Sunday, 24 April 2011

The Riding House Cafe

is not actually on Riding House Street, home of my favourite rock 'n roll cider pub, The Green Man, but actually in the old Ha Ha Bar and latterly some curry and beer place on Great Titchfield St.

We have a seat at the bar, with a good view of the room. It's huge, with a long bar and many tables alongside, and a separate, more desirable area nearer the entrance with blue leather booths. It's incredibly busy - could be because it's soft-launching with 50% off food, or because it's a Friday night... or possibly it's still being seen as an after-work boozer by some. Whether this is intentional or not, I'm not sure. But there are certainly other signs of accommodating any type of punter.

pork belly
The menu looks familiar, it's that boxy, sectioned, French-bistro-by-way-of-Keith McNally design, but horizontally laid out and less pastiche français - as at Village East, from the same people. It features snacks, salads, a huge selection of sharing dishes to share, full mains, mains to share and other bits and bobs. The drinks list is equally comprehensive.

Having had a couple already (it being about 9:30) we go straight onto the wine. A Languedoc Pinot Noir (La Boussole, £26) is bold and heavier than more temperate-climed Pinots, and so actually better with food in terms of applying the brakes. Sometimes Pinots, especially from Burgundy and NZ, can be so light and smooth, they just fly down your throat bottle by bottle - not always a wise choice in uptown establishments!

We order some small dishes to start; the goat's curd and fig salad (£3) is creamy and summery although I'd like to know where the figs are coming from. Only occurred to me afterwards though.

Beetroot carpaccio (£3) was a bit too oily but decent enough, whilst the pork belly (£4) was a great snack - perfect crackling, and an excellent balance of fat and meat beneath.

Moorish lamb cutlets (£5) were juicy and pink, and great value actually. I'd definitely order these again.

lamb cutlets

The chateaubriand (£42) was a fair size for two. It was well cooked, and presented well on a stand with tomatoes, mushrooms and good bearnaise and bordelaise sauces. However the meat itself wasn't overly flavoursome and sadly a bit forgettable. The chips (ordered on the side, £3.50) were limp, soggy and quite miserly. Nice roast potatoes though (also £3.50).


So it was a tad underwhelming, but it wasn't bad by any stretch and the other dishes I saw coming out (great view of the kitchen from some of the bar stools) looked excellent. We did enjoy The Riding House Cafe, and I would come back to try more of the extensive menu.

The service was good, very eager to please but a bit nervy. They seemed well trained and informed, so this is only set to improve. The beautiful blue leather bar stools were very comfy, but you do get bumped a lot being on the main thoroughfare, and by some staff too. It was a bit too packed - perhaps they could make the pints less visible to discourage pubby standing around (behind bar diners), or have it as table service only, unless sat at the bar obviously.

Which leads in to the question of the identity crisis. Confused? Desperate to please and cater? Or is it deftly all things to all men, in that effortless way New York does so well? That night it was after-work pub, tapas joint, haute bistro, cocktail bar...maybe in time it can pull all these things off  in harmony (and also breakfasts, coffee, power lunches...), but I think it might be too much, too soon.

It aspires to something in the mix of Dean Street Townhouse, the Electric or the fabulous Schiller's Liquor Bar, (not to mention Village East), and I don't doubt it will nestle in there and be around for some time. Slow down, and ditch the pubbiness, plenty of boozers nearby. And later opening hours with the full food menu would help further add to the New York feel.

Food – 7/10
Drink – 8/10
Service – 7/10
Value – 8/10 (50% off food made it excellent, but proposed prices as above are reasonable, especially the small plates)
Tap water tales – 7/10 (groovy Labour and Wait style jug and cool blue glasses)
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (young, enthusiastic and friendly)

The Riding House Cafe
43-51 Great Titchfield Street, W1

The Riding House Cafe on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Franco Manca (Chiswick)

So what to say about Franco Manca in Chiswick? Well, it's a very Chiswick, rather suburban rendition of the equally very Brixton, frantic pizza assembly line of the original location. So far, they're the only two, so I can still stomach it chain-wise. Rumours abound of venture capitalists and Westfield and roll-outs, and other scary 'jump the shark' interventions which usually ring the bell for a chain's kudos.

