The Tortuga and I went to try out Viajanta in Bethnal Green a couple of weeks ago (Patriot Square, Bethnal Green, London E2 9NF – 020 7871 04610 – www.viajanta.co.uk). It’s quite easy to miss, at least we both arrived separately and missed it. But as long as you are on the same side of the road as the Museum of Childhood, walking away from Bethnal Green tube, then you’ll find it. It’s in the old town hall, which has been renovated to accommodate a hotel as well. There is a bar on the right where you can have a drink beforehand. I would advise against this, the alcohol bit at any rate, because if you are going for the wine pairing with the food courses you’ll struggle. People who know me know that I have quite a capacity for alcohol and I struggled after a pre-meal glass of champagne as well. It was the Tortuga’s birthday after all.
I should say that I’m not a fanatical foodie and don’t go in much for pretentious locations. But I do enjoy a good meal in the right company and I hate wasting money on rubbish. So I don’t have much to say about the ambience of the place, but I liked very much the way you can see the kitchen. The chairs are comfortable if a bit reclined for my liking, the place is scrupulously clean and you can have a decent conversation without straining to be heard. The Tortuga doesn’t have a volume control and only does quiet, claiming that I’m going deaf, so this is an important factor in ensuring an agreeable evening when we’re out.
The first thing you notice is the staff. From the person on the desk to the waiters and the chefs, they are just the right mix of unobtrusiveness and availability. There is nothing worse than being left to your own devices when you want something in a restaurant and that will never happen here. The approach is friendly, but not overdone, and they don’t intimidate. You don’t need to be a foodie to come here, because everything is explained and they take time to talk, if that’s what you want to do. A quiet confidence and enthusiasm exudes. This is important because you won’t recognize half of what you’re eating and having the short introduction to each course is essential. Sharing your experience with the staff is actually quite interesting too.
The menu is fixed, although I gather it changes every few months. My vote is to go for the wine pairing. There are six courses in all, minus the bits and pieces at the beginning, so it seems a bit silly to buy a bottle or two of something that almost definitely will not be fit for purpose. You are in this place for the food, and the wine needs to be a part of the experience. Each wine is a standard small glass, but it’s enough. The courses look small to start with, but as they arrive over a period of time, you get to experience everything slowly and I certainly couldn’t have managed anything more. Our waiter told us that he once tried the twelve course blow-out and that with the wine pairing was a serious challenge.
We started with mackerel with lettuce and black berries, paired with a Riesling (Orea “Saaris” Riesling Spätlese Feinherb 2009, Mosel). I had forgotten how much I like Spätlese and went straight out and bought a case of slightly ageing 2006. The way to do this is to take a modest glug of the wine, eat a forkful of food, taking in a bit of everything and then try the wine again. The contrast is fascinating and the same thing happens with each course. There’s obviously some clever thinking gone on behind all this. Here the gentle but slightly fruity Spätlese is transformed into a languorous, silky robe of melon and apple and marzipan that takes time over itself, somewhere in the back of your nose. It was quite extraordinary. Next came my personal favourite of the evening, butternut squash, milk skin and lardo with an I Clivi Brazan 2008 from Collio in Lombardy. A wine I had never heard of, of course, but which transformed with the food from a very pleasant if slightly minerally white to something gentle, ever so slightly musty and a little nutty, grassy and something else which I couldn’t quite place, brushed on the back of the throat. I wish now I had made some notes at the time.
Anyway, I think the point is made, as we continued through bread porridge with sweet corn, langoustine and girolles paired with a Bodegas Acustic, Acustic Blanc 2010, Montsant. Then cod loin with a stew of tripe, parsley and potatoes and a Duval Leroy 1999, Champagne. The cod was perfect. Until we arrived at my personal low point, and to be honest I was getting a bit full by now, Maldonado pork with cereals and garlic with a Chateau Musar 2001 from the Bekaa Valley. The wine was fine and unusual with that flinty Mediterranean edge to it, which I must admit I quite like, having once before been presented with a couple of bottles from a work colleague in the Lebanon. But I’m not a fan of cereals with meat and slow cooked and rare pork is where I get off the bus. The garlic was a little overpowering for me too, but a definite counterpoint to the previous course. Mine also had a slightly stringy and tough bit in it somewhere. But look, here I am indulging in the gastronomic equivalent of being a prat.
I am afraid I struggled with the beetroot and dark chocolate at the end as I’m not a great pudding fan. The Les Vignerons de Maury, Maury 1928 Solera Vin Doux Naturel, was just too much caramel and too heavy at this point. I much prefer something light and perhaps sparkling at the end of a meal. But we were there for the experience so this is just personal taste.
So after all that, what would I recommend? Without question this is one of the most interesting and not to be missed eating experiences I have had. The whole evening held together perfectly and I wouldn’t have missed it for anything. So if you are looking for something rather special then this is it. Pricey? But of course and don’t expect to get much change out of three hundred for the two of you if you’re going for the wine pairing. But hell, you don’t have a birthday meal with your life’s soul mate every day of the year, do you? I recommend asking them to call for a taxi home though. Cambridge Heath Road is the pits.
Contact Anna (firstname.lastname@example.org) for a reservation and expect to book quite a long time in advance.