Nuno Mendes, Viajante wünderchef: Q&A

Raining, raining – still raining. Oh well: getting your fill at a top restaurant in London is the way to transform summer in the city from so-so to sizzling. Seeing as, these days, Bethnal Green seems to be the centre of London’s universe, we’ve had a snoop around its latest hotspot, Viajante’s low-key sister bistro the Corner Room at Town Hall Hotel & Apartments, and (ahem) grilled Michelin-starred Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes on what makes his menus tick…

Corner Room, Bethnal Green - Viajante - Town Hall Hotel & Apartments

When did you first realise you wanted to be a chef, Nuno?
I have always been passionate about food, but I only realised I could be a chef once I moved to Miami, and had the chance to attend a well-equipped cooking school.

You’ve been winning fans for your Modern Portuguese gastronomic menus at Viajante (including Smith reviewer and food critic Pat Nourse*); what can we expect from your new Town Hall Hotel outpost, the Corner Room?

Corner Room follows the same philosophy and approach to food and service that Viajante does. We wanted to make it a nice, affordable neighbourhood restaurant that can be visited on a regular basis.

Viajante at Town Hall Hotel in Bethnal GreenWhat provides you with most inspiration?
Travels, what I eat and drink, as well as food memories.

Sum up your cooking style in one word:

Several items on your Viajante menu are built around presenting familiar ingredients in unexpected new ways – parsnip ice-cream, for example. Or (as when we visited) milk skin. What have been your most interesting kitchen-test failures: dishes that you wanted to work but just, well, didn’t?
Smoked salmon with Guinness ice-cream at Bacchus. This was our opening amuse-bouche for friends and family when we opened restaurant, and it flopped!

Where do you source your more unusual ingredients – duck tongue, for example?

Local purveyors: we ask them to save the stuff that they would usually throw away. These products are amazing, but overlooked. You usually find a duck breast or leg on a menu, but obviously there is a lot more to that animal. We chose to use the hearts and tongues; this way, hopefully, the animal hasn’t died in vain. A friend of mine has a Chinese restaurant where he serves the feet, so the cycle is complete!

What’s tickling your tastebuds this month?
Mackerel with a crème fraîche sponge, lemon and sorrel: it is a new dish on the menu that I am very excited about.

Food at Viajante – Bethnal Green – London restaurantsYour last project was the sous-vide gastropub Bacchus on Hoxton Street; what first drew you to London’s East End?
Since I moved to london, I have always been in love with the East. This is my neighbourhood, and I love it. It always reminded me of certain places I have lived, such as the Lower East Side and Brooklyn in New York, as well as the Mission District in San Francisco. It has an amazing edginess and lovely, creative sort of feel to the place. Though its still kind of rough, it is very inspiring to walk through these streets. With amazing projects, you find interesting people always trying to do something unique and personal.

Bistrotheque in London, Bethnal GreenApart from Viajante and the Corner Room (obviously), where’s the best meal to be had in Hackney/Bethnal Green?
Rochelle Canteen is my favourite place in the area. I also really love Brawn on Columbia Road, and Bistrotheque.

What will you have for dinner tonight?

My Mrs Smith, Clarise, is cooking!

Dream dinner party – who’d cook? Who’d come along?
At The Loft Project, with a split menu by Andoni & Rene. The fun guests of East London.

Find Nuno at Viajante and ‘bolt-on brasserie’ the Corner Room at Town Hall Hotel & Apartments, Patriot Square, London E2 9NF (+44 (0)20 7871 0460).

Read Pat Nourse’s review of Town Hall Hotel, or check out current Smith offers at this hotel (including 20 per cent off room rates), if you fancy crashing out after a slap-up meal…

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As well as wordsmithing online, in print, in the press and for Smith TV, Lucy Fennings has been a driving force in making the Smith Travel Blog an award-winner. Mr & Mrs Smith's Group Editor cut her travel teeth early; as daughter of a hotel PR, she visited far-flung flophouses from French châteaux to Ethiopian tukuls. After a year in Dubai (working on Emirates Woman magazine and enjoying the kind of dives that require a wetsuit), Lucy went to Glasgow University to study art, literature and whisky. A stint as production editor at Legalease publishing was spent discovering how to be creative with copy about tax, followed quickly by a stint discovering more interesting things across south-east Asia. When Mr & Mrs Smith found her, Lucy was at Harper’s Bazaar, keeping her finger on fashion’s pulse and sharpening her editorial knife on hapless hotel PR copy.

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