Two of London’s hottest, most innovative, and award-winning chefs, Ana Gonçalves and Zijun Meng, aren’t hanging about. Following the launch of their first permanent restaurant space in London, at TāTā Eatery at Tayēr + Elementary on Old Street, the duo will open Tōu: a 45-seater katsu sando and rice bowl restaurant in the “The Loft,” or “incubation-focused mezzanine kitchen space,” at Arcade — the hotly anticipated “food theatre” — which opens at Centre Point in central London this month. They will join a host of other big-name, new and newish independent restaurant brands like Pophams Bakery, Oklava, and the Hart brothers’ Pastorcito.
At a meeting with the duo near their new restaurant last month, Gonçalves told Eater that Tōu, pronounced “toe,” has been a long time coming. “We’ve been thinking about this for a long time,” she said. “It wasn’t supposed to happen so fast. But this opportunity presented itself so we just went for it.”
“We’re kind of putting Tātā Eatery food between two pieces of bread... we’re going to have rice bowls as well. Something we’ve never explored to the fullest and think this is a good place for us to do it,” Gonçalves said.
Meng added that they’ve always done rice bowls, even if they haven’t received the peculiar virality of the sandos. Rice bowls and katsu sando works well together, at a fast casual place. They describe it as a “return to rice,” Tātā’s initial central purpose at that first market stall operation on Druid Street, four years ago.
Gonçalves and Meng’s career trajectory has taken them from relative obscurity, operating a street food stall on Druid Street market in Bermondsey four years ago, to perhaps the most innovative, if sometimes mercurial, chef duo in town. Tātā, which means “he and she,” was formed after the pair left Portuguese chef Nuno Mendes’ now-closed Viajante in Bethnal Green. Their initiative caught the interest of chef James Knappett who invited the duo to collaborate at his Michelin-starred Fitzrovia restaurant, Kitchen Table in 2016.
Pop-ups at The Newman Arms pub in Fitzrovia followed, before a long-term residency at Curio Cabal on Kingsland Road, which came to an end in August 2017. The brand then launched at Borough Wines in Kensal Rise last summer, and after a slow start, rocketed to prominence in food circles. Before joining bar duo Monica Berg and Alex Kratena as the food operators at cocktail venue Tayēr and Elementary last month, Meng and Gonçalves ran their final pop-up residency at the Sir Colin Cambell pub in Kilburn.
It is fair to say that although Gonçalves and Meng were well-known in the more avant-garde chef cliques, before last summer they’d not penetrated London’s mainstream. Then they prepared a sandwich, which somehow bore a particular suitability to Instagram: Carb, protein, colour, contrast, symmetry, very neat, and very tidy. It, they say, “blew up.” It didn’t matter that it was £14, nor that, like some other celebrities, it was smaller in real life.
It’s important to better understand the story of how this cult sandwich and would-be cornerstone of a new business came to being. After all, what is now one of London’s most recognisable dishes hasn’t yet celebrated its first official birthday.
“We did a dinner with Antonio Galapito [now chef-patron at Prado in Lisbon] about two years ago, when he was head chef at Taberna do Mercado,” Gonçalves remembers. There followed an appearance of a beta version of the sandwich at a pop up with Chicama, the South American seafood restaurant in Chelsea. That, they describe, was probably their first “official” katsu.
Then, as they say, it was “just one” of a number of dishes at Borough Wines in Kensal last summer. But it became the main draw. Both talk about its success with a sort of perplexed thrill, surprised that it was this that afforded them their break.
Nonetheless, its form, composition, and execution — much like most of what they do — was carefully considered, inspired by culinary traditions sometimes less than evident in the finished dish. To fully understand this sandwich, Meng says, “we have to go back to Portugal.” He says he was thinking of reworking a classic Portugese dish with an Asian twist.“It was initially supposed to be an interpretation of the Portuguese bifana,” he says. “Because [he’d] never had a good one.”
“I’m gonna do a pork sandwich. And I’m gonna call it a bifana... but the first thing that came to my mind [when I started the development] was a katsu sando, so that’s where it was born. I got inspired by the look of it,” Meng says. Both chefs confess that they have never actually had a katsu sando in Japan, and Meng says, in a recurring theme, he’s “never had a good one” before admitting that the one at Bright in London Fields last year — his first — “was the closest to a traditional one we got.”
The sandwich has evolved. Initially, it was seasoned in the Portuguese style, with fermented pimentón paste. Now, in addition to the meltingly tender, rich Iberico pork cutlet, panko-crusted and sandwiched between lightly toasted golden brioche, it layers finely sliced cabbage, raspberry brown sauce, and a base note of umami-rich chilli, shallots, and fermented red pepper paste. The raspberry jam part, Meng says, is essentially a riff on the sweet in sweet and sour pork: “People complain that it’s too sweet ... We give them the finger. You don’t eat sweet and sour pork?!” he exclaims, rhetorically.
