Please note, Taberna do Mercado E1 6EW has now closed. You can find them at The Kitchens, Old Spitalfields Market. Time Out Food editors, August 2018.
When the chef of the paparazzi-swarmed Chiltern Firehouse sets up his own restaurant, you take notice. But Nuno Mendes is not trying to attract red-carpet customers here. He’s going back to his roots with a modest-looking Portuguese restaurant in Old Spitalfields Market.
This ‘market tavern’ takes classic dishes and plays around using the latest techniques and ideas. The wittiest example is the ‘house tinned fish’: prawns cooked sous-vide to mimic the pasteurisation effect of the canning process, then immersed in prawn-flavoured olive oil, with a tangy kick from Goan balchao tomato, and served in a tin with toasted sourdough. It’s a treat that evokes Portugal, but does it better than even the best tin of sardines.
Every dish seems to come with a story, which our waitress was happy to detail. Persecution under the Inquisition meant that many Iberian Jews pretended to convert to Catholicism, and they adapted their food accordingly. One example was the alheira, a sausage made with poultry instead of pork; Taberna’s version adds a sour kick.
Another story lay behind our pudding. Egg white was once used in Portugal to starch nun’s clothes, so we were told, creating a surfeit of egg yolks which were then used in desserts such as pudim Abade de priscos. This is usually set with pork fat and red wine, but Mendes slow-cooks the egg to set it, and uses red wine to make a jus. Its meltingly rich texture, not too sweet, is extraordinary.
Even if you couldn’t care less about clever culinary tricks, there’s much to enjoy at Taberna. The wine list is affordable; the room is spacious and bright, with a large terrace in the covered market; and the staff seem genuinely passionate about what they do. If you found a restaurant like this is Lisbon, you’d be delighted. But you never will, because Taberna do Mercado’s an export model, and a one-off.
No bookings taken for for dinner.
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