I remember when I used to obsess about GBK, for example. Byron, still good, is teetering on the edge of ubiquity and certainly less exciting. Wahaca's shown some signs of quality slide...the enchiladas have been dumbed down for one.


But I digress. Francos has still got it. The premise is truly authentic Neapolitan pizzas, with provenance at every turn. San Marzano tomatoes, organic Italian wines but also some nice local touches, such as meats and cheeses from Somerset.

The vibe here isn't clear - it has some canteen elements of shared tables, quick eating and some nice outdoor seating, but towards the back, it's more traditional, with some zany Italian tiling - authentically lurid in itself. The beast of an oven is similarly tiled. Service is fine, but really it's the taste that matters and it definitely sings out...

Forgoing the inexplicably generous yet cheap platters for starters, we go for a couple of pizzas. The chorizo one comes with two different types, a dry and a semi-dry. The meat special that day (meat and veg specials change daily - the curiosity keeps me coming back) is with pancetta, rocket and parmesan shavings. Pizzas range between £5 and £7.


Everything tastes so fresh. You can actually taste the tomatoes, and the two types of mozzarella, and of course the meat. And the charred, imperfect shaped crust is possibly the nicest part, despite being cut of and left in many a pizza place. It's great proof that excellent ingredients and pure simplicity can often trump technique and inventiveness.

An affogato to finish (is there a better example of efficiency, combining coffee and dessert?) - at just £2.25, rounds things off very nicely. The vanilla is malted, and the espresso is Monmouth. Tick!

affogato: the perfect workday lunch dessert?

With a rustic tumbler of organic red (£3) or a beer, Francos never fails to put you in a holiday mood, albeit very briefly. I've not been to Naples, but my Neapolitan colleague brings her elderly mama here. That's trust enough for me. Here's hoping there isn't one in every new shopping mall in 2012.

Food – 9/10
Drink – 8/10
Service – 7/10
Value – 9/10 (£10-15 per head, with wine or beer)
Tap water tales – 6/10 (room temperature carafe)
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (pretty Italian girls, some gruffer blokes manning the oven)

Franco Manca
144 Chiswick High Road, W4

Franco Manca on Urbanspoon

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Spice Market

In maybe 2005 The Piglet and I went on our first New York trip. It was filled with all the big names of the time; PastisThe Mercer Kitchen and Spice Market. The Meatpacking District was hot, Sex & The City was credible and it was a very exciting time to be in New York. I'd never heard of Jean-Georges though, even though the latter two places are his.

I remember thinking how exotic and louche Spice Market felt back then. The opulent bar area, the sweeping staircase, the B-list celebs we spotted. But the cynicism of hindsight has me envisaging a Busaba, remembering the food as style over substance, and the family-style sharing 'concept' (vomit) as lazy.

rib eye with coriander sauce
So here we are in London, 2011. Spice Market has opened on the ground floor of the new W Hotel in Leicester Square. A natural bedfellow perhaps.

Immediately you can tell it's been pared back. No recession here, but the decor is much less ethnic, more urbane and restrained, and where there are flourishes, such as the mirrored tiles, they hark more to North Africa or the Middle East than Southeast Asia. I suppose those places have spices and bazaars too...

The service is quite rushed, even though you aren't personally. It's because there are hundreds of staff, tearing around in their ridiculously ugly red outfits, making the place feel a bit more like a tube station than a somnolent lounge. But they're attentive and friendly, and seemingly from all corners of the earth, which is interesting. Our cocktails were great - we sampled the Ginger Margarita (£11), Passion Fruit Whisky Sour (£10) and some fancy sangria (£8) - pretty steep, but well made and presented.
pork satay
The Pork Satay (£8) was the perfect starter. It was very generous, nicely seasoned and well cooked, with a softness and moistness yet nicely charred. No peanut/satay sauce though, which was a shame. But easy to share, possibly the only dish here which was...

black pepper squid with sliced pineapple

shaved tuna with chilli tapioca, like caviar!
Salt & Pepper squid (£9) was served with a yuzu dip, and highly praised, as was the slightly more Chinese Black Pepper Squid (£12.50).

