Nuno Mendes is a quiet chef, so it probably came as quite a surprise when his kitchen at Chiltern Firehouse became the loudest, most talked about restaurant in London. As the hype begins to settle at the Marylebone establishment, Mendes is focusing his efforts on a new venture in Spitalfields Market.
Taberna do Mercado is a simple and unassuming eatery serving authentic Portuguese fare. It features recipes that Mendes remembers from his childhood from the south-west region of Alentejo. The restaurant is happily found in the busy marketplace, and with no reservations, it immediately evokes a very different feel to Chiltern Firehouse. Diners here are patient foodies rather than pushy celebs visiting for all the wrong reasons.
It is a modestly designed venue with distressed wooden floorboards, circular marble tables and whitewashed walls – a minimalist combination that instantly encourages a relaxed Mediterranean vibe. There is a kitchen inside and a live station outside. Here the stoves are expertly managed by head chef Antonio Galapito, who has worked with Mendes for years.
From the paper menu clipped to our table we chose a selection of tasty tapas style plates. I fondly remember the wisps of runner beans in batter, so light and moreish. Prawn rissoles were delectable parcels of tiny spicy prawns with a crunchy edge. There is a whole section of the menu devoted to the house-tinned fish, which is receiving rave reviews from fish fans. The plates of meat and cheese are particularly delicious paired with a glass of Portuguese wine, great for a light early evening snack. If you want to try something very traditional, opt for the Alheira sausage which has a consistency similar to ‘nduja but tastes quite different. Made with a mix of meats and bread it has a rich flavour but a rather stodgy texture, very tasty but unlike anything I have tried before.
Bifana is popular meaty snack in Lisbon, a crusty bread roll filled with thinly cut pork steak and mustard. It is the Portuguese version of a bacon bap and it is equally satisfying. It seemed a bit random amidst our meal, but I could imagine relishing this sandwich on a Sunday morning.
Desserts are unusual and daring. Abade de Priscos and port caramel is sure to be a crowd-pleaser. Made from a mix of egg yolks and pork fat it has a smooth texture and toffee taste and is served in a pool of sweet port. The olive oil cake also looked intriguing, I am keen to try it on my next visit.
Mendes can often be seen wandering calmly around the venue. It is a different man to the one I saw looking stressed in the famed Marylebone restaurant. Here he presents a cuisine he is sentimental and proud about and that love shows in the vibrantly flavoured food and charming atmosphere in the dining room.
More information here: www.tabernamercado.co.uk