My boyfriend is wonderfully accepting when it comes to me and my food. He knows well by now my dislike of eating in the same place twice, and endures my insistence on telling him random facts about the chef at new places (as he nods with ‘interest’). He has even learned to hold back from diving into food so that I can take photos of everything we eat (more evidence of that later). But even his patience was wearing thin last Thursday as we decided on a spontaneous evening out and I trudged him to no less than four recently opened spots that I wanted to try around Liverpool Street.
Jose Pizarro’s opening on Broadgate? At least a 90 minute wait. The new larger Pitt Cue Co off Devonshire Square? Fully booked all night. Cosy new Indian eat Gunpowder? No chance (though relayed in a far friendlier style by a very apologetic waiter who suggested the best times to return). Fourth time lucky it was with Taberna Do Mercado (probably the last place I was going to be allowed to suggest before my boyfriend took over), which had a table free in the outside-but-inside section, under warm heaters and the shelter of Spitalfields Market.
It’s an unassuming setting for Michelin-starred, head chef at the Chiltern Firehouse, Nuno Mendes’ new venture. White-washed walls, plain wooden decor and not a reality TV star in sight. We’re warmly welcomed by the suave front of house (and relieved to finally sit down!). Cutlery sits in a jar on each table and menus hang off them on hooks; this is a lot more chilled Lisbon eaterie than West End celeb hangout and I like it.
I’m no expert on Portuguese food but the menu seems to mix the traditional with the slightly odd. We order a dish from each section and hope for the best. The green bean fritter makes for a curious start – a lightly battered tangle escaping from the plate. It’s tricky to eat and doesn’t have much to it in my opinion, but the real treat is the broth at the bottom of the dish which we keep to dunk the toasted sourdough in.
My personal highlight is the St Jorge cheese, a 24 month cured hard cow’s cheese that does somersaults across my tongue with every sliver. I don’t think a cheese has ever fired off that many different tastebuds in my mouth before; it’s somehow sharp, tangy but sweet all at the same time. The cured meat dish is a little too fatty for my liking which I should’ve guessed when we chose the black pig rolled belly; it’s soft and of high quality nevertheless.
The fish section dishes are served in anchovy tins; we opt for the mussels which are incredibly tender and teamed with a dressing of shallots and horseradish that packs such a punch it has us cleaning out every morsel from the tin.
Not everything works quite so well though – the jerusalem artichoke dish falls a little flat. We’d probably had enough food at this point given the amount of bread served with each plate but we’d also asked for the steak sandwich – a worthy finisher of tasty pink rump steak, surprisingly but well flavoured with prawn balchao and sorrel.
We were tended to throughout by very friendly servers, who were quick to answer questions and shuffle plates as things arrived faster than we could eat them. One charming waiter helped me pick a soft and fruity red wine from their interesting line-up, as I hadn’t heard of many of the grapes on the list. We were also asked at the start if we’d like to reserve a slice of their traditional Portuguese dessert pasteis de nata, as they apparently only make one tart a night. Obviously I said yes – though in hindsight it probably left me the most disappointed. The custard filling was just too gooey; I prefer mine a little firmer and would have liked a thicker pastry shell.
Don’t be fooled by the simplicity of the setting then – this is unfussy but interesting cooking that’s full of flavour. While not all the dishes shone for me there were enough unfamiliar elements to hold the attention. The main thing to watch out for, as with all the small plate offerings in London, is how quickly the price stacks up at £6-9 for most dishes. Otherwise take an adventurous eater along (maybe consider making a booking) and get stuck in!
Taberna do Mercado
Old Spitalfields Market, 107B Commercial St, London E1 6BG