As well as having an extremely complex and expertly balanced flavour profile, the sandwich’s universal popularity might also be explained by its triumph of texture: a bit of resistance from the toasted buttery brioche disintegrates, giving way to a sweet, savoury, rich, and fresh, complete eating experience. “The brioche gives it a luxury feel, it’s the same principle as a burger,” Meng says.
Tōu will open from midday to midnight and in addition to the trademark pork iteration, it will launch with two alternative fillings between sliced bread. Not just any old bread, though. Meng and Gonçalves have sourced a Hokkaido milk loaf from Happy Sky bakery, between which they will load eggy tofu on un-toasted slices, and slow-cooked ox cheek on a toasted version. They also admit that they’re “never going to say no to a commercial white loaf,” which may have its own use in future.
The supporting cast — the eggy tofu and ox cheek sandwiches — are yet to appear before Tātā’s audience. They discuss the composition of both in detail, sometimes disagreeing with each other about what goes into what, in part, it seems, because neither are particularly enamoured by either recipes or uniformity. Both are restless developers and creators.
But they settle on this: The tofu is deep-fried — sort of “omelette like, a set-custard,” they say. The cut slice will be surrounded by egg mayonnaise, seasoned with wasabi, chilli, and a little paprika.
The ox cheek is cooked overnight — sous vide, then sliced in half. It will then be “picked up” on a plancha; it’s seasoned with just salt and whole peppercorns. The finished sandwich, for which Meng says, “brioche is too fragile,” will feature gherkin, raw white onion, and mustard mayo. The “flavour profile is reminiscent of a burger,” they say. Or a pastrami sandwich.
Plans are in place for a fourth sandwich, which is also going to be a riff on another fast food favourite, which the duo aren’t yet ready to discuss. The sandos will be priced between £10 and £13, while the rice bowls will be available at either £8 or £9.
All rice bowls are composed “Japanese style,” they say. They include short grain Japanese rice with Iberico pork, cooked sous vide and “picked up” with a sake glaze under the salamander — “sort of like a yakitori style, with the glaze, not grilled.” Added to it will be a raw egg yolk, some Asian green vegetables, and sesame seeds.
A vegetarian version will use mixed Asian style mushrooms, fried in garlic oil, with a fermented mushroom soy and mixed with natto, also served with a raw egg yolk as well as crispy garlic and spring onions. That one, Meng says, is inspired by the famous mushroom dish at Ganbara tapas bar in San Sebastian — wild mushrooms sautéed with garlic and parsley and finished with egg yolk. Its roving sensibility, grounded in the duo’s tangible affection for rice, is Tātā summed up.
Given the breadth of research and exacting development that goes into Meng and Gonçalves’ process, it’s not surprising that they want Tōu and Tātā to build their own distinct, rounded identities. “We want different crowds to engage with the brand,” Gonçalves says. “We look at hospitality from a different angle,” Meng adds. “We’re investor-free, it’s our money. So we tag along with the big brands. And this is going to be a food theatre, so it’s not necessarily the core TāTā Eatery fan, so we want to engage with everybody if we can. It’s a lifestyle thing. It’s more than just opening a business that sells some food.” “We wanted this brand to be super interactive,” Gonçalves adds.
So, they’ll initiate quarterly rice bowl or sando collaborations, kicking off in September. They’re not yet able to publicly discuss who with, but if they pull off the ones they’re plotting, prepare for a hype fest. Quarterly collaborations with artists are planned too. “A visual interpretation of the sando, and accompanying merchandise, including a tote bag,” they say. “We’ll also sell one or two of the [original] working sketches.” The first will be with Nester Formentera, the Dublin-based Filipino artist whose striking aesthetic comes from simple black lines.
The duo appear unready for a roll-out, such is the way they operate, but if they get it right, Tōu could fly without their micromanagement. “I would like to take it internationally, especially to Asia,” Gonçalves says. But it’s not going to be a franchise.
Meng later says candidly that although it’s its own thing, he wants “to make money to fund TāTā Eatery — a little place with eight seats and two members of staff.” Gonçalves, who will oversee Tōu with their long time deputy João Ferreira, while Meng remains at Tayēr + Elementary, explains that the former will be a seven people operation. “All day, seven days a week. Planning to close one or two days a year: Full on.”
“I think Tōu will be amazing,” she says, not with hubris, but with a confident excitement that comes from knowing exactly what they’re doing. And because no one else is doing anything like it.