs of light cream and blobs of thicker cream (was the hazelnut a meringue or a cream? I can’t remember) all splodged amongst soil-esque clods and crumbs of cakey bits. There were also a number of different flavours – the occasional burst of coffee and salt amongst different levels of chocolate and nutty tastes. This was surprisingly complex.  It developed and changed as you ate it. A real highlight to finish on.

All the dishes were technically impressive and beautifully presented. But whilst we all thought that the food merited the price tag (for which, see below), there were actually only a couple of “wow” dishes and a number of others were a bit on the bland side (I imagine there’s an argument that too many intense dishes would be a struggle, however there were a few too many uber subtle dishes for my liking).

At this level, though, your cash is paying for more than the food. We thought it was great that this fine dining experience came without the shuffling thick carpets, starched white table cloths and generally uncomfortable and awkward atmosphere that you get in a Mayfair restaurant. But for the moolah at stake, you still want the setting to make you feel a little bit spoilt. The feel of the room wasn’t quite the quality you’d expect (the furniture was like stuff you find in a slightly dated private hospital). A minor complaint really. Had we been in the front room (in view of the open kitchen), maybe we would have got more of a buzz and ignored this completely, rather than mostly (definitely ask to sit near the kitchen if you’re booking).

More significantly, we were really disappointed with the service. It was certainly pleasant and attentive. But it was also almost entirely incomprehensible. Each course was brought out by a team but introduced by one person. Unfortunately, the guy who acted as our MC struggled with the pronunciation of most words (English wasn’t his mother tongue) which meant that we always had to ask for a repeat and often never quite got to the bottom of what our dishes were. I hope that doesn’t sound ignorant or offensive (it’s certainly not intended to), it’s just that part of the experience of a meal like this is the explanation of what you’re eating, particularly where you don’t have a menu. “If it was a journey, why couldn’t they have told the story better?” one of my friends remarked.

The MC was also our sommelier. But he wasn’t able to tell us anything about the wine other than what could be read on the label (and often we did have to read it). We were disappointed by the wines themselves too – on a list of 8 wines (the 9th beverage was tea), you’d hope to be wowed by at least one or two and/or think they’d been matched incredibly well. None had either effect.

I’m aware that I have painted a slightly negative picture. I think this is mostly because we spent an enormous amount of money on this meal – maybe not Fat Duck or Marcus Wareing taster menu territory, but enough to make me blush in the knowledge that my Mum will read and disapprove of the bottom line. Frankly, if the wine and service was improved (both, surely, relatively easily done) then we would all have felt we had got value. The food was not always outstanding, but you can see that it’s trying to get there; it is innovative (and the dishes on offer change with impressive frequency) and technically way beyond pretty much any meal I’ve eaten this year (which is why I mentioned it as one of my top 10 of 2010). The wine and the service put a bit of a downer on things.

I think Viajante and Mendes are still on a journey. The destination could be greatness. Or it could be something significantly less impressive. Either way, they’re not there yet.

Viajante in 3 words

More travelling required.

The Bill

£75 for 9 courses + £55 for matching beverages + the requisite £20 for service.  So £150 pp all in. Square, Bethnal Green, E2 9NF – 44 (0)20 7871 0461

Update: September 2013

A recent revisit proved to be a remarkable meal. 12 courses and numerous snacks, which, unanimously, were on a different level to my original visit. Highlights included dehydrated then reconstituted scallops, langoustine and chicken skin, Iberico pork wrapped in a cabbage cooked to create it’s own soy like flavours, and a stunning dessert made entirely from milk. In fact, most of the courses would have been standout dishes at other top end restaurants – and this to me felt like the biggest change at Viajante. Rather than experimental and interesting for interesting’s sake, as I recall being the case in 2010, the dishes (and the menu as a whole) was both intriguing and an excellent eating experience. Taste and flavour led, there was maybe only one dish that fell flat.

One of the most innovative, confident and successful meals I’ve had in 2013, with wine matching on a similar level. I note that this time we were in the front room, next to the kitchen pass. This undoubtedly makes a difference to the experience – make sure you request a table with a view.

Viajante langoustine and chicken skin