Portuguese head chef Nuno Mendes works at a rarefied level of creativity that’s often associated with pomp, ego and stratospheric prices.His calming influence dials down the entropy of his open-plan kitchen to a harmonious simmer, challenging the conventions of friction and stress laid out for us by certain celebrity chefs, who’ve spent the better part of a decade slipping deeper into the bowels of obscurity. Which is just as well, because the sheer amount of precision tweezers work that goes on at the pass would be damn near impossible under the iron rule of a Kim Jong-Ramsay. Here, it’s all about the food – and exceptionally good value. The dishes always look as though they’re headed towards self-indulgence, but swerve to miss it at the crucial moment. The only time he crossed the line was during desserts The seating in the first of the restaurant’s two rooms is angled towards the open kitchen, allowing diners to view not Ramsayesque drama but a focused team clinically tooling morsels of food into sublime presentations.
There’s no choice on the menu: a series of appetizers followed by three, six or nine courses are delivered in due course by staff who act as gastronomic tour guides, personal hosts and high priests. For this food elicits reverence. It’s exploratory, disciplined and beautiful, stimulating both the mind and the senses. You might not like every dish, but some you will likely find revelatory.
The appetizers set out the stall with startling flavors and textures: potato with yeast, pancetta and olive powder; or amaranth with sorrel, for example. Main courses are more overtly conventional – meat or fish with accompaniments – but they’re intricately conceived: witness the sea bream with fennel and miso and caramel sauce. Desserts (with a pre-dessert) return to the surprising-but-delicious theme: milk in several different molecular presentations, or Jerusalem artichokes with chocolate soil and blood orange.
The setting, a former town hall, retains its formality despite modern ceiling art and retro references, and the atmosphere is quiet and foodily serious (don’t come for a raucous night out).