Viajante – Perfection in Dining

I’m not very religious, but in the world of food, I have recently had an unparalleled spiritual experience, and Nuno Mendes is the Food God that provided the inspiration!

Viajante in East London seats only about 40 people.  The menu is presented after the meal, so you can remember what you had, but you can only choose a tasting menu of 6, 9 or 12 courses (with or without wine pairing).  I had eaten here in the summer of 2010, within six months of its opening, but on this most recent visit, it is apparent that 2 years of maturity have enabled them to perfect their craft.  Viajante means Traveller in Portugese, and believe me, you will be transported!

The night before our visit, I received a call to confirm.  The pleasant woman asked about allergies and preferences, and we had a detailed discussion that would enable my dining companion to enjoy dinner fully – which is the restaurant’s goal.  They don’t just want to impress and dazzle you – they want to facilitate an experience that fulfills you, satisfies you and aligns with your needs.

When we arrived at 8 pm, we were lucky enough to be seated at a front table – in full view of the open kitchen.  The sights of Viajante are part of the experience.  The tiny sauce pots and bottles – sometimes 4 per dish; the tweezers to place tiny garnishes.  The calm, professional manner in which Nuno or the expediter of the moment calls out “service!” to signal that dishes are ready to be delivered to a table.

Having ordered 6 courses plus wine pairing, our server told us that it might be 20 minutes until our first paired wine was served, and asked if we wanted something else first to go with the FIVE amuse bouches we’d be having!  We ordered Champagne and Chardonnay.  Regarding the latter, our server asked “California?”  “No, French” I replied.  I got a wonderful glass of 2008 Benjamin Leroux Auxey-Duresses, not just an everyday Chardonnay.  I looked it up later, and it deserves the several 93 ratings it has received.

Then the Amuse Bouche began:

First, Thai explosion III – a confit of chicken, topped with poached egg, with a wafer of coconut, a wafer of crisped chicken skin, delightfully seasoned, served in a mini paper sack.  It was a perfect opener.

Next, Amaranth with sorrel.  This is a delicious grainy cracker, served on a rich herby sauce, with little crumbs all around that you feel compelled to pick up with your fingers.  Wonderful.

Then a hint of welcome challenges to come:  Squid, served with frozen ink and gooseberry jam.  What an array of flavors and textures to sort through!  All balancing perfectly on the palate.

Another: potatoes with yeast and powdered black olive!  So, the unexpected will be moving us to that altered state of textures and flavors that makes you go HUH! In amazement.

The last Amuse Bouche was a tiny taste of what I’d found to be my favorite item last time I was there:  Olive soup.  I only wish it had been a bowlful!  What intense olive flavor, yet green, fresh and lively.

Then, bread and butter is served.  But the bread is individual whole grain baguettes, served with a brown butter, and slices of pan baked nut bread, served with butter with pancetta and powdered smoke.  I think this made my eyes roll, and I was resisting that, because I really didn’t want to wear out my eye muscles.  Such attention paid to bread!

The first official “course” was The last of the white asparagus with crème fraiche butter.  The butter was beyond belief, and it let the asparagus shine.  This was served with Brundlmayer “Kamptaler Terassen” Gruner Veltliner, 2010.  I love the world view they take for wine pairings.  This paired perfectly.

The second course was Crab with egg yolk and rhubarb.  A fresh taste of sea and garden made rich with the egg yolk.  Paired with Orea Chardonnay 2009, Saar.  Not sure I’ve ever had German Chardonnay, and this was great, especially with the food.

Viajante loves to serve fish, and the third course was Bream, with braised, caramelized fennel.  We surmised that the exceptional flavor in the fennel was achieved by marinating it after it was cooked, but what do we know – they can achieve flavors here I could never dream of recreating at home.  Absolutely delicious, and perfectly paired with Bodegas y Venedos Ponce “Reto” 2011, Manchuela – a dry white made from the Bobal grape, and apparently only available in Spain and the UK.

Our next fish course was Turbot.  For this course, Nuno himself came out with a pot of foam to layer on the fish.  The foam was of mussels and cider, both flavors clearly distinguishable.  The foam was so perfect, my eyes rolled again.  Also perfect was the fish, the veggies alongside, and the Loire wine served with it – Jousset “Premier Rendez-Vous” 2010 Montlouis-sur-Loire, from 40-70 year old vines.  A wonderful taste of apple, pear and mineral.

At this point in the meal, we already were blown away.  We could have been done and completely satisfied.  Then the last of the “main” courses arrived:

Charred pluma with tomatoes and adobo.  “Taste the sauce first” says Amanda.  It looks like an ordinary broth, but I dip my fork in, and can’t believe a broth could be so powerful.  The meat itself had imparted a solid flavor, blended with other balanced spices.  Pluma is a juicy cut of Iberico pork, and it was cooked perfectly, served rare, and with intense roasted cherry tomatoes like none I’d ever tasted.  All together, this dish was mind-bogglingly good.  This was paired with Jean-Louis Tribouley “Les Copines” 2009, Cotes du Roussillon, a blend of Syrah and Grenache.

What could they do for a denouement?  The palate cleanser.  Pickled and raw cucumber ice, with lemon gelee and milk sorbet.  Refreshing, light, yet great flavor.   Do you smile when your palate is cleansed?  I did!

Nuno personally delivered “Grandma’s ginger cake”, which looks like a normal piece of cake.  Only it evaporates into a cloud of flavor in your mouth!  It was so light I’d never seen anything like it.  With wonderfully developed flavor!  Served with a Riesling Spatlese dessert wine.

It may have been at this point that we had a lovely chat with Nuno.  He told us about his philosophy – the diner’s experience was the focus, not him showing off.  That classical technique was not as important as excitement and delight.  He has other projects going on that sound fantastic.  I wish I could license him and open a California place just like this!

Then, MILK.  A plate of multiply textured whiteness arrives, and we ask “what is it?”  The answer is a single word, “Milk.”  Said with a slight smirk by our server, who knew just how entranced we were with this experience.  Milk in 4 different textures, ever so slight changes in flavor, like 4 people from different countries all speaking French, with slightly different accents.  Not rich decadent chocolate, or a buttery tart, both of which would have been too much at this point.  Milk.  I will never hear that word quite the same again.

Almost as an afterthought, they announce we’ll be getting Petite Fours, and ask if we want coffee with them.  No, we don’t want to touch our taste buds with anything pedestrian like coffee at this point.  We are drunk on flavor, and don’t want to give up that buzz.

We watch as a container of paste is brought up to the counter, and tiny quenelles of it are spooned into a pot, with liquid nitrogen poured over them.  Frozen olive oil caramels.  If I could only make these at home.  Wonderful.  Perfect.  There’s more?

Two tiny chocolate truffles are presented.  What flavor? Mushroom!  I worry that my illusion will be shattered, but then I taste it.  Just a tiny taste, for there is a powder under them, and knowing what Viajante does with powdery things, I know I want to dip the next bite in this powder, which tastes like home-made graham cracker, but at that point I couldn’t be sure.  All I know is I love mushroom candy, when it is from Viajante.

I’m so glad this was the last meal of this trip to London.  Nothing could have topped it.  We both agreed, it was the best meal we’d ever eaten.

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