nuno mendes at the loft, e8
last friday my friend judy, david and i indulged ourselves at the loft, which is the current project of nuno mendes, the ex bacchus chef who trained at el bulli. it’s a private supper club which, in return for £100, serves you a 12 course tasting menu with accompanying wines and pre-meal nibbles. the setting is nuno’s shoreditch apartment and there are up to 12 people at each meal, usually comprising several different groups as nuno likes to mix people up.
it was a great evening, completely unlike anything i’ve experienced. nuno and his team of 3 helpers created a vast menu of delicious food which was great fun to explore. the care and attention that goes into creating these dishes is apparent, not least as nuno explains what each dish is as it is served and, if as happened once, too many plates go back with leftovers on he is keen to understand why people weren’t happy with what they ate. having said that, in coming here you put yourself entirely in his hands and need to be prepared to be challenged by some of what you will eat.
i don’t normally take photos when i eat out as i find it distracting but knowing the dishes would be complex, and having a few friends who wanted me to report back in detail, below is a full report, complete with (some not very good!) photos.
as we arrived we were provided with a cocktail of vodka, lychee, lemongrass, chilli pepper and a thai basil oil. this was delicious and it would have been very easy to knock back several of these.
as we sat down to eat, we swapped our cocktails for champagne and started with a slow cooked egg yolk (cooked sous vide at 65c for 45 minutes) on top of a bed of crumbed iberico ham with pear puree. the combination was delicious, and it was really interesting to see how the cooking techniquechanged the texture of the yolk.
the second dish was a salad of raw vegetables based on tomatoes. the tomatoes took the form of marinaded yellow cherry tomatoes, a chunk of coeur de boeuf tomato and a sauce of pureed cherry tomatoes. this was wonderfully light, refreshing and, unsurprisingly, intensely tomatoey.
this was followed by a dish of marinaded mackerel, which was lightly blow-torched so the skin took on a slight bitter flavour, served topped with black olives and cucumber with a crispy ponzu salsa on the side. this was wonderful – the mackerel was uncooked other than by the marinating process and the freshness and flavour were superb. the salsa was icy-cold and its intense flavour and textures contrasted brilliantly with the oily smoky fish and sweet earthy olive flavours. this was several people’s favourite dish of the evening.
next was my favourite dish – yuba (milk skin!) with squid ink porridge, calamari and thai basil oil. the picture is terrible but the dish was wonderful. you could taste the oats in the porridge and the idea of eating milk skin is bonkers. as a result this dish made me laugh and then smile as all the flavours came together. the calamari was brushed with smoked paprika which, with the thai basil, really lifted everything.
our fifth dish was seared watermelon with warm prawn topped with pistachio paste and a crispy prawn head with an onion and shallot chutney on the side. the prawn head was fabulously salty and savoury – move over pork or duck crackling, this wins hands down! the watermelon was a real revelation, its texture more akin to a roasted pepper and the fruit really was charred in places creating an amazing contrast of flavours.
a thai explosion came next! a spoon with two mystery ingredients – radish and crispy duck or pork would be my guess – and a shot of a fabulously rich and creamy but gently spiced thai soup. there was a surprise at the bottom of the glass – a poached egg yolk i think.
next was the most challenging dish for many people – cauliflower and strawberries. the cauliflower was included as thin slices (the texture and flavour reminded me of almonds) and as a creamy puree. the strawberries were also sliced and pureed. this take on strawberries and cream felt like an odd choice for a savoury course (i’m sure it could be made into a pudding very easily) but was another dish that made me smile given the inventiveness it signified. several of our dining companions really disliked it and nuno admitted it is the dish that challenges most of his guests and that he is still working to refine it.
thankfully several of the anti “cauli n strawbs” people were charmed by the next dish – a seared scallop with aubergine caviar, mushrooms and an aubergine and truffle consommé. this was a densely flavoured very rich and savoury dish which was a huge contrast to its predecessor. i particularly liked the addition of sesame seeds.
our ninth dish was another challenging combination. oyster and onions, with various interpretations of onion – a creamy onion soup served in a bubble (looking like an anaemic egg yolk), onion leaves, onion with gruyere and an onion, tapioca and vinegar broth. the oyster was dusted with parmesan and lightly caramelised with a blow torch. i liked the contrast of flavours and textures very much and again, the fun and creativity of the dish shone through for me.
our final fish dish was an ocean trout confit dusted with seaweed and topped with trout caviar, mangosteen and a spring onion heart, served on a herbed puree. this dish didn’t work for me – the different components didn’t quite gel, particularly the herb puree which had no distinct flavour, just tasting of “green”. i wasn’t alone in being unsure of this dish - several others weren’t keen, in some cases not liking the fish aspect which was very intensely flavoured.
our final savoury course was slow cooked beef – 3 ½ hours at 50c – which was served with a puree of caramelised mushrooms and broccoli with sultanas, almonds and crisped beef fat. this was fabulous – the beef was beautifully tender, the mushroom puree sweet and earthy and the crispy beef fat really lifted the vegetable components. i could have eaten several portions of this.
i was flagging by this stage (it was probably c 1am), when we were served a pre-dessert of marinated cherries with milk semi-freddo and maple syrup. i really disliked this, handing it to david after one mouthful. the cherries were bland (i really don’t think fresh, unadulterated cherries can be beaten) and the warm milk and iced curdy semi-freddo didn’t appeal at all.
our pudding was a white chocolate cake served with black olive, mango and basil purees plus passion fruit. the cake tasted a little heavy, almost uncooked, to me but the combination of puree flavours was perfect with it - the peppery basil and tangy passion fruit lifting the sweeter olive and mango flavours.
and that was it. during the 6 hours since arriving we experienced 16 distinct dishes, several glasses of wine (the cocktail and champagne were followed by three whites, a red and a dessert wine), 8 unknown dining companions, 3 chef’s helpers and 1 imaginative, talented and welcoming host.
it wasn’t perfect – some of the dishes were a little cold, not all the flavour combinations worked, the abundance of fish felt excessive at times and the portions could have been smaller to help us manage the rapid pace of dishes. however, it was a unique and special evening and one which i enjoyed very much.
nuno is using the loft as a test kitchen to help him refine the menu for his new restaurant which will open in march next year, serving a range of tasting menus and embracing communal tables as well as more traditional seating. i’ll be keen to visit and see how things have evolved. in the meantime he’s booked up until the autumn but thinking how to extend the loft’s lifetime, perhaps with a series of guest chefs.
disclaimer: i may have got some of the detail of the dishes wrong, there was a lot going on and it wasn’t always easy to distinguish everything!