Sitting at a sun-dappled, marble-topped table at Taberna do Mercado, washing down a prawn-paste and beef prego sandwich with a chilled glass of Super Bock lager, I feel like I’m on holiday in Lisbon. But as buzzing as the Portuguese capital’s food scene is at the moment, I’m eating somewhere arguably even more enthralling to foodies: East London.
In a restaurant housed in one of the East End’s most iconic spaces – Old Spitalfields Market – I’m feasting on the carefully rendered, Portuguese-by-design, gourmet-by-execution food of Nuno Mendes, one of the East London food scene’s most epoch-defining chefs. Portuguese-born Mendes shot to fame in London a couple of years back when he became the “chef curator” for the glitzy Chiltern Firehouse hotel – a playpen for celebrity A-listers who flocked to be spotted picking over his moreish crab donuts. But long before he found his name jumping from the pages of newspaper columns, Mendes was quietly causing a stir of his own making, far from the upscale streets of Marylebone, in the darkest depths of pre-gentrified East London.
I asked Mendes to write the foreword to my new book, East London Food – a collaboration with the brilliant food photographer Helen Cathcart – precisely for that reason. We wanted to create a book that documented the rise of East London as one of the most diverse, creative and exciting food regions in Europe at the moment, covering everything from the traditional pie-and-mash shops and Cockney-Italian-run cafés to the smoke-filled Turkish eateries, Vietnamese canteens and the area’s relatively newfound gastronomic gravitas.
And that’s where Mendes comes in. Over the past decade, he’s been leading the stampede to London of young, interesting chefs – many of whom, just like him, have trained in some of the best restaurants in the world, and have since shunned the glitz and high rents of the West End, traditionally London’s dining capital, in favor of the grimier East. Last year, new restaurant openings in East London outnumbered those in the West End by more than double.
Mendes was one of the first serious chefs to see the East’s potential as a dining district, and played an instrumental role in engineering the foundations of this gastronomic revolution. In 2007, fresh from the kitchens of the now-defunct Michelin-starred restaurant elBulli, Mendes set up Bacchus, his first solo venture in London. It was housed in a former pub in Hoxton Square, an area that – at the time – was more known more for its run-down bars and cheap Vietnamese takeouts than for gourmet dining.
Although Mendes had also been offered the chance by a famous restaurateur to helm a central London eatery – not to mention a significant amount of money – he relished the opportunity to make his mark in uncharted culinary territory. He remembers answering an ad put out by the owner of the pub on Gumtree, a popular classified-advertisement website, who wanted to create a food destination there.
“Hoxton was a dead end at the time,” Mendes says. “It was rough as hell, and “This was a big pay drop,” Mendes recalls. “But I was like, ‘Man, I like it! Let’s go with it!’ And I remember thinking at the time: If I can pull this off, and I can do what I want to do, from here, from this moment on, I’ll always be my own person. I’ll never be a hired gun.”
And he wasn’t. Even when Bacchus proved ahead of its time, and ultimately closed, Mendes stuck with East London. Shortly afterwards he launched his pioneering supper club The Loft at his flat on Kingsland Road, which hosted intimate dinners cooked by him and chefs carefully chosen from all over the world, including Magnus Nilsson, head chef at the pioneering Swedish restaurant Faviken. Then came his triumphant Viajante restaurant in the Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal Green, which earned this part of town its first Michelin star.
When Viajante closed in 2014, the chef went on to open Chiltern Firehouse. Now he’s returned to East London with Taberna do Mercado, a restaurant which draws on his Portuguese heritage and the bold, punchy flavors of his native cuisine. Hearty bowls of coriander-perked pig’s trotter and cuttlefish stew are accompanied by the aforementioned surf-and-turf prego sandwich, as well as the best pastel de nata (Portuguese egg custard tarts) in London, oozing with molten egg custard.