Big issues on small plates from a Salt Yard alumnus
Volta do Mar is an unusual restaurant in more ways than one. Founded by an alumnus from the storied yet troubled Salt Yard group, Volta do Mar’s Portuguese-themed menu has influences from all over the former Portuguese empire – or the Lusosphere if you prefer. Plus, this restaurant sits immediately next door to the Covent Garden branch of bargain basement spag bol chain Bella Pasta, which makes for the kind of double take-inducing odd couple not seen since Richard Nixon decided to have a chin wag with Zhou Enlai.
Many will focus on the Salt Yard-linked heritage of this restaurant, but it’s the globetrotting menu which should really grab your eyeballs. Restaurants in Europe’s former imperial powers that serve Western cuisines rarely, if ever, acknowledge the relationship between the colonialists and their victims in what they cook and how they cook it. You’re more likely to see menus banging on about the chef’s gap year in Japan or the stage they allegedly took in a Norwegian forest hideaway.
That makes Volta do Mar’s menu all the more interesting. Yes, there’s preserved fish and chorizo. But there are also curries from Goa. Chicken and rice from Mozambique. Moqueca and feijoada from Brazil. It’s not fusion food, more an amalgamated mosaic. However falteringly, Volta do Mar’s menu is trying to trace the back-and-forth relationship between cultures and cuisines originally brought together in the most unequal and unjust of situations. It’s almost akin to seeing an acknowledgment on a Wetherspoon’s menu, however superficial, of the links between rum and the transatlantic slave trade, tea and the Opium Wars or kedgeree and the Raj.
Even so, Volta do Mar is still a restaurant and not Newsnight with a bib. A more enlightened-than-usual awareness of how power shapes food doesn’t automatically mean that food is worth your time, money and calories.
Small plates at Volta do Mar
Volta do Mar has a couple of takes on tinned/preserved fish, an old Portuguese classic. Tuna, served at room temperature and out of a can for presentational purposes, came with crunchy sourdough. Although the bread otherwise had little to say for itself, the fish was meaty, tart and flecked with onions and parsley. It’s not going to set the world of tuna appreciation alight and needs to do more to justify its £8 price, but it’s effective enough as an appetiser.
A salad came graced with a respectably fine specimen of octopus, the chopped tentacle charred and with a moderate springy firmness. The salad arguably didn’t need it though – the mix of garlic, red onions, parsley and tomatoes gave the firm black eyed peas a thorough moreishness.
Although cured mackerel only retained some of the distinctive taste that sets this fish apart, the meaty, glossy and lightly tangy strips were still relatively pleasing. Even so, it was the mushrooms that ended up dominating this plate with their tartness and firm yet supple mouthfeel.
Fried cornmeal masala were effectively polenta bites, with the crisp crusts giving way to reveal nutty sweet, fluffy interiors. The flecks of what were possibly cumin and fenugreek were wiltingly timid though as was the dipping sauce. Still, there’s the core of a good starter here in these corn cuboids.
If the very words ‘chorizo cheese naan’ don’t fire up both your imagination and your loins, then I don’t think we can be friends. Sadly, the reality was a devastatingly sedate affair. Thin, wan bread came filled with a smidge of cheese and a dab of apologetic chorizo. There was plenty of sodding rocket scattered all over the place though. Perhaps my expectations were wildly out of line, but I expected a dish that would roughly pin me against a wall and leave me heaving and gasping. Instead, I had to lie back and think of England while glancing at my watch.
Thin yet moderately fleshy slices of aubergine came in a thin yet sweet and nutty curry sauce. Think of it as an eggplant korma, but without the cloying oversweetness.
Volta do Mar’s charcuterie selection is small, leaving little room for duffers to hide. The iberico bellota was a magnificent plate of cured pig, each glossy purple ribbon rich with unctuous umami. Despite its sassiness, it was never overpowering which is more than can be said for the iberico paleta. Its apologetically light umami was a far more sedate affair.
The iberico bellota is easily good enough to be enjoyed without bread, but if you are hankering for carbs then Volta do Mar’s sliced loaves are blessed with moreish, crunchy crusts and served with a butter dripping with lactic tang.
A fish soup special, possibly Volta do Mar’s take on acorda de bacalhau, was more of a glossy velvety salve. The bisque-like broth had its moreishness bolstered by unusually umami-laden prawns, an outrageously oozy egg yolk and what was probably an undertone of garlic. Crisp, tart pieces of what was probably onion acted as an effective counterweight to all this oceanic opulence, despite their small size.
