“How do you like the chilled red?” On a recent Saturday night, chef Nuno Mendes was working the dining room at Cozinha das Flores, his new restaurant, attached to the Largo, a new 18-room luxury hotel near the Douro River in Porto, Portugal.

Mendes splits his time between Portugal and London, where he rose to fame in the kitchen of the Chiltern Firehouse, but he’s spending a lot of time in Portugal these days. It’s a homecoming of sorts—he grew up in Lisbon, but during a heroin epidemic he left for the United States at age 19. “I knew there was no future for me in Portugal,” he says. “I was seeing my friends dying.”

He delivered an opening snack, a savory spin on a classic pastéis de nata, the ubiquitous sweet Portuguese egg tart, its custard cut with whipped turnip, finished with a big dollop of caviar. “It’s always good when you turn up with a small tart and a big knife,” he said with a laugh.

Wild and cultivated mushrooms with Swiss chard and herb crêpe, finished with mushroom caramel.

Cozinha das Flores has been open for only a few weeks, but the dining room, built around a wood-fired hearth modeled on a traditional Portuguese fireplace, is full. Its most prominent feature is a tiled green mural commissioned from Porto’s most important living architect, the 89-year-old Pritzker Prize–winning Álvaro Siza Vieira.

The interiors were designed by the Danish firm Space Copenhagen, and both décor and food mix the classic and the modern. Dishes include gently smoked ribbons of giant squid draped over a traditional stew of chickpeas and cod tripe; sourdough, warmed high above the embers, served with chouriço; local John Dory in a smoked butter sauce slicked with fish roe and enriched with sparkling wine. “I’m celebrating the traditions of the north digested through my experience,” he says.

Left, smoked giant squid with chickpeas and cod tripe; right, the hotel and restaurant are located in Largo de São Domingos, the historic center of Porto.

Mendes is happy to be home. After studying marine biology in Miami, he enrolled at the California Culinary Academy, in San Francisco, then worked his way across the country, at Wolfgang Puck’s Northern California outpost Postrio; Mark Miller’s Coyote Café, in Santa Fe; Rocco DiSpirito’s Union Pacific; and Jean-Georges, in New York. After nearly 15 years in the U.S., he decided to leave after President George W. Bush was re-elected. “I remember the next day saying, ‘I’m out,’” he says.

Mendes arrived in London in 2005, after a stage at El Bulli and a few months kicking around Asia. Over the last 18 years he’s helped reshape the dining scene there, mixing his Portuguese heritage with the many influences from his time abroad. It’s been a wild ride, beginning with his first restaurant, Bacchus, in East London, where he once served a smoked-salmon-and-Guinness ice cream. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” he says.

His cult pop-up, the Loft Project, debuted in 2009, where a rotating cast of friends—now some of the top chefs in London—cooked in the warehouse space where he lived. “You’d come in, pay a membership fee, and sit around this table in my kitchen–living room area,” he says. “Man, it was fun … but it was sketchy as hell, originally.”

The interiors were designed by Space Copenhagen.

Viajante, his first full-fledged hit, opened in Bethnal Green in 2010. (The name translates as “traveler.”) But his public profile entered the stratosphere with his next project, when he was recruited by magazine guru turned hospitality executive James Truman to oversee food and beverages at the Chiltern Firehouse, André Balazs’s boutique hotel. He started on opening day in 2013 and remained until late 2021. “We were always fully booked, stupidly fully booked,” says Mendes. By the time the pandemic hit, he was starting to burn out. When his contract came up for renewal, he says, “we all came to the conclusion it was time to part ways—amicably, very amicably.”

In recent years, Mendes has begun a deep dive into his Portuguese heritage. “The further you travel, the more you long for home,” he says. Last year he opened Lisboeta, an homage to the city of his birth in a three-story town house in central London. He came to the Porto project during the pandemic through its Danish designers, who have deep ties to the world of globe-trotting chefs. (They designed the original Noma.) “The pandemic was an opportunity to maybe re-invent ourselves a little bit,” says Mendes, “a chance for us to start over, in a way.”

Left, grouper fish with turnip-and-lemon congee; right, cured greater amberjack, salt-baked beetroot, and seaweed, cooked bulhão pato style.

Behind the restaurant hides the Largo, a boutique hotel also designed by Space Copenhagen. Combining five historic buildings, it’s the first hospitality project from Danish goldsmith Per Enevoldsen, co-founder of the Pandora jewelry conglomerate, and Steen Bock, his long-standing business partner. Its spacious rooms are decked out with wine fridges stocked with top Douro Valley cuvées, house-bottled cocktails, and snacks curated by Mendes and his team. Breakfast is served on a rooftop terrace with a miniature plunge pool and sweeping views across the city.

The Largo, designed as an antidote to the frequent homogeneity of luxury travel, creates hyper-personalized experiences, plugging into a local network of wine-makers, food producers, and art curators who are generally inaccessible to the average tourist. Mendes and his chefs might pack a picnic for an excursion to the boutique Quinta da Costa do Pinhão winery, unloading boxes filled with fatty ham, stinky cheeses, and homemade bread and butter along the silty banks of the Pinhão, a tiny tributary of the Douro.

“You go to certain hotels and you could be anywhere,” says Mendes. “Hopefully, this will be a breath of fresh air.”

Jay Cheshes writes about art, culture, food, travel, and crime. He regularly contributes to The Wall Street Journal and WSJ. magazine. He trained as a chef at the Culinary Institute of America and has served as a restaurant critic for Gourmet and Time Out New York