Sophisticated Portuguese food satiates the cravings you never knew you had
If Spanish and Portuguese cuisine were human siblings, then Spanish food would undoubtedly be the attention-grabbing overachiever. From paella, jamon iberico de bellota and Cantabrian anchovies to the heady heights of modernist Basque and Catalan cooking, Spain has it all.
Portugal, on the other hand, rarely gets a look in. Despite the hordes of Brits invading the Algarve every summer, if anyone knows anything about the food of western Iberia then it’s limited to nata tarts, tinned fish and port. This will all change if Taberna do Mercado has anything to say about it. The child of Nuno Mendes, one of the masterminds behind Chiltern Firehouse, this restaurant serves up little known Portuguese dishes (some with a modern twist).
Taberna do Mercado is a small, surprisingly spartan place located on the outer edges of Old Spitalfields Market (itself part of the border between the City and Shoreditch). It’s so small, you have to go through the kitchen to get to the toilet of which there is only one. If you’re fit to burst, then you’ll need to rush out to the Market’s own restrooms. Reservations are only taken for lunch, but in warmer weather you can sit outside and admire the beauty of Spitalfields itself.
First things first
The menu at Taberna do Mercado is relatively small and simple. It would be criminal not to try some of the superb cured meats, such as the thin slices of fatty and salty paleta porco preto. This porcine palate pleaser had a gentle sweet muskiness that was exceptionally pleasing while it lasted – the effect faded a little too quickly.
The ‘tinned’ fish dishes are apparently an affectation – as far as I can tell, none of these fishies have actually been preserved in their purely decorative tins. The mackerel lacked the typically distinctive taste I’ve come to expect from this fish, but it nonetheless comes recommended due to its sashimi-esque texture – very smooth with a yielding bite. The dressing of oil and umami tomato purée makes up for the lack of fishy punch.
Baron Greenback and other unadventurous types would probably run a mile from the pork tartare, but this dish was a corker. The small yet dense cubes of pork were lightly chewy and raw on the inside, but had been quickly and lightly charred on the outside giving them an intense smokiness. This smoky hit had an artificial tang to it, but the pork was still very satisfying – especially when taken with spoonfuls of thin, salty broth and the taut, slippery cabbage leaves.
I managed to convince a hesitant couple at the next table to try the cod and cod tripe soup. The lip-smacking broth, thickened with a hunk of bread, had a tongue-tingling bitter herbiness to it. I’m guessing the cod tripe had been used as a stock for the broth, as the only extant bits of meat I could find were the surprisingly delicate and flaky pieces of glossy cod fillet. Regardless, this dish easily stands shoulder to shoulder with Spanish seafood soup, an old favourite from my childhood.
I was looking forward to the beef sandwich with the menu promising prawn paste and wild garlic, but it turned out to be a tepid affair. There were occasional hints of garlic and salty prawns, but these fleeting tastes were nowhere near as punchily flavoursome as I had been hoping. The thin slices of beef cooked medium-ish weren’t terribly remarkable and I ended up relying on the fiery peri peri oil to liven up this rather dull sandwich. At least the thin slices of bread were soft and fluffy.
The Bolacha Maria dessert is apparently based on a Portuguese breakfast dish and it’s surprisingly satisfying considering how light it is. The smooth sponge cake was more like a pudding in texture with no loose crumbs anywhere. Its delicate sweetness was emphasised by the sweetness of the puddle of coffee it was served in, while the topping of butter cream was very custardy despite its thinness.
Going back for seconds
The service at Taberna do Mercado was generally very friendly, although a few staff members were a little meek, hesitant and softly spoken while others were a tad brusque. At its best though, it can be utterly charming. One bespectacled Portuguese waitress in particular (whose name I’ve unforgivably forgotten) deserves praise – warm, winsome and chatty, she has more personality and efficiency than almost all of the other waiting staff combined.
The Cachaco was the weakest of the cured meats I tried across all three of my visits. Vaguely resembling a Spanish chorizo or salami due to its modest fattiness and hint of paprika, it was still very scoffable just not very distinctive.
The tinned cod hit the spot. Firm, springy pieces of fish in a herby and umami oil were an unexpected joy.
At the risk of overusing comparative food terms, the alheira sausage resembled ndjua in its almost spreadable softness. The slices of alheira weren’t just dependent on their unctous texture though – meaty and with a hint of bready maltiness, it could easily have stood on its own with no need for the odd and uncomplimentary accompaniments of rocket, onions and very sweet and crisp baby tomatoes.
Corvina is a white fish I’m unfamiliar with, but it’s pleasant enough – here it was smooth, firm and lightly charred. It would’ve been nothing though without the crisp, zingy and refreshing salsa.
The pork sandwich uses the same thin, fluffy bread as its bovine counterpart, but it’s far more satisfying. The tender slices of pork were gently sweet and a little chewy in places. The pork was complimented neatly by the occasional hint of garlic, while the bitter fennel provided contrast. It was all very pleasing, if a little too cerebral – but a small punch of piri piri oil sorted that out.