The Piglet braved the Shaved Tuna (£12.50) from the Raw menu, and said it was delicious, although it came about 15 minutes after all the cooked starters. A little odd, and as we weren't sharing much (!), meant that he ate alone.

The fish mains were a hit. The Halibut (£18) with Malaysian chilli sauce was not too hot for our Scottish friend. The Crispy Salt & Pepper Brill (£18) tasted fresh, and whilst not as crunchy as I might like my tempura, wasn't too fishy (for me) and the lime dipping sauce was smooth, tangy and made the whole dish work very well.

crispy brill
The meats were less successful. The Onion and Chilli Crusted Beef Short Ribs (£18) served with noodles were actually in a potentially very messy noodle soup. How on earth a soup is shared 'family-style' with no bowls provided, I don't know! The beef is intended to be shredded off, and an unwieldy implement like a giant claw is provided for this. The meat itself was quite fatty and not that satisfying. Maybe I was unlucky with the ribs, but they shouldn't be 80% fat. The noodles in the fragrant, five spice-y soup were great though, and the only solid carbs provided with a main.

The Grilled Rib Eye with garlic, coriander and sesame (£24) was a better piece of meat, but not that memorable.

The wine list was interesting, predictably with a steep drop-off. We had a bottle of Oregon A-Z Pinot Noir (£48) which we encountered at The Mark restaurant in New York and it was great to see again. So light and easy to drink, it worked well with the Asian food I would normally have beer with.

All in all, Spice Market seems as frenetic, schizophrenic and desperately aspirational as it did in 2005. Every corner of 'the orient' is dutifully covered off, and it seems so un-exotic shoulder to shoulder with the dodgiest of Chinatown joints (as opposed to The Meatpacking District theme park). And I'm sorry, but the family-style service strikes me as a convenient excuse to not have to synchronise dishes. Noodle soups aren't easily shared across a table!

beef short ribs in noodle soup - try sharing this...

Special mention to the delicious and sweet little £3 ice creams and sorbets, in their own mini US-takeway containers. The Passion Fruit sorbet is really something special. The cookie bag (£6.50) was laughable, and you'd get better on Virgin Trains. That sort of thing is better left to Heston...

There is some good cooking here, and the bar area is worth a revisit for some snacks and cocktails (you do feel a million miles away from the migraine of Leicester Square), but the food is inconsistent and a little shaky. Maybe things might stabilise once the dust settles and the whole vibe calms down a little.

Food – 7/10
Drink – 8/10
Service – 7/10 (family concept aside, service was good)
Value – 6/10 (bill almost £250 - not cheap at all)
Tap water tales – 9/10 (numerous top ups from an iced jug)
Staff Hotness – 4/10 (they all looked a bit comical in their red get-ups)

Spice Market
10 Wardour Street, W1

Spice Market on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


'No MSG.'

What a proud statement. And should we be impressed with the honesty and standards, or slightly depressed that such a declaration is necessary?!

I love Chinese food, be it dim sum in Chinatown, full on banquets in Queensway, or messy, drippy takeaway in front of a film at home. Pomelo in Kensal Rise had been identified as a quality local Chinese restaurant, with rumours of an ex-Hakkasan chef abounding (as yet unconfirmed), and a couple of positive takeaways down the gullet, we thought we'd try the eat-in experience.

With some BYO beers (£1.50 per head corkage, unlimited consumption!) - we ordered the spare ribs in mandarin sauce (£5.50) to share as a starter. These were generous (ate one without thinking before taking pic!) sweet and gloopy, with a hoisin-esque bbq sauce, surprisingly not too heavy.

My main was that takeaway favourite, Crispy Shredded Chilli Beef (£6.50), which is usually very satisfying but not very beefy. I sometimes think they're mere twiglets fried in sweet chilli sauce, but this actually tasted meaty and wasn't 't shrivelled to within an inch of its life. Evidence of meat content! Wow...

