Mendes as Portuguese food ambassador


This is a version of an article published by the Financial Times. 

London has obviously had a profound impact on Theodore Kyriakou and Nuno Mendes, respectively the Greek and Portuguese chefs who for more than a decade have done so much to raise the standard of cooking here. It has made them go native. 

By this I do not mean that they are now cooking British food but that each has now opened an informal restaurant with a retail element attached that hark back to the places they remember from their childhood when growing up in their respective countries.

Last year, Kyriakou opened The Greek Larder on the border of King’s Cross and Islington within sight of the Regent’s Canal because, as he explained to me, ‘I can never think of Greece without thinking of the water.’ This has been fashioned in the image of the bakaliko that his father ran in Athens and alongside the authentic food and a range of impressive Greek wines are shelves filled with Greek produce: olive oil; pasta; bottarga, mullet roe for grating on the pasta; and several interesting beers.

A similar layout is obvious to anyone walking past the green metal tables that face onto the interior of Old Spitalfields Market, close to the City, into Taberna do Mercado that Mendes opened a few weeks ago (photos above and below by Joe Woodhouse). These shelves are filled with similar products, except they are all from Portugal, and include the honeys from Serramel, to which, over the years, I have become addicted.

The rest of the interior is quintessentially Portuguese too. The marble bar sits on top of a wall of cork. The cutlery, glasses and crockery are all from Portugal, including a charming blue and white oval dish made by Vista Alegre complete with lid that is used for several dishes.

But perhaps the most authentic aspect of this transformation from what was an Androuet French cheese shop that has relocated to another part of the market is the brick interior. This has simply been painted white. Its sole piece of art is a blackboard on which the daily specials are handwritten, with the original open space for a fire a testament to the building’s age. The overall effect is of a café in the old part of Lisbon or the Portuguese countryside.

This impression is reinforced by the sight of Mendes standing by the entrance at a strategically placed position from which he can keep an eye on all the tables, both inside and out, together with all the plates that are carried up from the basement kitchen.

Mendes, 42 and a chef for the past 20 years since abandoning his initial interest in marine biology, which had taken him to the USA, wears his grey uniform with style helped by the beard and tattoos that are now increasingly common in this eastern quarter of London. And although he continues in his role as Executive Chef at the super-fashionable Chiltern Firehouse in Marylebone, it is obvious from his smile, as well as his waiting skills, that he is very much at home here as the patrono.

The three thin pieces of paper that contain the menu and wine list are clipped together with a hook from which they hang by the reception. Written in a mixture of Portuguese and English, with the menu broken down into sections such as snacks, small plates and cured meat, they are clearly designed to show off the inherently strong, distinctive flavours of Portuguese food and wine.

We began with two pungent prawn rissoles, hot parcels of tiny, spicy prawns, before embarking on three choices under the heading ‘house tinned fish’. This incorporates several different fish that the kitchen marinates and preserves in olive oil for up to two weeks and then serves in pristine, modern tins. Pieces of turbot marinated with dulse, a seaweed, had taken on a soft and succulent flavour; scallops with brown butter and shaved walnuts were rich yet tangy; while the small fillets of mackerel were made spicier and livelier after their stay in a tomato sofrito.

Other dishes ranged from the pungent to the comforting. The former included plates of chorizo marinated in red wine from the Alentejo, and a plate of Quinta de Veigainha sheeps’ milk cheese; the latter a plate of fresh peas and broad beans combined with egg yolk. My particular favourite was an acorda of cod and cod tripe that had been gently cooked in a salt-cod stock with olive oil, salt and coriander alongside pieces of shredded bread. Mendes continues the tradition, first practised in Portuguese nunneries, of incorporating lots of egg yolks into his rich and luscious desserts.

Where Taberna displays its main London influence is, surprisingly, in its wine list. Over his years in London, Mendes has been introduced by João de Vallera, the Portuguese Ambassador who is a food and wine enthusiast, to several Portuguese winemakers, most notably the charismatic Dirk Niepoort. There is a lot here for the curious, most particularly a 1973 (Mendes’s birth year) white port from Casa de Santa Eufêmia, £9.70 for a 75 ml glass.

But my strongest memory from Taberna is of looking over at the diners around me, watching as they lean forward to look at Mendes’s food as it is served. Then, once it has been explained, watching them sit back with a smile on their faces, intrigued and delighted.

Taberna do Mercado  Old Spitalfields Market, London E1 6BG
Bookings lunchtime only via

The Greek Larder Arthouse, 1 York Way, London N1C 4AS; tel +44 (0)20 3780 2999