A couple of months ago London was taken by surprise with the news that the renowned Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes would open his own restaurant in the Old Spitalfields Market. The news were taken with great enthusiasm, with many articles about how the Chiltern Firehouse chef was now making his art available to those who could not get a table at Chiltern Firehouse or wanted ‘something more Nuno Mendes’, embracing the chef’s Portuguese roots.
With all the hype behind the Tabernas’ debut, my husbands’ eagerness to pay the place a visit was no revelation to me. I really cannot fault him for that! Who wouldn’t be excited with the prospect of trying traditional Portuguese food elaborated with a twist by a Michelin star chef? And all of that without leaving London!
I have to say that my enthusiasm was not as effusive as my husbands’; the idea of intertwining taberna tavern and petiscos snacks with Michelin star chef, for same reason seemed illogical to me. Nonetheless I was intrigued by the ‘twist’ that would be given to the traditional flavours of Portugal.
With all the excellent visitor reviews and commendations from top connoisseurs, we could not delay our visit any longer. Not being able to make table reservations in the evening, one Friday evening straight after work we headed down to the Old Spitalfields Market for a much anticipated meal.
Upon arrival there was no queue but a ‘waiting list’ to be contacted by phone once a table become available, which taking into consideration the restaurant size is a very reasonable and practical solution. So, we too left our mobile number and went for a drink at a nearby bar.
Not long after, our wait was terminated and a table was waiting. Once there, we were guided to our corner table and given the one page menu offering snacks, cheeses, cured meats, tinned fish, small plates, sandwiches and desserts. Our lovely waitress also indicated the day specials written on the black board and when requested for a recommendation she replied: “- This is not what we are used to in Portugal, the portions here are very small, but the chef really knows what he is doing, so everything is good” and with that she left us to it.
Smiling I said to my husband ‘can you imagine a theatre nurse telling us to run because the surgeon didn’t really know what he was doing!’ we both giggled and carried on studying the menu. After a while we decided to go with the Azeitão cheese, alheira, tinned cod fish with sweet pepper paste and the beef steak sandwich accompanied by white wine.
The first dish to arrive was the cheese with slices of toasted sourdough bread. The cheese was very tasty and the bread toasted to perfection, nothing new for us, Azeitão cheese is lovely anywhere you taste it. Yet, we were eating it with water as our wine did take a long time to be served.
Then was time for the tinned cod fish, this was possibly the dish of the night. The fish texture was divine and the taste a delight, but on the down side the portion was extremely small.
Next on the list was the grilled alheira with tomato and watercress. Once again, lovely dish served as a small portion but with nothing different to add. Portuguese charcuterie is delicious as a norm.
Then we had the steak sandwiches bife pregos and what a disappointment it was! The sandwich came in what seemed to be bolo do caco bread with a medium rare beef just as we like it, but as soon as we had the first bite the disillusion set in. Whilst the bottom part of my bread was burnt, charcoal like kind of burnt leaving hands and lips completely black, my husbands’ bread had its interior moderately scorched.
Instead of sending it back and requesting a replacement, I separated the bread from the beef and only ate the meat, the meal was already spoiled and that would not be improved by a new sandwich.
At this point, my dining experience had reached its end and my husbands’ one progressed into dessert. He ordered tigelada, a traditional sweet from central Portugal and according to him yet again no novel twist was noted apart of being served in milk and dusted with orange zest.
- Was I head over heels as expected? No, quite the opposite; apart from the tinned fish I could not see where the twist was. A place with such reputation should not be serving deeply burnt food, but I do have to praise the waitress that without being told noticed the burnt bread left in the plate and offered to replace it or deduct it from the bill.
- Would I recommend it to someone that wants to try Portuguese food and have a Portuguese experience? No, I wouldn’t. This eatery for tapas gives you a small nuance of Portuguese flavours but does not make justice to the Portuguese gastronomy. Other Portuguese restaurants around London from unknown chefs offer a more authentic cuisine.
- Will I return to Taberna do Mercado? Possibly not. We had such high expectations for this place that were let down.
Review in a nutshell: overpriced, underserved Portuguese tapas tavern with some authentic Portuguese flavours and exquisite tinned fish.