james debate
james debate

Saturday 21 July 2018

Head Chef Nuno Mendes
Style Experimental
Location Redchurch Street, Shoreditch, London
Telephone Secret

new london restaurant maos chiltern firehouse nuno mendes viajante michelin

What happens when London’s hottest chef decides to open an intimate supper club? Something quite special as it turns out.

Nuno Mendes has been the toast of the London foodie scene for a number of years now, first becoming known for the Michelin starred Viajante, before striking gold with the Chiltern Firehouse. More recently he has opened Portuguese tapas place Taberna do Mercado in Spitalfields.

While the runaway success of the Firehouse has no doubt proven to be a nice little bread-winner, its safe and unvarying menu was always going to be a restless fit for a chef best known for his experimental style. So to complement, or perhaps as a respite from, his day job, Nuno Mendes decided to get the band back together and reopen Viajante, albeit in a more central location. After his crowdfunding campaign failed to raise the required capital, Nuno and his team ultimately decided to try something a bit more small scale. The result is the bizarre and wonderful social experiment that is Mãos.

Everything about the experience is surreal. There lies a cloak of secrecy over the whole event. The website is practically empty, with no menu, pictures or even contact details, just a reservation submission form. The address isn’t even provided until the day of the reservation (although it can be found on Google maps). You arrive at this unmarked, non-descript door in Shoredtich and buzz up, praying that you’re at the right place, only to be greeted by a beaming Nuno Mendes. From the moment you arrive, it’s clear that this is going to be something quite unique.

Mãos typically holds its one and only seating at 7pm, however during the summer months the team is experimenting with a Saturday matinee which commences earlier at 3pm, and ends with a post-meal drink on the roof terrace. Deciding to make the most of this heatwave, we opt for the matinee, and as it turns out we are the first group of patrons to do so.

The establishment itself is suitably idiosyncratic. Just three rooms (excluding roof terrace): a kitchen, a wine room, and a small dining room with a single communal table (Mãos takes in just 14 guests each day). Walls of exposed plaster, furniture of rustic wood, and crockery that looks (and as it turns out, was) sculpted by hand within these very walls. This quirky, unmarked building turns out to be a collection of artist studios and workshops, one of the tenants of which is the producer of many of the decorations and utensils of Mãos.

Guests are quickly ushered into the kitchen. Nuno and his kitchen team mill about like bees preparing snacks and apertifs, while staff and patrons alike hang around sharing a drink and getting to know one another. This is the first key thing to know about Mãos: it really is less of a restaurant and more of a supper club. It’s a little awkward at first, but trust me it does all come together. By the end of the evening you will know the staff and other diners quite well, thanks in large part to the incredible staff who do a great job of welcoming you in and making you feel like an old friend. This is the ethos of Mãos. You don’t feel like a customer being served at a restaurant, rather that you have been invited into someone’s home for a dinner party. It permeates every aspect of the evening. Guests are not required to spend the entire meal seated at the table and indeed are encouraged to get up and explore the venue, and take the meal in another room if they so please. Conversations with the staff are casual and frank, happy to talk about the business itself and the new ideas they're trying out.

It’s clear that everyone in the room adores food, foodie culture, talking about food. The staff relish in the secrecy, delight in surprising and entertaining. As such I would be loathe to spoil too much about the dinner itself, but suffice it to say the food is quite outstanding. Particular highlights from the evening that I will mention include the grilled short rib wrapped in a wasabi leaf and covered with yeast paste, the smoked wagyu beef with sweet peas and chive flowers, and Nuno's twist on a chawanmushi, which ultimately tasted like a chicken broth pudding. The dessert of roasted cherry stone ice cream also needs a mention. It's clear throughout the meal that even though the recipes are all quite creative and unique, they utilise a lot of familiar, homely flavours, adding to the whole home-cooked vibe. There are also vegetarian alternatives for those who so require. Of course it bears noting that the menu at this point is very much in flux, and so it is entirely likely that you might be served something completely different.

And so the evening unfolds over 4+ hours, a precession of bite-sized dishes (about 20 in total) that never overwhelms due to the expert pacing and diminutive portions. There is no wine-pairing per se, though an abundant selection is available both by bottle and glass. There is also a pleasing variety of non-alcoholic beverages - I myself spent much of the evening drinking a sweet potato and Sichuan pepper iced tea which was both tasty and refreshing. The group of diners is a diverse bunch: a young girl with her mother, a pair of young pharmaceutical executives, a 40-something couple and small business owner, and a solo food-lover among them. Everyone gets very much into the spirit of the occasion, eats, drinks, laughs.

At the end of the meal, the staff take us up to the roof-terrace by way of an artist's studio - amusingly, the stairway up to said terrace is itself an artist's creation, a bizarre hanging sculpture of copper, with guests provided slippers so that they do no fall on the way up. Once up top, Nuno brings up a plate of fresh almond cakes. There's never any sense of urgency or a rush for guests to leave. We continue to hang out another hour or so, chatting and having a few drinks of their special dessert wine. Even after we leave, several other guests remain.

Dining at Mãos is not cheap, but it's a remarkable and unique experience. There's nowhere else where you can have such an exquisite meal in such a relaxed and homely setting, not to mention the thrill of just hanging out with one of London's most prominent chefs. It's intoxicating, and in spite of the steep price I guarantee you'll want to go back before long. In fact as it turns out, a whopping 6 out of the 14 diners in our group were repeat visitors. I think that says it all.

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