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

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