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Viajante reviewed

Saturday, June 05th , 2010

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When Bacchus opened in a particularly dodgy part of Hoxton it seemed an almost perverse arrangement. Nuno Mendes was producing ambitious, challenging modern food in a street that it would seem wisest to travel to by armoured car. Yet the food was genuinely interesting, and although not every dish worked for me, this was clearly a place that cared. Eventually Bacchus folded, and Mr Mendes has occupied himself with a supper club while regrouping. His new venture, Viajante, is in the Zetters hotel in what was the old Bethnal Green town hall. A friend who lives locally reckoned this was a pretty rough area, so the chef seems determined to make a point by basing himself in the most dubious bits of east London rather than somewhere like Chelsea, that might seem a more obvious location for this kind of cooking.

The lunch I had this week had a style familiar from Bacchus, but for me this experience was more hit and miss (an example dish is pictured). I liked the desserts, but whereas at Bacchus the issues I had with some dishes were mainly conceptual ones, at my meal this week the problems were more technical: one dish was served fridge cold, another two dishes had burnt notes that should had not have been present. The chef had a day off, but since they are still charging the same price this is no excuse. Clearly a lot of work goes on (which you can see in the open kitchen, which had five chefs working for that number of tables at our lunch) but £60 for a six course meal at dinner (£45 at lunch) seems quite ambitious given the fairly inexpensive ingredients that appeared. I really enjoyed Bacchus, and hoped for rather more than was delivered at Viajante. Perhaps these teething problems were just that, but at these prices everything should work pretty flawlessly. As a side note, if you can figure out how the taps in the bathrooms work then you have my undying admiration.

The Dorchester hotel has three main restaurants: Alain Ducasse, The Grill Room and China Tang. The dining room of the latter has carpet rather than the wooden floors, and plenty of money has clearly been spent on it. However when it comes to the menu you find the Cantonese dishes that you see in Chinatown, except when it comes to the price column. For example Szechaun prawns are £22, although they were nicely cooked if rather light on the chilli kick. Not everything is so expensive, with hot and sour soup an affordable £6 and dim sum dumplings mostly around a fiver each, but this restaurant is clearly aimed either at hotel guests or people that could afford to stay here. The dishes we tried were fine, though there was a distinct lack of seasoning in the soup and indeed the noodles. Ingredients were actually quite good e.g. gai lan had carefully selected, delicate leaves, and the steamed sea bass was apparently wild rather than farmed. Cooking technique was fine too, but it all seemed a bit strange to be eating such familiar food in a smart hotel setting – you can eat a little better at Royal China for a lot less money, albeit with less polished service. There was little to really criticise about China Tang, but I’ll leave it to the hotel guests.

I also returned to old favourite Indian snack place Diwana Bhel Poori (pictured). I have been coming here now for 27 years on a regular basis, and very little has changed in that time. The Gujerati snacks are very good indeed e.g. their bhel poori is better than that at many much posher places, with just enough tamarind sauce and goods spicing. The trick is to avoid their curries, which are barely high-street tandoori level, but if you stick to the dosas and snacks you will end up with an excellent meal that costs an almost embarrassingly low price. Our bill came to over £12 a head, which included dessert and lassi to drink (it is BYO if you want alcohol). Great value for money.

A place local to me with a lot of charm is Tarantella. The pizzas are good and other dishes are satisfactory, but it is the genuine Italian welcome that still brings me back here, even when I can get an objectively better pizza at nearby Franco Manca.

There must be plenty of unexpected problems with running a restaurant, but a new one on me was the fate of Cipriani in New York this week, whose front door was chosen by a swarm of bees as their ideal new home. Presumably they had heard about its buzzy atmosphere; now if they had turned up at Drones in London I would have understood…

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