The Piglet's Lemon Chicken (£6.50) was equally good quality, with nice pieces of chicken and a more natural tasting sauce which wasn't too cloying or artificial tasting. It tasted fresh and definitely of a quality you don't get in most generic Chinatown joints.

We had Egg Fried Rice (£2.50 p/h) which was decent, and a very generous portion for two. The menu also has plenty of Malaysian dishes I'd be keen to try. Decor is lots of quasi-Asiatic dark wood, and fine for a local place. Vibe quite busy and cosy.

A note on the service though. There were only tables for four available when we walked in - one cold by the door and one further away. Same size, both set for four diners. We weren't allowed the the normal one "in case a three or four arrives", and had to suffer the extremely slow and annoying draughty door opening and closing. Also while I nipped out for the beers, The Piglet was threatened straight away that we'd have to move again if a new party of four arrived and a table for two was vacant. Charming attitude. Didn't eventuate. Surely could have addressed if needed!?

The slightly batty lady seemed surprised at the end when the tip wasn't that hot. Also there are items on the menu which they've stopped cooking completely. Pomelo is handy to know as a good quality and value takeaway, which I'd recommend thoroughly for anyone in West/North West London, but I'd give a miss as a restaurant and head to Royal China...

Food – 7/10
Drink – N/A (BYO - worth it the more you drink as a flat £1.50!)
Service – 4/10
Value – 9/10
Tap water tales – 4/10 (not requested, didn't arrive but saw an iced jug for another table) 
Staff Hotness – 2/10 (not happening here....)

55 Chamberlayne Road, Kensal Rise, NW10
No website.

Pomelo on Urbanspoon

Monday, 11 April 2011

Fernandez and Wells

A quick pit-stop in Soho and I thought I'd try this smaller outpost of those stripped-back coffee, ham and wine gurus Fernandez and Wells. Even though this occupies one of my favourite old trainer shops (Foot Patrol, now on Berwick and not as good!) I am a big fan of both the Beak Street cafe and Lexington emporium of jamon y queso.

Washed down with my salty favourite Vichy Catalan, the charcuterie plate was a great snack (£8.50), boasting a spicy Basque chorizo, some regular Tuscan salami and some amazingly pungent finocchiona salami too. With some toasted bread to provide the carbs, it was delicious.

I could still taste the fennel an hour later, and the staff knowledge and provenance were excellent. Sliced by hand on an old-school contraption too which was quite the artisan spectacle...(hope this guy doesn't mind, good charcuterie skills squire...)

The Piglet had that Lexington Street stalwart, the fried chorizo and manchego plate (£6.50) which went down very nicely too although could have been a tad bigger. We are pigs though...

The vibe here is pretty casual, more so than the other two outlets I reckon. The decor is simple whitewashed brick, the staff extremely cool, the excellent coffee from Coleman beans, and the prices reasonable-ish. The sandwiches look great too.

I think describing this one as an Espresso Bar sells it short, implying something hole in the wall or transient, but you could happily while away an hour or two no problem. Drinks in the evenings too...

Food – 8/10
Drink – 8/10
Service – 7/10
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 6/10 (requested, iced-glass)
Staff Hotness – 8/10 (cute girls and hipster guys who might have been kicked out of Mumford & Sons for being too well behaved)

Fernandez & Wells
16a St. Ann's Court, Soho W1
Fernandez & Wells Espresso Bar on Urbanspoon

Sunday, 10 April 2011


Morito is the spin-off tapas bar by the Observer Food Monthly darlings 'Sam n Sam' of Moro, right next door on Exmouth Market. I do wonder which York Way eateries will start getting the hype since The Guardian's Kings Cross move, but I digress...Morito is rather great.

What else could you order for an unseasonably lovely day, but a caña of Cruzcampo and kick back to watch the buzz from the market... A mere two seconds later, the beer arrives frothing away and ice cold in an authentic tumbler, perfect start.

My companion has been here before, and she takes the lead from the quite extensive menu of predominantly Andalucian and North African inspired dishes, all doused in chilli, cumin and paprika.

