Illustrious food blogger and holder of ‘Most Covetable Lifestyle’ Clerkenwell Boy, has been following me around London recently.
Well, not exactly. But I do seem to have beaten him to it on a couple of recent occasions. Nuno Mendes’s new informal eatery, Taberna do Mercado, in Spitalfields is one such instance.
We thought we’d try Taberna do Mercado before it became impossible to bag a table. We turned up at 8pm on a Saturday night and had to leave our names. After two glasses of wine at the light and arcadian Blixen, a few doors away, we were summoned back. Our table was ready.
The whole point of Taberna do Mercado is the food, not the fixtures and fittings. And it takes pretty legendary food to distract you from the fact you’re sitting on uncomfortable metal chairs, at a spindly metal table, in the deserted Spitalfields market – after hours, a graveyard of broken up stalls and packing crates.
When we visited, the restaurant had been trading for two weeks and it was a bit chaotic around the seams. They were admittedly under-staffed and kept stressing their infancy, but not in an apologetic way. But that’s how it is here. There are no airs and graces (if you want that, go to Chiltern Firehouse). You take a tacit oath of agreement to join their laid-back family when you come to eat here. You chinwag with the manager. You wait a while for your wine to come. The chef comes out to deliver your dessert. There’s one toilet and it’s in the kitchen. Take it or leave it.
This front-of-house ‘undone’ feel is all a rug-pull really. Because the food is certainly not haphazard. Taberna do Mercado is about as authentic an experience of Portuguese food as you could encounter from twelve hundred miles away. The food leaves you weak at the knees. It’s exceptional.
The menu is exciting. It’s actually exciting. You want to try it all, you feel emboldened to go out your comfort zone, safe in the knowledge of the expertise of the chefs.
We had some of the house-tinned fish with crusty toasted bread - the scallops in brown butter were historic. Had the meal ended there, I would have been deeply satisfied.
The pork tartare in a broth with cabbage was a thing of velvety beauty. If I found myself locked in a Groundhog Day movie conceit, the Beef prego sandwich, served with Savora mustard and chilli oil, would be my meal of choice to scoff over and over again, ad infinitum.
Because we couldn’t bear not to try the desserts, we squeezed in the Abade de Priscos and port caramel. Looking like a piece of modern art in stained glass, it was exquisite in taste and texture.
Taberna do Mercado reminded me a lot of Bodega Casa Montana in Valencia. A little locals’ hideaway serving extraordinary tapas. A place where you perch on bar stools and eat what comes, and where you have to duck under the bar and into a warren of stairs and corridors to find the loo.
It seems that Nuno Mendes needs something more soulful to counter his role as Head Chef at the resplendent Chiltern Firehouse. Here at Taberna Mercado, the focus (the fanaticism, even) is on the food not the Ferraris outside. And it is, indeed, soulful.