Main courses at Volta do Mar
Arroz marisco was a somewhat meagre affair. The sticky rice had a whiff of saffron, but only a whiff. A small puddle of mussels, clams, prawns and weeny crab claws weren’t bad, but soon faded from memory. The modest serving size would’ve been acceptable if it had packed flavours that punched above their weight, but all it managed was a light umami. An underweight dish in more ways than one.
Pork vindalho used thick, dense chunks of pig that could almost have been mistaken for ox cheek. This curry didn’t just rely on the pork’s fulsome mouthfeel though, the sauce was moreish and peppery in its heat. A heap of julienned coleslaw-esque pickled veg was crisply tart, while a mild mango chutney was sweet with a modest tang. This dish may not look like much, but it hit the spot repeatedly.
Piri piri chicken was generally moist and clothed in supple, golden brown skin. The thigh meat was somewhat less dull than the breast chaff, but all of it would’ve been far less edible without the prickly, tingly heat of the hot sauce. Unlike the tame stuff at Nando’s, the sauce became ever more potent as I worked my way through the deceptively small pot.
Moqueca was, at first, superficially similar to the fish soup special with its bisque-like broth. This stew quickly revealed its extra layers though, from the coconut-derived seam of creaminess coursing through the broth to the chunky, toothsome whitefish – possibly gurnard. The only disappointment in this hearty stew were the so-so prawns. Despite this flaw, it was suitably evocative of the sea.
Volta do Mar has seemingly abandoned its attempt at a vegan-friendly cabbage feijoada before I had a chance to try it, but I’m not complaining too much given the guttural satisfaction provided by its porcine replacement. A sticky, richly umami broth came dotted not just with creamy white beans, but a plentiful panoply of porky pleasures. Oaty morcilla, unctously gossamer medallions of lardo, umami slices of cured ham, salty sheafs of dense ham hock and fatty, salty chorizo. There’s no better way to end The Year of the Pig then by devouring a hearty helping of one in Volta do Mar’s outrageously warming feijoada.
Desserts at Volta Do Mar
Trifle-like serradura is a Macau trademark and the version here didn’t deviate too far from the well-trodden template. The sweet, fluffy and creamy base layer came topped with a heavy dusting of fine-grained yet crunchy biscuit crumbs, itself dotted with freeze-dried bits of raspberry. I’m very much in favour of crossing trifles with Jordan’s Country Crisp cereals, especially if the results are as soothing as this.
A thick yet light crème caramel-style pudding had a supremely eggy creaminess that coated the mouth. That custard-like richness was neatly balanced by the zesty sprightliness of both orange blossom water and rind of the fruit itself. Spot on.
A moderately moist and lightly chewy sponge would’ve been a dreary dessert, but for the addition of tangy prunes and a refreshing ice cream. The latter was a dense affair nested in a bed of biscuit crumbs. The crunch and coolness of the ice cream, paired with the wrinkly prunes, would’ve made for a complete and satisfying dessert in their own right.
Despite its hulking, pock-marked appearance, the farofias was a remarkably light dessert that was easy on the palate. Part merginue, part marshmallow and mostly fluff, it came in a lightly eggy custard-like confection dotted with crunchy nut pieces. It’s a decidedly lightweight affair, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing when chosen as a follow-up to one of Volta do Mar’s heartier mains, such as the feijoada.
There are plenty of sumptuous dishes to enjoy at Volta do Mar, even though they are almost matched in number by those that are merely middling and those that aren’t worth eating at all. The real issue is that Volta do Mar is almost better described as a Portuguese and Brazilian restaurant, with dishes from elsewhere in the Lusosphere more patchily represented both in number and quality. Whether that’s just the limit of the kitchen’s ability or a subtle acknowledgement that many London restaurant goers aren’t as gastronomically adventurous as they think they are, is hard to say. Either way, that doesn’t detract from the enjoyability of those dishes that the kitchen gets right. But it does lessen Volta do Mar’s wider relevancy and potential place in the zeitgeist, as nationalists, populists and pith-helmeted tankies everywhere attempt to whitewash, justify and wax nostalgic about imperialist pasts of all flags that most of us barely know anything about as it is.
Still, Volta do Mar’s heart seems to be in the right place. In an era where compassion and self-awareness of any sort is seemingly in short supply, especially in the restaurant business, being able to eat well without turning one’s stomach at the same time is quite the achievement. For now, that’ll do.
Name: Volta do Mar
Address: 13-15 Tavistock Street, Covent Garden, London WC2E 7PS
Phone: 020 3034 0028
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday noon-midnight. Closed Sunday.
Reservations? essential on and around weekends.
Average cost for one person: £50 approx.