The good son returns home. Nuno Mendes is back to Lisbon, the city where he was born, to run probably the most anticipated new opening restaurant in the city. In fact, two restaurants, a gastro bar, a terrace and a mix of pastry and coffee shops in one of the hippest squares in the bohemian Bairro Alto neighborhood.
Mendes, who has adopted London to live and build his career, plays his role as Food and Beverage Director of top-quality Bairro Alto Hotel, where he is set to take care of everything guests will eat and drink in the newly renovated building. The restaurants have just opened to locals and tourists who have been crowding Portugal’s capital in the last years — only the gastro bar doesn’t have an official opening date yet.
Sweet potato sorbet and olive oil mousse | Photo João Peleteiro
The most prominent Portuguese chef in the international scenario, Mendes has also become an acclaimed cook in the United Kingdom, where he has lived for over a decade. His latest restaurant, Mãos, which serves only 16 diners per night, has just been recognized with a Michelin star just over a year after its opening. Viajante, the restaurant that definitely consolidated his name on the local scene, had already received a star in 2011, making him the first Portuguese-born with the distinction in England.
But more than an awarded chef, Mendes has become known for his innovative projects. Through 2010 and 2011, he ran The Loft Project, a supper club in Dalston neighborhood, that attracted the attention of both the press and public. He also commanded other famous Londoner venues such as Bacchus and Taberna do Mercado. Today he leads the Chiltern Firehouse and the Fuel For Learning social project, both in the UK.
Fine Dining Lovers met chef Mendes at Bairro Alto Hotel in a conversation in which he talked about finally being back to Lisbon— even if not definitely—creativity in gastronomy, Portuguese cuisine, and even Brexit. Read below the best parts of the interview.
“Lisbon is my hometown and a city for which I have a huge passion. I always wanted to run a project in the city, but it had never been possible. Bairro Alto is a classic hotel in the city, it's situated in an iconic spot, so when we started the conversation four years ago, I was very excited about being a kind of food and beverage curator for it. I love hotels, and I've worked many times on my career on them: I like it because it's possible to create a lot of different experiences for a guest, who can last here from two to 24 hours — or even days. There is a very interesting complexity in this universe of hotel hospitality. This desire to focus specifically on Portuguese gastronomy began with Taberna do Mercado, in London. Then I released Lisboeta, my cookbook focused on the city's traditional dishes, and now I turn once again to Lisbon, as in a trilogy of my career about the city”.
Photo João Peleteiro
“There are five different concepts in the hotel, a fine dining restaurant, Bahr; a more casual one focused on healthy food, called Mezzanine; a creative cocktail-based gastro bar with finger food, 18.68 (that hasn't been opened yet); a pastry shop with good coffee and a terrace only for the guests. I wanted to do a project with a very strong Portuguese identity, but all with different voice tones. I started from this point of view. At Bahr, the focus is on the use of Portuguese ingredients, something I have always embraced, but which is easier here because of the proximity to the farmers. It's a product-inflected restaurant, where I'm trying to remember flavors and recipes that I like, but with a signature, of course. It has a strong bohemian concept — we will be open until 1 pm, with a charming terrace with a beautiful view of the city. We are not serving a tasting menu, despite being more high-end venue. All recipes are new, distinct dishes. All the other concepts follow this idea in more or less intensity”.
Where food is an experience
“I am a guy always with many ideas, I love to think of new concepts. Not all of them work well or end up as a success, of course, but I like to have them in mind. And I think each of them needs to have their own identity, so I am eager to create new dishes for each one as well. At the same time, I also like to work in order to improve the projects that perform well, thinking about how to move them forward, perfecting dishes. This project in Lisbon I hope will last for many years so we can keep improving the food experience for our guests”.
Apple sorbet miso cream rye cake and fennel | Photo João Peleteiro
Mãos is a concept [a tasting menu kitchen-lounge] that seems even more relevant to me nowadays, especially due to the economic conditions we live in London today, when people want to eat very well but without spending so much. It's an intimate experience, all around the table, like being at a friend's house, but with an experimental kitchen, with inventive cooks [Edoardo Pellicano is the head chef of the project], thinking of creative dishes. Mãos is a place for experience: the food and drink we serve is to lead to this”.
“For me, gastronomy is experience, it's never just about food. It is not only about what you eat and drink, but how you are served and treated. Mãos is what I believe a fine dining restaurant is a today, when people no longer want so much of the formality that has taken the restaurants scene by storm to seek fun and unforgettable experiences. At Mãos we have frequent customers who come back a few times a year, something that it way more difficult in the classic fine dining restaurants. In this sense, it is a very interesting thing”.
The rise of the Portuguese cuisine
Photo João Peleteiro
“I have been working in gastronomy for more than 20 years now and I can say that it has never been such an interesting moment for Portuguese cuisine. I mean both in quality and quantity of projects, with more Portuguese chefs increasingly giving value to our cuisine, our products. Ten years ago, when I walked around Lisbon we only had a predominance of Italian, French, Chinese restaurants. In fine dining scene, there was nothing focused on Portuguese cuisine. This is amazing! In my view, this has happened due to a large flow of tourists taking over the whole country — Portugal is on trend now — and due to our improvement of ingredients. I mean, we have always had good products in Portugal, but never, perhaps, as good as what we already have today. There is greater pride in Portugal today, especially regarding food, so we have learned to value it more and more. Many cooks, like me, left the country to work in acclaimed restaurants and realized that they could come back and do something similar also in Portugal. I see a new generation of chefs, sommeliers, and winemakers who believe in the country and are transforming the cuisine here. This makes me very happy, it is for sure a new phase of Portuguese gastronomy”.
Grilled squid runner beans turnip tops and seaweed | Photo João Peleteiro
“When we opened in London, we had to start by teaching people a little about Portuguese products, history, and tradition. Portuguese food has a very strong identity and it was an effort that we began to make some years ago. We probably have opened some doors, but I am proud to say that today there are already other very interesting projects around the world that showcase the roots and identity of Portuguese food, not only in London but in many other parts of the world. I hope we have more Portuguese to show the richness of our country's cuisine in many other countries”.
Brexit and its impact to the food scene
“I am very worried. I have a huge crush on London, which is perhaps my second home in the world since I have lived in some parts of the world. I've been 15 years living in the city now and I feel that the city is already changing because of the Brexit. I have many doubts about how it will be in the near future if I would like to raise my children in the city if this happens. I think we will have fewer people doing creative things in London, fewer people visiting the city: it will be a shame for its diversity, also in regards to food. We will have to wait to see, but I am truly worried”.