We start with that Catalan breakfast of kings, the tomato toast with jamon (£3.50) which was a little tough due to the bread used; the underside of a dense roll. I love the tomate mush dripping through the holes of sliced baguette or ciabatta, so this isn't quite as fun.

The tabouleh salad (£3.50) is nicely seasoned and the deep-fried chickpea salad, adorned with tomato and chilli (£3.50) is crunchy, moorish (arf) and totally snackable.

On to the chicharrones de Cadiz (£4) which are little treat sized pieces of pork belly fried in cumin and eminently shareable. The butifarra sausage on a bed of white beans (£5.50) isn't quite so generous and the sausage was less cooked than some might like. Tasty though.
chicharrones and fried chickpeas

However it was the lamb chops which stole the show on the day. Two luscious chops spiced with paprika and cumin (£6) served medium rare and ready to savage, caveman-style. Juicy, spicy, exotic and tactile - epitomising Morito itself.

lamb chops, with tabouleh in the background
The DIY seasoning dishes provided nod to the spice markets of North Africa but the funky set up and no-nonsense service remind more of a modern tapas joint in urban Spain. It's unpretentious fun, smells great and people seem happy to be there. A fantastic value trough (less than £20 a head) on a street which already boasts some great options, EC1 is definitely up there for the best casual feeds...

Food – 8/10
Drink – 8/10
Service – 8/10
Value – 9/10
Tap water tales – 6/10 (requested, came in a cute carafe though no ice)
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (very cool, relaxed guys getting the job done)

32 Exmouth Market, EC1
AWOL website...? Try to get a feel for it.
Morito on Urbanspoon

Wednesday, 6 April 2011

Vinoteca (Marylebone)

So I was really looking forward to this one (clue how it's going to go?) and met The Piglet on a Friday night to check it out. Vinoteca 'Marylebone' isn't really in what most people associate with Marylebone, but in those fairly non-descript streets behind Marble Arch, basically on Edgware Road. Its actual location is quite London-y and quaint, with a decent looking pub, and an intriguing Corsican pizza joint Sandy’s.

A West End replica of the original in Farringdon had me very excited, and The Piglet was dutifully waiting for a table with two glasses of prosecco (on tap, bonus point!) surrounded by shelves of very tempting looking bottles of wine for sale.

We didn't wait too long for our table (a miracle in these post-reservation mid-range West End times – will 2012 mark the return of the reservation?) and sat down to order a curious Australian Sangiovese, which I'd not encountered before. It was fruity and soft, pretty easy drinking.

We ordered the Spanish charcuterie platter for two (£11.50) which was where the disappointment began.
It looked quite cool, but was served on a pretty ordinary plate and only contained two types of meat; a salami and a chorizo, both in abundance but the plate looked a little bit tragic and miserly with the absence of any jamon or lomo. The meats were tasty enough, but a bit repetitive, especially with no bread.

I then had that underdog favourite, the Bavette steak (£14.50) which the rather surly waitress loftily informed me "the chef recommends this is served medium-rare." Of course. Quite.
Pity that it arrived so medium there were barely any pink spots on it, and the horseradish served with it was ladelled on so liberally that the choice of having a little or none was denied for most of it. Disclaimer: I quite like some punchy horseradish, but this was excessive as it dominated the flavour of the otherwise good quality meat. Disappointing.

The chips were good though, but huge and required some ketchup - this request was met with a slight sneer, and it never showed up...and the salad was browning to the point of being almost dead!

The Piglet had Bristol Channel Cod with monks beard, clams & wild garlic (£14.50) which was well received, but there was too much liquid from the various marine ingredients which led to the whole dish becoming rather watery towards the end. The fish was well cooked however.

The service on the night (and I stress on the night) was pretty awful - we sat with our finished plates in front of us for about ten minutes, before one of the barmen spotted from afar and came over to clear them. It took about ten minutes again to get the bill (we weren't inclined to order coffee or dessert) and even longer to subsequently pay it. The total was about £70 which was quite reasonable.

Add in a forgotten tap water and the ketchup, and we were miffed. It sounds a little bit trivial looking back but these are major affronts when you're in the zone...

