Nuno Mendes — the chef behind Chiltern Firehouse’s kitchen — hasn’t gone quite as far as banning the taking of photographs in Mãos, his latest project, but it feels like he might have liked to.
Mãos (Portuguese for hands, pronounced maozsh) is a booking only 16-seater dining space that Mendes quietly opened in April. It’s located inside Blue Mountain School, a new luxury retail-cum-exhibition space opened on Shoreditch’s Redchurch Street by design shop Hostem founders James Brown and Christie Fel.
Since opening, and in spite of Eater’s story in early March, Mendes hasn’t discussed the space or invited journalists, critics and influencers to the three-hour-long tasting menu “experience”, priced at £150 ahead, plus wine. Guest have even been encouraged not to photograph nor post “the whole meal on Instagram” with the hope of preserving an element of surprise to the evening. (At least one guest hasn’t obliged.)
“It seems like every single moment of an experience in a restaurant is now documented on Instagram. Perhaps it’s a way to be popular, but we wanted to push back a little bit,” explains Mendes.
“We’ve been purposely guarded. By choice our communications have been sparse. That might have pissed off some people, fair enough. But we’re very conscious that we want our guests to experience something fresh that’s hopefully unique and not too familiar.”
The lack of communication has meant Mãos has been branded variously a ‘supper club’ and a ‘secret dining room’. Mendes laughs off both descriptions, whist avoiding settling on one himself. He outright rejects it being a restaurant, saying only: “Keeping it straight forward, it’s a kitchen, dining room, and wine room”. This is the first time Mendes has publicly discussed the project, and despite being sat in the space, he’s still refuses to give too much away.
With that, for Mendes, the project is as much about direct hospitality as the food, and offering a tasting menu with the normal formalities associated with fine-dining stripped away. If he was to liken it to one thing, it would be The Loft Project, his Dalston supper club that ran through 2010 and 2011.
“The set up is akin to a living space, with the evening starting in the kitchen and guests moving around the space through the evening,” adds head chef Edoardo Pellicano, who previously worked at Viajante, Mendes’ Michelin-stared Bethnal Green restaurant that closed in 2014.
“In a traditional tasting menu you sit at a table for three hours and the only time you get up is to go to the toilet. We’re offering guests a different way of having a tasting menu; being part of the experience. Guests can come into the kitchen anytime, have courses in the kitchen, or the wine room,” Pellicano says.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, both chefs are reluctant to go into too much detail about the food. What the pair will reveal is that the menu includes what they call “Portuguese and Japanese moments” and “lots of umami”. There’s kombucha, bone broth, but no bread.
Two of the dishes, which they allowed to be photographed, are a red prawn and langoustine tartare with fermented cabbage and shiso topped with a dried cabbage; and grilled leak heart wrapped in kombu with raw cream and sour juices of mooli and cucumber.
Neither will pick a favourite moment, arguing that a tasting menu is “not about a single dish”. In developing the food Mendes says that there was special attention to paid to the flow of the meal and ensuring that guests leave feeling “nourished and healthy” rather than “over stuffed”.
The opening of Mãos came just as Mendes closed/repurposed his Portuguese restaurant Taberna do Mercado, in Spitalfields Market. The space principally serves now as a wine retail space. About it, Mendes said “it’s purely just providing a service for the market, [and is] not my vision of a wine bar.”
But the brand lives on as a second small scale offering, a hatch in the The Kitchens, a collection of acclaimed vendors in the centre of the market (Ten Ten, the creative agency Mendes co-founded oversaw the development of the project), but there’s a sense a void has opened and, despite it taking a “massive hit”, Mendes hopes to find a new space for Taberna, when the time is right.
“I don’t think Spitalfields is the right place for [a restaurant]. I feel like Taberna needs to be in a neighbourhood, the culture of the restaurant is a neighbourhood. I’m downsizing to adjust myself, fulfil this project and tweak things to get there little by little,” he said.
But with new projects in the pipeline, Mendes’ outlook for the industry in his adopted home-town remains less than positive: “It’s so hard to survive in hospitality at the moment. I feel like the future, the way things are going in London, it may only be sustainable to have small places that are intimate experiences,” he says.
“Landlords are getting greedier and greedier. There’s Brexit. Prices of ingredients going up and the public are spending less. We’re going through tough times, and no one is really sure when it’s going to get better. We’re getting closer to the cliff, and no one’s turning the other way, we just keep driving forward.
“If you ask me, how many of the good restaurants we like are going to be around for the next two years, I don’t know? Hopefully 50 percent. Hopefully.”