I thought Bethnal Green was a surprising location for a smart dining venue, especially when parking my dinner date’s sports car between what looked to be a stacked-up housing estate and a magnificently lit town hall. Located in the heart of London’s East End, this enticing and imposing building grabbed us in from the cold while an infectiously-friendly receptionist welcomed us into the recently refurbished ‘New York chic’ bar area.
I had done my research about the chef behind this venue, Señor Nuno Mendes, known to be quite the wildcard, and these elements instigated an intrigue as I pondered the rundown, boarded-up establishments that had lined the opposite pavement. I doubt that anyone leaves Viajante without wishing it was slightly closer to their home, and wondering why Mendes chose the shabby(-chic?) Bethnal Green for such a smart looking project.
We remained in the intricately designed bar area for the majority of our evening; the restaurant, well known on the foodie circuit for the inventive food on offer, was filling quickly, so this quieter ambience was more relaxed and inviting, as much as I was intrigued by the theatre behind the restaurant doors (that’s another review, watch this space).
This bar did have a dramatic personality of its own, much of which had to do with the characters dwelling within it. From the Shoreditch-personified bartenders to the quirky, artistic types leaning against the bar, I actually spotted one guest swing his trilby onto the handbag holder lying below the counter.
The room was dimly lit and the furniture was perhaps a case of style over comfort, but the design themes are effortlessly cool. Lampshades of lace jutted out on poles from unevenly raised backboards. An exciting chandelier art-installation, or as I described it – ‘glass lighting structure’ – loomed above the cocktail bar itself, and the vibe reinforced an essence of New York bars against Soho Grand chic. Stuck in my 90 degree mould of a chair, there would never be any longing to see out lengthy and tiring days here, but instead, it’s all about the partying; a fitting set up for the international fashionistas and creatives who now flock to this part of London from the US and Europe.
As a welcome bar, the food offer would never meet that of the restaurant, but for a quick snack you couldn’t go wrong. I opted for the smaller tapas-esque plates; consisting of crunchy and flavoursome sugar snap peas, a typically Spanish bocadillo with jamon Iberico (reminiscent of my year living in Murcia, but a Portuguese element in Mendes’ case), prawn samosas with mint yoghurt and a chilli chutney, and then I shared a lobster and bacon roll with my guest, who had himself opted for a slightly larger burger, Viajante style, rather than my taster options.
In all these plates, excluding the sugar snap peas, the flavours were brave, clashing and bold. The vanilla onions within the burger were so intense that I questioned whether I would want that as an entire dish. The samosas were unique and moreish but the rest was fairly standard in comparison to the main dining venue next door. Call it an amuse bouche experience to the restaurant’s plats principaux.
The cocktails were the outstanding feature for me, and being a bar, what more could one ask for? Mr Shoreditch behind the bar, with his floppy fringe and flirty smile, talked us into a Pisco Punch and a Skye Julep. These were refreshing and I was pleased with my initial gamble.
As my guest was driving, he was delighted to still have plenty of options for a non-alcoholic cocktail as his follow-up and the taste certainly didn’t disappoint. A combination of fresh limes, mint, cucumber and lemon made this bespoke cocktail just as interesting as its alcoholic competitors.
I, however, was spoilt by Shoreditch and his charm, offering to create a fully bespoke ‘winter’ cocktail and asking what specific ingredients I usually plumped for. Using his mixology knowledge, he freestyled and came up with something so sublime that Viajante have now added it to their winter cocktail list, under the solid title of ‘The Arbuturian’. So you too can swing by and try my personal tipple. As a taster, the ingredients included apple, Strega, gin, lemon, sugar, egg white, star anise and Champagne; the perfect mixer. Divine!
Summary: For a tailored cocktail in a New-York-Soho-Chic environment, it’s definitely worth dropping by if you happen to be in that part of town. Don’t forget to order an Arbuturian; it’s the best drink on their menu.
Vıajante, Town Hall Hotel, Patriot Square, London E2 9NF. Tel. +44 (0) 20 7871 0461. Website.