There may once have been a time when a luxury hotel down the Tower Hamlets end of scummy Mare Street made sense but post-riots and with the economy on a tightrope, it seems incongruous to say the least. Still, the Town Hall Hotel has made a beautiful job of converting the old art deco Bethnal Green Town Hall and the owners have a very useful asset in the form of Nuno Mendes, chef patron of Viajante. When it opened in 2010, I was intrigued by the idea of molecular gastronomy coming to East London (although Mendes had already dabbled in Shoreditch) but I still found the concept a bit off-putting; I’d read a couple of unappetising reviews and found the lack of a menu (you can only pick whether you want 6 or 12 courses) an irritating affectation. However, it received a huge amount of buzz and soon became viewed as the opening of last year. This was confirmed when it gained a Michelin at the beginning of this year.
On the back of this success, Mendes has opened another restaurant within the hotel. And for some reason he’s done so by stealth. Corner Room does now grudgingly have a website but it doesn’t reveal much. They don’t take bookings, they don’t reveal what sort of food they serve, you turn up and take your chances. Nor is there any external evidence that Corner Room exists. Whereas the name Viajante proudly hangs over the Mare Street entrance and you can actually see into the kitchen from the street, there is no evidence of their sister restaurant at all. So you walk up the steps to speak to Viajante’s staff at which point you are directed down a long corridor of hotel rooms (we didn’t see evidence of any other people) before emerging in the main reception for the hotel where you walk up the imposing staircase and spot, if you are eagle-eyed, a tiny sign directing you round the corner. And there – tucked out of the way, cunningly shoehorned into an unused bit of space and heralded by a moose made out of carpet – is the restaurant. I guess I’d describe it as Warm Industrial: wood paneling, fitted cupboards and the original fireplace contrasted with white tiles, metal windows and huge stage lights. It has a much more casual feel to the rest of the building and, to be honest, fits more with the area and local diners.
The menu is six starter and six mains with additional shares plates of chorizo and cheese and dishes tend to be described solely in terms of their ingredient which is simultaneously straightforward and cryptic. The apotheosis of this was a main of “our carrots & cauliflower”. More on that later. I started with seabass cerviche and edamame and it soon became clear that though the atmosphere was casual, the presentation would be much more in keeping with the fine dining downstairs. A single sliver of seabass fillet sat in the middle of a huge white plate topped with seasoning, micro-croutons and even thinner slivers of edamame and then hidden under a intricately whittled sliver (they like slivers) of what might have been fennel but was too subtle to be immediately identifiable. Not only was it elegantly plated, it was elegantly flavoured; the acidity of the raw fish balanced by the very clever layer of tiny ingredients sprinkled on top.
N’s starter was also an elegantly presented bit of uncooked fish but left her mouth confused. She only had herself to blame for ordering mackerel with melon and gooseberry granita. Since Corner Room have declared war on the word “and”, this appeared on the menu as “melon & gooseberry granita” which I assumed meant granita of melon and gooseberry but no, the melon was separate; slices of volcanically red fruit that you could have mistaken for carpaccio and had seemingly been grilled. The itself mackerel had been de-boned and then rolled into a sort of mackerel sausage, served raw which N liked but might have been a bit of a shock for some people. The sharp taste of the granita worked well with the fish, along the temperature contrast was disorientating and throwing shards of pickled onion into the mix confounded the palete even further. Bonkers but in a good way (or so N told me).
The mains were notably less elegant than the starters. Whilst this wasn’t a issue me (I ordered steak) but it did make a difference for the missus because, unbelievably, she did order the carrots and cauliflower. To give her credit she did try to interrogate the waiter about what this might actually entire. He first launched into a rambling explanation of what sous-vide means and promising intensity of flavour before losing his tread then promising many different types of carrots and cauliflower and returning to the point about intensity. It was not a particularly convincing sales pitch but N was generous and proceeded to order it. What arrived was indeed carrots and cauliflower, the former making up the bulk of the dish, the latter provide some puree. If you are only going to use two ingredients you’ve got nowhere to hide, you need to be precise; I had a course at Le Manoir that consisted entirely of beetroot served three way and the different flavours, colours and textures were expertly assembled. This was just ugly, sloppy and lacking in taste. A major disappointment.
My steak, on the other hand, showed how successful sous-vide can be. You don’t see skirt steak on the menu very often because it is a lot tougher than the more expensive cuts but by cooking it for a long time at a low temperature you preserve the flavour whilst getting a texture much closer to fillet. Served rare, it was topped by chimichurri, a traditional Argentinian way of serving beef. However, I overheard the waiter describe it to someone else as “a South American blend of six herbs” including dill which I’m pretty sure isn’t traditional. My own chimichurri in the fridge at home is predominantly coriander and green chilli and I could have done with a bit more kick. It came with a lovely jumble of tomatoes but, slightly strangely, the steak was served (and presumably rested) on a piece of toast; I understand the intent here and perhaps some other time a blood-soaked fried slice would have worked but it was just too much.
Afterwards, our waiter handed us the menus back so we could look at desserts, gave us a good five minutes to peruse and then came over to take our order. As soon as N said she’d like blueberries with goats cheese caramel, he told us they didn’t have it. This would have been useful to know when he gave us the menus. Instead we had dark chocolate and peanut butter ice cream which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. This was the opposite of the carrot and cauliflower debacle, an example of where the simple menu description concealed an embarrassment of riches: we had two separate ice creams as a chocolate mouse, something a bit like a peanut ganache, crumbled up light and dark brownie and mini-peanut brittle, all offset by some spots of lemon cream. A very successful conclusion to an uneven meal.
£31 a head including service (which clearly needed a bit of a polish), a glass of wine each and £1 a head for unlimited sparkling water (a very welcome development). Pretty good value but not the complete picture and a return visit is needed.