Fish that makes you go ‘oof’

Number 30 Charlotte Street is holy ground for London’s restaurant cognoscenti. It was, from some point in the mid-Neolithic until well into this millennium, the site of L’Etoile, a traditional French restaurant commanded by the charismatic Elena Salvoni. It had run its course by the time it closed, but it is still wonderful to see that such a significant and lovely building is going to have a new life as Lisboeta in the hands of another respected restaurant hero.

Nuno Mendes has been round the block a few times since he arrived in London. His first gastropub and subsequent pop-ups in east London were the Sex-Pistols-at-the-Free-Trade-Hall gigs of British gastronomy. If everyone who said they were there actually was, he would have needed to book Wembley. Viajante, his Shoreditch restaurant, showed he could hack it in the upper stratospheres of fine dining, and his much-mourned Taberna do Mercado in Spitalfields successfully evangelised the cult of tinned fish. Not everything he’s touched has necessarily been an enormous success, but it’s all been delivered with commitment and it was never, ever dull. I think it’s fair to say that London likes Nuno, and there’s been a lot of anticipatory love for the idea of him taking over such an excellent and auspicious space.

I limited myself to a single Vindalho empada, and I rather wish I hadn’t. It’s described as Goan spiced “pork pie”, but it’s nothing like the Great British pig grenade. It’s a fragile little tart base, not unlike the pastel de nata in its layered frangibility. There’s a thin film of lardo like an extremely sheer bedsheet thrown over the soft, plump pork paste filling. It’s a glorious bit of pastry work, more pâtisserie than charcuterie, and very difficult to eat because you’re smiling so hard; it doesn’t quite fit your lips.

Morcela e Lingueirao shows off Mendes’s more formal skills. A very precise toast baton, piped with a mousse of blood sausage and topped with raw razor clams and some bits of micro-greenery. It looked good on the menu and made a tight, smart presentation on the plate but it was elevated to magnificence by flavourings of shichimi togarashi — the Japanese “7-spice” blend — and a strong thread of perilla, the herb that’s impossible to imagine unless you’ve tried dipping parsley in Germolene. I’m sure there’s an interesting strand to be followed here around Portuguese imperial expansion into South India and Japan, but I just found myself thinking “Stone me. That’s brave.” Perilla on fish could be as subtle as Dior “Poison” in an elevator, but Mendes forces it into compliance.

It’s worth a respectful chapeau to the staff here. I mean, unless he’s denuded Lisbon of every charming young hospo available, I can’t work out how Mendes has managed to staff the place so well from a standing start. A small joyous mob brought things to the table, their knowledge of the dishes and bubbling enthusiasm falling just on the polite side of zealotry. The sommelier handled my complete ignorance of Portuguese wine and barbaric mincing of her language with serene grace. She listened so well and applied her skill with such gentleness, it felt like she was diagnosing and prescribing. I am a difficult patient, and she made me well.

For all his creativity and iconoclasm, there was no practical way Mendes could avoid having bacalhau on the menu, and this one is a stunner. Brits usually regard dried fish with suspicion and don’t get that with sensitive soaking and skilled cooking, it returns perfectly to its original condition, just with the best of the flavours concentrated. In Mendes’s Bacalhau à Brás, you’d never be able to detect that the cod had been interfered with, just flaked into the creamiest of scrambled eggs and topped with a shaggy stack of fried potato straws. It is a long-established Lisbon favourite, cheap and comforting, but in this case, handled with respectful care to create something smooth, dignified and complex.

My standard operating procedure with Portuguese cooks is to let them do whatever the hell they want with fish. They know more about it than I do, have much more experience and they’ve never let me down. Catch of the day was a lemon sole of such scale I felt like Queequeg going at it with my fork. They have a way of grilling in Portugal that involves constant turning and basting with a herby, garlicky, oil mulch that conspires to turn the fish skin into a crust, to bathe the meaty flesh in fragrant steam and still get served alongside as a sauce.

We overuse the word “breathtaking” in this business, but when the fish landed on my table with the heft of a sack of wet sand, honking of garlic and hot oil, I let out a little “oof” of excitement. Perfect control at the grill meant I could slip the beast off its bones like a wet satin glove to gasps of admiration from nearby tables.

You’re going to want to try the Abade de priscos dessert, not just because the words custard, crème caramel, port and pork fat are being mentioned, in urgent sotto voce by food nerds at every table, but because it’s actually a right little stonker.

Lisboeta is big. It is stretched over three floors with a long bar, a huge open kitchen and lots of great people covering the floor. Definitely not a cheap night out, even by our new, more expensive standards. It’s the kind of scale that Mendes deserves and he’s clearly got the talent to carry it off, but this is an audacious launch in what is still a challenging time for hospitality.

Yet there’s something about the place, maybe even the ghost of the old Etoile, something that gives you confidence that 30 Charlotte Street, in the brilliant hands of Mendes, is going to be the home of another, equally respected London institution.

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