Nuno Mendes has come home. The chef most recently lauded for his launch of the Chiltern Firehouse restaurant — where time spent working in LA and New York with Wolfgang Puck, Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Rocco di Spirito was seemingly drawn upon — has embraced his Portuguese heritage in Spitalfields Market. He looks wonderfully content. Wreathed in soft whiskers and smiles.
Contemporary cooking is often happily deracinated. A keen enquiring chef — such as Nuno — will leave his homeland to travel, pick up skills, absorb influences, learn new gastronomic languages, fall in and out of love and evolve a free-floating personal style.
In his case this was first manifest in London in 2006 at the gastropub Bacchus — styled by its owner Philip Mossop as “fine dining in trainers” — and then at The Loft Project, Viajante and Corner Room. But Nuno was born and raised in Lisbon and it is Portugal, especially the south-central region of Alentejo, that is here underpinning the offering. Antonio Jose Simoes Galapito, his head chef, has been with him since the Bacchus days.
Menu and drinks lists, three narrow sheets held together by a primitive copper safety pin that can hang from the marble tabletops, cocoon an idealised land where cooks don’t open tins, they use tins as a take on sous-vide, egg yolks transmute into bars of gold, wet bread achieves iconic status — mark my words, I said to my chum, damp crumbs are the next huge thing — vegetables tangle with fruit which encounters its blossom, cuttlefish is venerated, cod talks its tripe and the cured meat of Alentejano black pigs celebrates the Phoenicians bringing them to the Iberian peninsula in 1000BC to interbreed with indigenous wild boar.
Beautiful: Chicory, Massa De Pimentao, Pear and Almonds (Picture: Matt Writtle) Nearly all items are so unlike anything I have encountered in Portugal that I attempt with the help of three friends over two occasions to eat most of the list including dishes of the day. As Ed Smith — the estimable blogger going under the name of Rocket & Squash — who is at the first lunch concludes in his online write-up, “Portugal. Who knew?”
Runner beans, often cold-shouldered as dull country cousins, are narrowly vertically sliced, mixed with shaved onions, cased in an entanglement of lacy batter and floated on a clam broth (bulhao pato). Fierce counterpoints are prawn rissóis, finely crumbed, darkly deep-fried crescents with intensity at the centre that goes way beyond normal prawn.
An interlude of cured meat must include copita, where fat takes noticeably responsibly the job of marbling and it is a moment to appreciate crisp grilled sourdough.
Vegetable assemblies include one of chicory spears coated in orange massa de pimentao (salted hot red pepper and garlic paste) served on paper-thin slices of pear with almonds and mauve pear petals (a work of art); peas and broad beans that have thumbed their noses at a pan of boiling water before being bound in egg yolk; and curls of asparagus and fennel with wild garlic on migas, stale breadcrumbs lusciously soused in dripping and vividly seasoned. See what I mean about the future of soggy loaf with its atavistic links to childhood comfort?
Bisaro, a chestnut-eating pig with paler countenance, provides pork tartare served in broth from cozido (meat stew) topped with waxy white cabbage and rapeseed flowers. Fine as this is, it is eclipsed by “coentrada” of cuttlefish and pigs’ trotters that is both poor and rich in a way that probably only New Labour can understand. But nevertheless — or perhaps consequently, depending on your politics — utterly delectable.
Nuno’s finest: Paleta Porco Preta (Picture: Matt Writtle) I hesitate to recommend a blackboard-listed dish of the day but just in case cuttlefish rice is offered, please take it. Mysterious, glistening, swampy it is piqued by homemade piri-piri sauce in a way to make you swoon.
Going downstairs to the loo means passing through the kitchen where I see a fish the size of a nine-year-old child being prepared. This is corvina from the drum fish or croaker family — it’s about the noise they make — which turns out firm-fleshed and flavourful.
My romance with wet bread begins to founder first with alheira molhada, a poultry-centred sausage rendered a sludge leaning against slices of fresh orange, and then with Bolacha Maria cake with butter cream and coffee. Bolacha Maria are Marie biscuits. Who knew? But here the confection seems like a slice of dry bread sitting in a puddle of coffee. Miles better — and something I want to run home to try to make — is olive oil pao de lo, featherweight freeform sponge cake mixture baked but left sloppy in the middle in a cradle of parchment.
Portuguese wines are a bit of a closed book to me — staff are terrifically helpful — but that holiday feeling engendered by formidable foreign food, tables outside in the covered market and what is probably by now the arrival of an outdoor grill from the London Log Company can run smoothly and vibrantly on Clip do Monte da Vaia 2014 Vinho Verde at £24. I also really liked Casa de Mouraz Tinto 2012 Dao at £30. If you pitch up in the afternoon between main services, try the sandwich of beef prego, prawn paste and wild garlic.
Welcome home, Nuno.
107b Commercial Street, E1 (020 7375 0649, tabernamercado.co.uk). Daily noon-9.30pm. Lunch noon-2pm, dinner 6pm-9.30pm. Lunch bookings: lunch@ . A meal for two with wine, about £100 including 12.5 per cent service.