Portuguese Food Is About to Take London, Courtesy of Chiltern Firehouse Chef
Nuno Mendes is one of the quiet men of the London restaurant world. He's shy and self-effacing: good-natured but intensely serious about cooking and food.
It's one of life's mysteries—up there with the Mary Celeste and the precise purpose of Stonehenge—how he came to be executive chef at the Chiltern Firehouse, a celebrity hangout where so much air is kissed, you end up breathing in lipstick.
He is a talented and creative chef who wants to please diners more than he wants to be admired.
Even as he explores the outer edges of the culinary universe (as he did at Bacchus, the Loft Project, and Viajante), he remembers that eating out is about pleasure.
(I believe that's why he was chosen for Chiltern Firehouse, but then I thought Qatar was chosen to host the World Cup because of its excellent climate and footballing traditions, so I am not entirely confident that all my theories are correct.)
Anyway, Mendes is returning to his Portuguese roots at Taberna do Mercado, his fine new brasserie at Old Spitalfields Market, where he celebrates the produce, the wines, the cooking, the flavors, and the hospitality of his homeland.
Portugal is one of Europe's most underappreciated countries, in culinary terms. The cuisine, little-known in London, is likely about to become fashionable. Taberna do Mercado is very good.
The room is simply furnished with wooden tables and chairs, and bare walls. It's unfussy, like the food. Taberna do Mercado is a neighborhood restaurant that happens to be in East London—where Mendes is a longtime resident—but might be in Lisbon.
A good way to start a meal is with a cheese such as Queijaria Simoes DOP from Azeitao. This is handmade from sheep's milk. It's soft and creamy and mild without being bland. I don't know that I have ever tried this before, and I am now wondering if I have squandered years eating brie and other French cheeses. It's 7 pounds ($10.65) for a half cheese, 14 pounds for a whole one.
The cured meats are also a great advertisement for Portugal. Hands up, who has even heard of paleta porco preto? It's 14 pounds for 70 grams (2.7 ounces). This acorn-fed black pig did not die in vain. Its deep and meaty flavor lives on.
Among the snacks, the runner-bean fritters and bulhao pato stand out. The beans are lightly battered and are served with a traditional Portuguese clam sauce with fried garlic, lemon juice, and coriander. The earthy flavor of the beans marries with the sharpness of the sauce for a little thrill.
Another option is prawn rissois, a traditional Portuguese bar snack of mashed prawns in a deep-fried pastry shell. It's best served with a glass of beer that is lightly chilled.
But my own favorites on the menu are the two sandwiches: beef prego, prawn paste, and wild garlic; and pork bifana, yeast mayo, and fennel. The Madeira island bread is made with sweet potato and flour and is cooked on a skillet like a muffin.
Something like this rests on the quality of the ingredients and the seasoning. The beef prego—a traditional Portuguese favorite—is filled with thick-cut slices of rare roast meat whose flavor is brought out by the piquant paste and the garlic. It is not a polite and timid snack. It means business.
Other dishes are more challenging. Mendes is proudest of his house-tinned fish dishes. An original idea was to serve bought-in cans of fish but he decided he could do it better, with options such as cockles with wild garlic and lemon.
And the wines? Years ago, I was invited to help judge a wine tasting in Lisbon. Despite my name, and decades of Bacchanalian excess, I am inexperienced in such things. Having dribbled twice while trying to spit the stuff out—something new for me—I decided the safest option was to swallow.
We tasted almost 40 before lunch.
Having drunk my way round Portugal in a single morning, I can say that the list at Taberna do Mercado contains many delights.
Fortunately, more than 20 of the options are available by the glass, so you can try a few, or replicate half my morning. The house wines (at 22 pounds a bottle) are perfectly drinkable; the Quinta da Baseira, Tinto Bom 2005, Vinho Verde—a natural white wine—is worth the 48 pounds if you are feeling flush.
There are just three desserts, of which the most interesting is pao de lo, a moist—almost wet—sponge cake made with olive oil. It's good with coffee.
Taberna do Mercado is as low-key as Chiltern Firehouse is high. But you may still have trouble getting in. It's already busy at lunchtimes, and no reservations are accepted at night.
Taberna do Mercado is at Old Spitalfields Market, 107b Commercial Street, E1 6BG; http://www.tabernamercado.co.uk/ or email@example.com for reservations.
Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Bloomberg. Follow him on Twitter @richardvines.