I first ate Nuno Mendes’ food at Bacchus, a restaurant ahead of its time in offering molecular gastronomy in what in its day was a decidedly rough bit of Hoxton. Bacchus was neatly summed up as “Hoxton Blumenthal” by Tracey McLeod), and although this style of food is not really my thing, the talent was clearly there it carry it off. After Bacchus folded, Mr Mendes set up a supper club “The Loft Project” while he regrouped. Viajante was much more successful, the Bethnal Green location by then having enough customers to support the ambitious cooking. Viajante gained the Michelin star that I feel should have been given to Bacchus. Prior to these ventures Nuno had worked at Jean Georges and the Coyote Café (his oft-quoted exposure to El Bulli was just a brief time as a stagier). Commercial success continued as he was recruited to set up the wildly successful Chiltern Firehouse, though the cooking there is far from the style that made his reputation.
Taberno do Mercado, which opened fully in early May 2015, is a venture that takes things back to Nuno’s Portuguese roots. The Spitalfields Market location is bustling and lively, and well suited to the all-day format that is offered here. The head chef is Antonio Jose Simoes Galapito, who has worked with Nuno since Bacchus. The dining room is simple, with additional outdoor seating available. At the time of writing the format was no reservations at dinner, but reservations at lunch. There are plans for charcoal-grilled food cooked on the barbecue that had just been delivered when I visited.
The menu is the ubiquitous “small plates” format so beloved of London restaurateurs. The wine list started at £22 and had labels such as Clip do Monte do Vaia 2013 at £26 for a bottle that you can find in the high street for about a tenner, Quinta de Pellada Primus 2011 at £70 for a bottle that retails at £30, and Adega Regional de Colares Arenae Ramisco 1992 at £87 compared to a shop price of £44.
Runner bean fritters in clam juice (£5), essentially a tempura of runner beans, were decent enough but I didn’t find them very interesting; perhaps I have been spoilt by eating at too many top tempura places in Japan (12/20). I much preferred a pair of shrimp dumplings (aka prawn rissois at £5), shrimps rolled into a ball with salt and lemon and then deep-fried in breadcrumbs. The frying was clean and the flavour of the prawns very good (14/20).
Peas, broad beans and egg yolk (£8) also worked well, a simple dish but with good quality components that combined well (14/20). The best dish we tried was cuttlefish and pig trotters (£10) with a pleasing hint of spice, the cuttlefish tender and the combination with the pork flavour working very well (15/20) Pork bifana was a toasted sandwich with pork, yeast mayonnaise and a little fennel, an simple and enjoyable dish with good quality pork (14/20).
For dessert, abade de Priscos with port caramel was unusual in that it was made with egg yolks and rendered pork fat, which sounds bizarre but actually worked fine, the texture of the caramel very good; this is essentially bacon toffee that has set (14/20). We also tried olive oil pao de lo, a sort of sponge cake and zabaglione minus the marsala. This was quite rich and a little over-sugary to my taste (12/20).
Service was friendly and efficient. The bill came to £43 a head with just water to drink, which as ever with the small plates formats is rather more than one expects at the start of the meal. If you shared a modest bottle of wine then a typical cost per head will be around £65. This is not cheap for what is a fairly casual restaurant, but the quality of the dishes was generally quite high, and the kitchen was operating at a pretty consistent level given that this was still its first week of full operation. With its interesting menu and celebrity chef connections there is little doubt that it will prosper.