At Taberna, the food is traditional Portuguese as seen through the eyes of an imaginative, skilled chef. But this sharp focus does not mean monotony. The menu is divided into snacks, cheese, cured meats, house-tinned fish, small plates, sandwiches and desserts. Wait — house-tinned fish? Yes, and it’s a perfect example of Mendes lending creativity to a barroom standby. The night we were there, soon after the restaurant opened in May, tiny scallops with their red roe had been sealed into oval cans with brown butter, chervil and walnuts, and precisely cooked: fresh-tasting seafood happily married with its seductive condiments.
Almost every table bore an order or two of prawn turnovers — creamy shrimp croquettes, pastry-clad, cleanly fried and redolent of crustacean — and at least one plate of cured meat served with bread crisped in a panino press. We ate thin-sliced cachaço, cured pork shoulder containing just the right amount of fat and served at ideal room temperature. Several dishes, including cod, cuttlefish and diced pork tartare, were surrounded by savory but light broths, which Mendes said were purely Portuguese. Still, I’d be surprised if a country inn could muster such elegant, balanced flavors. This is vivid, high-class cooking.