So a real let-down sadly, but interestingly, it's made me realise decent service is easily taken for granted, and really can ruin an experience.

I'd go back, as it's unfair to write a place off on one visit, but there are so many places on my list first. Until then, next time I'm in Marylebone proper, it'll be La Fromagerie or L'Entrecote. And the next time I'm in Vinoteca's end of Marylebone, I'll grab a shawarma from the Edgware Road...

Food – 6/10
Drink – 8/10
Service – 4/10
Value – 7/10
Tap water tales – 3/10 (requested, one forgotten, one ice-less lukewarm glass) 
Staff Hotness – 4/10 (the dour, invisible waitress may as well have had devil horns by the end! Saviour barman was handsome though)

15 Seymour Place W1 5BD

Vinoteca on Urbanspoon

Saturday, 2 April 2011

Lola and Simón

Lola & Simón is a rather unexpected Kiwi-Argentinian find on a drab, suburban stretch of King Street in Hammersmith with a board outside challenging you to find a better coffee in West London, and to order a Flat White.

Well, I prefer a Long Black most of the time, and having passed it a couple of times, I thought it was worth a squirt, as they say. The Piglet and I were there on a Saturday around 2pm, and it was rammed with buggies, but not in a bad way, and it wasn’t a pushy, sceney parents’ vibe.

The place itself is nicely decorated; big counter piled with pastries, with an impressive range of modern Kiwi and Argentine wine bottles towering over the colourful room which sports some funky teardrop wallpaper.  In case you’re curious, Lola and Simón are the pet dogs of the Kiwi-Argentinian couple owners – full story on the website! (Pedant alert - I couldn't help but think it should be called Lola y Simón, but that's the Hispanophile in me...)

We were both famished and ordered the ‘Really good bacon sandwich’ (£5.15) which we were quite excited about. It promised granary but the bread wasn’t that flavourful. It was filling though, with generous back bacon, rocket and tomato. Decent effort.

The service was sweet, lots of friendly girls running eagerly up and down the stairs, and my Long Black was probably the best I’ve had west of Coffee Plant in Portobello, with Monmouth beans and some optional milk (heresy!) provided in a cute little jug for one. Nice touch.

So if you’re in the area, and don’t fancy Asian or pub-food, this provides quite a unique, relaxed and thoroughly ‘nice’ option for the area. I really should revisit, having only had a coffee and a bacon sarnie though! The brunches looked good, and the evening meal featured Argentinian steaks (of course), NZ lamb and some tasty sounding bistro dishes.

Food – 6/10
Drink – 7/10
Service – 8/10
Value – 8/10
Tap water tales – 9/10 (jugs freely offered, iced with lemon and mint) 
Staff Hotness – 7/10 (couple of cute girls, no signs of Gael Garcia Bernal…who I know isn’t really Argentinian)

Lola & Simón
278 King Street, Hammersmith, London W6 0SP

Lola and Simón on Urbanspoon

Friday, 1 April 2011

The Opera Tavern

London once had many many many more pubs than it does today. Not all of them pleasant. But as an ardent pub-goer and occasional pisshead, the sight of a pub closing pains me more than it reasonably should. Be it The Intrepid Fox becoming a new branch of the blogosphere’s favourite burger chain Byron, the new The Real Greek on Long Acre or the swathes of residential pub conversions in the East End, it feels like a little slice of London history vanishes with the advance of ‘progress’. 

But this isn’t a blog about pub closures, homogenous high streets or harsh rent reviews, yet! And sometimes progress can actually be an improvement, and indeed progressive. 

The Opera Tavern is located on a side street in the Aldwych end of Covent Garden. I vaguely remember what it has replaced; a pretty generic West End pub full of theatre-goers, tourists and other accidental one-pint punters.

Bellini, and beer pump!

It’s now a moody tapas restaurant by The Salt Yard team, which maintains pubby features and a laidback feel, while bringing in much of its own personality – check out the pigs’ trotters on the entrance and the larger one which houses the draught beer (a nice touch to retain, albeit only halves). Anything praising the mighty pig is already a winner in my books...

