In England at least, a market tavern tends to be a noisy pub selling warm beer with generous amounts slopping onto a sticky floor. Old Spitalfields Market has Taberna do Mercado, a very different proposition, and as we are not blessed with a large number of Portuguese restaurants in the UK, having a tapas style restaurant a stone’s throw from Liverpool Street Station is exciting. Even more exciting when you know that this is a collaboration which involves Nuno Mendes (Chiltern Firehouse etc) and chef Antonio Galapito.
Dashing straight from the Vaults Tasting, we were pretty hungry, but a large pile of small plates and copious quantities of wine managed to sort us out. Perhaps the tapas idea is a bit misleading, the restaurant itself describing its wares as “pesticos, tinned fish, pregos and bifanas” – in other words, the kind of fare you’d find in a “typical Lisboeta”, though in the circumstances I’d add a very good one. The plates are small, but there’s plenty on the menu to fill an empty stomach.
The wine list at Taberna do Mercado is pretty interesting. You don’t often see red Vinho Verde on a UK wine list and Adega de Monção makes a deep purple, lightly frothy, version which is served here in a white ceramic cup, a modern take on the traditional pottery cups it is sometimes served in locally (although I remember it being served more often in a small glass). The bitterness of red Vinho Verde goes really well with this kind of food, and we drank it with our first two dishes, prawn “rissois”, breadcrumbed parcels of delicious prawns in sauce, and battered green beans fritters.
Friends had arranged corkage on a bottle and they pulled out a real cracker. When they produced the Niepoort Coche Douro Branco 2012 the waiter became much warmer. This is the first time I’ve had this particular Niepoort cuvée, and I thought it was exceptional. It’s made from a blend of traditional Portuguese varieties, mainly Rabigato, Codega do Larinho and Arinto, grown at altitude (600-750m) on schist. I could swear it is really top quality Chardonnay grown on limestone, having a kind of Burgundiqan character (weight, buttery, nutty, rich – if still youthful). Asked where I’d place this, I did rather sheepishly venture Meursault. It’s not a cheap wine, probably retailing for at least £75 in the UK, but I was very impressed.
One of the specialities of Taberna is “tinned fish”. When I saw this on the web site I admit I got the wrong idea, thinking they meant a commercial canning, potentially good but not what you expect in a restaurant. But, of course, they cook the fish themselves, in tins, and although they have a blackboard of “specials”, always a good place to go, the tinned fish is something you shouldn’t miss. We ate mackerel and monkfish, and the Coche washed it down nicely.
Naturally Taberna also has a good selection of cured meats, and we tried a couple. I particularly liked the cut from under the shoulder, one we were told is rarely seen outside Portugal. The waiter warned us there was a reasonable amount of fat, but to be honest this was a plus, not a negative. Very thinly sliced, it melted in the mouth. We also chose the Pork Secreto from the specials board, one of the more expensive dishes on the menu (£15), but an exquisite plate of pork strips, smoked, and served with seaweed and cucumber, which was my savoury dish of the day.We drank a glass of Vadio Bairrada 2012, nicely rich with a grippy twist of fruit and tannin on the finish, another good combo.
When in Rome…well, in Northern Spain you have flan, the crème caramel variant, and in Portugal you have the custard tart. I can honestly say that nowhere have I had such a magnificent custard tart. Be warned, if you don’t make sure to order when you book they will be all gone. The couple I dined with had the foresight, having dined there before, to add on some extras to take home. The Bairrada long finished, the chef suggested a glass of unusual white (not tawny) port, Casa de Ste Eufemia Special Reserve 30-y-o (19.5%). Sweet but also a lot more complex than your usual white port, and again, a perfect accompaniment to the dessert.
We finished with very decent coffee and a small glass of botanical gin. The bill, including £15 corkage and service came to a pretty reasonable £40 each, considering we had quite an appetite to assuage. I will hopefully go back before too long.
Taberna do Mercado is at 107B Commercial Street, London E1 6GB, just inside Old Spitalfields Market (tabernamercado). For compulsive wine buyers, it’s just over the market from a branch of Vagabond Wines (with their selection on enomatics), and a mere five minute stroll, back towards Liverpool Street Station, from the exceptional Uncorked…it would be rude not to.