I first encountered Nuno Mendes’ cooking at Bacchus in Hoxton. It was experimental, genuinely interesting and ahead of its time for what at that point (2006) was a distinctly rough location. It duly folded, but his next project Viajante in Bethnal Green was much more commercially successful. He has now been lured across London to spearhead the kitchen at the boutique hotel Chiltern Firehouse, owned by Andre Balasz, a US hotel magnate with a string of hotels such as The Mercer in New York to his name.
Chiltern Firehouse is, as the name suggest, located in what was once a fire station. There is a pretty courtyard with outdoor seating and a winding path that leads into the hotel. The dining room has lots of mirrors and an open kitchen, lending an informal feel. The main room retains many of the features of the fire station, from the fireman’s pole in one corner to the main doors that used to shield the fire engines. Tables are crammed in, and the place was heaving with the fashionable young things of London (plus myself). The main room can seat around 120 diners at once, and there is additional seating in the courtyard and elsewhere in the hotel, so up to 200 diners can be accommodated at any one time. Dale Osborne, previously at Dinner, was in charge of the kitchen tonight; I half expected Nuno Mendes to shimmy down the fireman’s pole at some point, but it seems he was having a well-deserved break.
The menu had starters priced from £9 to £16, main courses £18 to £36, side dishes £5 to £6 and desserts at £9. The wine list had plenty of American offerings, but was quite widespread geographically. Examples were Vina Zorzal Graciano 2011 at £28 for a wine that you can find in the high street for £8, Keller “Von der Fels” 2012 Riesling at £58 for a wine that retails at £12, and Thierrey Pillot Enseigneres Puligny Montrachet 2011 at £95 compared to a shop price of about £36.
Bar snacks comprised pleasant fried chicken with a hot sauce that was not that spicy (13/20), cauliflower florets in a dip slightly flavoured with truffle (13/20) and crab “donuts” that were really a crab burger dusted with coral, the latter the best of the nibbles (14/20).
Soft poached egg with morels, wild garlic and Jersey Royals had nice seasonal potatoes and good morels, but the egg was stone cold by the time in arrived (barely 12/20). Beef tartare was presented in a little bowl as its component parts, with a wooden salad spoon and fork to allow the diner to mix in the beef with the chopped onions, pine nuts, egg and chopped gherkins. There was also a little bottle of chipotle hot sauce, which had a practical problem in that the lid of the bottle was so narrow it was difficult to get even a drop or two of the sauce out. The beef was pleasant enough, though such a dish of course has had rather limited intervention from the kitchen (13/20). I did like a grilled octopus dish with daikon radish, mushrooms and aubergines. The vegetables were a touch mushy but the octopus was very tender, something that requires some skill to achieve based on my experience of eating octopus dishes elsewhere in the world (14/20).
Iberico pork was char-grilled and served with collard greens and roasted garlic. The pork was cooked pink, the garlic working nicely though the greens seemed a little overcooked (13/20). Roast turbot with gem hearts and horseradish cream had correctly cooked fish that lacked flavour compared to versions that I had eaten just days previously in France, and was perhaps a touch over-salted; the horseradish cream with it seemed a little tentative (12/20). Better was monkfish with puffed barley and fennel, the fish cooked over pine and having a hint of that flavour when served; this was well cooked and went well with the fennel (14/20). On the side were al dente sprouting broccoli and crisp matchstick chips (14/20).
For dessert, citrus cake with clementine custard and sesame sponge was surprisingly lacking in citrus flavour (12/20), but chocolate cake with toasted hazelnut ice cream was better, with plenty of chocolate flavour and decent ice cream (13/20). Coffee was pleasant. The bill came to £120 a head with good but hardly excessive wine, and this is certainly a place where the overall price tag seems to shoot up higher than one might have imagined when reading the menu. Service was very good throughout, with wine carefully topped up and friendly and enthusiastic staff.
What did seem a little curious is how, given that Nuno Mendes is the head chef, how un-Nuno the food seemed. It reminded me of a successful art film director who is recruited by Hollywood to direct a blockbuster. Those who remember the excellent food at Bacchus will not see much resemblance here. This establishment has certainly captured the zeitgeist judging by its popularity. It took me months to book here, and on the day I visited I was told that the restaurant was completely booked up for three months ahead, day in and day out. Overall the pricing felt high given the level of dishes being served, but clearly this is a minority view. Our table (this was early on a Monday night) was turned within seconds of us departing.