Our visit there was an early evening Saturday and while there was an accidental theatre-goer element, it was also packed with sceney, bright young things. Unlike many popular tapas/sharing Mediterranean venues (cough Polpo, cough Brindisa), they sensibly take reservations but set aside the bar stools and I think some tables for two for walk-ins. We were at the bar, which can often be more engaging in a party of two, especially in a relaxed, boozy place. You certain end up getting better service, but also drinking more!

We started with two peach bellinis (£6.75) which were a great start, the peach tasted of real fruit – and we decided that only The Little Owl in New York surpassed this bellini. As I’m sure anyone reading will learn, prosecco, bellinis, cava and New York will feature often…

Food-wise, we decided to go slowly and incrementally, enjoying the buzz and our prime spot. The chargrilled bread with olive oil (£2.55) was verily that – two large grilled pieces of ciabatta which were dangerously filling – and the olives (£2.80) were meaty and attractive – with that deep emerald hue familiar to Byron fans as ‘proper olives’. 

Pistaccio salami
We pressed on with some Sicilian pistachio –encrusted salami (£4) and La Tur cheese from Piedmont (£4). The salami tasted incredibly moist, young and meaty, it didn’t taste overly cured or dried out. The La Tur was a smooth, spreadable soft cheese (ever notice how Brits in a tapas place always end up making sarnies?) which was similar to a ricotta. 

The mini Iberico burger (£5.50) was Iberico pork minced with foie gras into a patty and served as a slider. Possibly a tad steep for a large mouthful or two, but it was flavourful and rich, just the right side of fatty.  At this point, the light Gropello (£6.65 by the glass) was keeping us well lubricated, and balancing the deep flavours very nicely.

Having only just noticed the menu was double sided, we doggedly continued on to sample a grilled scallop, daintily served in a massive scallop shell with butternut squash and truffle dressing (£4.25 each) – it was soft, pleasant but as an isolated scallop, quickly forgotten.
Scallop - singular
The standout dish for me was the Grilled Iberico Presa served with capers, shallots and a light jus (£8). The shoulder meat was perfectly grilled, and it was sliced making it all too easy to share. Rich, juicy and medium-rare (for pork?! what a treat!) 

The Presa - awful pic, apologies!
We realised we hadn’t sampled any jamon, so a generous plate of silky, deliciously fatty Jamon Serrano de Teruel (£7.90) finished up proceedings. At this point, we were on another Italian red –Fatalone (£7.90 by the glass). Apologies but the previously unmentioned second bellinis have rendered some of the wine details a little hazy!

I appreciated the Spain/Italy split – these two wonderful places share much of the same sun, soils and sea and it was refreshing to see a menu so relaxed and bipartisan. The cooked dishes lent more towards Spain, but the charcuterie and cheese borrowed as much from Italy. The wine list was almost 50/50, with some surprises such as a few Mallorcans, and plenty by the glass.

Service was spot on and special mention has to go to Natalie, our fantastic server. She was incredibly knowledgeable about the food and wine, making suggestions and not being afraid to offer her own opinions - good luck getting such honesty in a fine dining establishment! 

One of our later wines (a fabulous bin-end Macchiona usually by the bottle only, £10 per glass, you can tell we were smitten...) Natalie insisted on decanting which was a fun treat and surely a novelty for ‘by the glass’. Proper stemware too.  

It came to almost £65 per head, which is punchy, but we did spend almost £40 of that each on booze, hic! This is an excellent addition to the Little Black Book in a tricky part of town which desperately needs it – and actually can afford to spare a few rubbish pubs. More like this please! 

Food – 8/10
Drink – 10/10
Service – 9/10
Value – 7/10 (let down by some portion sizes)
Tap water tales – 7/10 (requested by us, but then delivered quickly in a smart, ice-filled carafe)
Staff Hotness (why not!) – 8/10 (smart, dark outfits, even gender split, consistent standard)

The Opera Tavern –23 Catherine St, Covent Garden, WC2.
Opera Tavern on Urbanspoon