If there’s one dish at Taberna do Mercado that’s gotten London’s chattering classes a titter even more than usual, then it’s the abade de priscos. It is, as far as I can tell, a finger-shaped Portuguese take on creme caramel. Its deliciously creamy and unctuous nature is apparently due to the use of pork fat in the recipe, but you’d never guess unless you were told. Still, combined with its thin, subtly tart and fruity sauce, it slides down the throat faster than a greased pig although it’s certainly not as mind blowing as other reviewers would have you believe.
Sadly, but not unexpectedly, the flat white coffee was a wash. Although it had a reasonably well rounded bitterness, it was also too watery with an almost non-existent head severely lacking in smooth silkiness.
Three is the magic number
Kangaroo Face isn’t just one of my prettier looking dining companions, he also has a pretty discerning palate and a sense of joie de vivre too. One of the few black marks against his good standing as one of my most trusted dining companions is his underwhelment with the chourico vinho tinto. These dark, moderately thick slices of sausage reminded me of Chinese sausage with their chunky bits of fat and lightly sweet and salty hits. They get my nod of approval.
As good as the chourico vinho tinto was, it couldn’t hold a candle to the copita. The streaks of fat in these thin slices of cured pork were wonderfully buttery. Their salty tang could a little overwhelming when it hits the back of your throat, but I’m not going to knock something for tasting too good. That’s not the kind of world I want to live in.
The prawn rissois had clearly emerged out of the deep fat fryer mere moments before being plated as they were piping hot. Once cooled, both Kangaroo Face and I appreciated the crisp, oil-free coating of these croquettes – the crumbs were so tightly packed, there wasn’t one jot of spillage. Inside was a thin but heavily prawn-flavoured bisque that would knock the socks off most other shellfish-based soups, stews and broths.
The ‘tinned’ scallops were thinly sliced, yet dense. They were made whole by being daubed in a lip-smackingly moreish sauce reminiscent of crab bisque.
The crisp and herby dressing accompanying the tinned monkfish wasn’t quite as showstopping as the scallop sauce, but it was still a delightful accompaniment to the thin, yet firm and meaty chunks of monkfish.
Of all the tinned seafood dishes, the least impressive was the mussels. It’s all relative though – the tender, cooled molluscs had their zinginess emphasised the mildly citrusy dressing – but the overall effect just seemed weak compared to its stablemates.
Oddly, I’ve barely had any of Taberna do Mercado’s few vegetarian dishes. The very firm raw peas dotted with crumbs of cornbread were very crisp, sharp and refreshing – the perfect counterpart to some of the heavier dishes on the menu such as the cuttlefish.
The tender, yielding slices of cuttlefish would’ve been more than acceptable served on their own. Paired with a sticky, richly moreish sauce thickened with pig trotters however, and it became a sublime dish worth killing for.
On any other day, the tigelada would have been be an incomparably elegant dessert. Although a little understated, the two small fingers of milk pudding had a crisp crust, which contrasted neatly with the otherwise springy softness of each finger. Although more refreshing rice milk would’ve gone a long way, it was tinged with delicately sweet orange.
The tigelada was entirely overshadowed though by the olive oil pão de ló. It’s this dessert which deserves far more fame and accolades than the pork fat-laden abade de priscos. Although best summarised as a steamed sponge cake, this is an understatement and oversimplification akin to saying that Hitler was merely a bit naughty. Unwrapping the paper reveals a very soft and fluffy rim of sponge dotted with an occasional crunch of salt. This contrasting combination eventually turns into a thin yet delightfully rich and eggy liquid – both sponge and egg are tinged with the fruit-like sweetness of olive oil. The whole thing is somewhat akin to a nata tart, but an order of magnitude better. If I drowned face down in this stuff, it would be an undignified but nonetheless orgasmically satisfying way to shuffle off this mortal coil.
The City used to be a place where good food was usually some expensive animal organ gilded in gold leaf and costed about as much as a second hand Ferrari. That’s changing (somewhat) with the blossoming of Broadgate Circle and now the arrival of Taberna do Mercado. Taberna isn’t exactly cheap, there are a few misses on its menu and both its toilet and reservations arrangements are annoying. But all of this is worth putting up with – when Taberna do Mercado’s cooking hits the spot, it lights up my world in oh so wonderful ways.
What to order: Almost all of the ‘tinned’ seafood; pork tartare; cod and cod tripe soup; alheira; copita; chourico vinho tinto; cuttlefish; all the desserts.
What to avoid: Beef sandwich.
Name: Taberna do Mercado
Address: Old Spitalfields Market, 107B Commercial Street, London E1 6BG
Phone: none listed
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-21.30, kitchen hours noon-14.30 and 18.00-21.30. Sundays noon-19.30, kitchen hours noon-17.00.
Reservations: essential but only taken at lunchtimes.
Average cost for one person including soft drinks and service charge: £50-65 approx.