Despite knowing it existed and indeed knowing it was good, Opera Tavern suffered at the hands of being practically next door to one of my favourite haunts; Mishkins. If I want easy, casual and friendly dining in Covent Garden I know I’ll be satisfied with Russell Norman’s kind of Jewish Deli, sat at the bar sipping gin cocktails. Just across the road I can eat great charcuterie plates with a fantastic wine list and delicious coffee at the second outpost of Notes. This lazy complacency paired with a single experience of the restaurant, admittedly not in regular surroundings, that was tainted by my cold, wet and muddied cynicism of that abomination; Taste of London. Even with a foie gras and iberico mini burger prize in hand, the solo dish I’d hunted out I simply couldn’t enjoy it, I noted it’s potential, but there was something about the experience, about the inflated price despite stripped back, muddy fielded lack of ambience that tainted each bite, turning juicy meat to acrid ash.
I’ve bumped into chef Ben Murlock at a number of events and eventually it became slightly embarrassing that I’d never quite made it to his restaurant. I couldn’t think of a good reason why I hadn’t when on paper it sounded so very good and so I remedied that twice in as many weeks at the beginning of this year. The first is a Wednesday evening, we’d reserved a table but decided we were just as happy, happier even, at our lovely little window seat with back to the bar, next to the door, a spot that technically shouldn’t work but was rather romantic all the same. My friend and I, no actual romance tonight I’m afraid, use the window ledge as a deep polished table and gaze out onto Charlotte Street, a road subject almost entirely to the ebb and flow of theatre botherers.
Presented with a double sided menu, I have a tendency to retreat to the classics, selecting from the simpler tapas style dishes rather than the elaborate and elegant sounding more complete plates of food. Bread is always a must and here it is excellent, cut into thick triangles, grilled and served with alioli or olive oil, our indecisiveness on this matter awards us an offer of both, however only one is brought, decision made for us I guess. Fingers of sweet and smokey chorizo sit on top of a bed of soft, relaxed peppers. Gorgonzola and date croquettes are sweet little gooey nuggets of joy. Courgette flowers are stuffed with goats cheese, fried in the lightest of batters and soaked in honey, quite the prettiest picture of a dish, I’m afraid the darkness of the room renders my picture a mere charry smudge. The piece de resistance, despite previous show marred ambivalence, is the iberico and foie gras burger, it’s a tiny work of art, each little mouthful a rich and juicy bite of perfection, this is true love. The only disappointment on this evening is a bowl of piperade with duck egg and migas; although the stew beneath is sweetly delicious, the egg has set itself into a solid plastic lid, we do ask with disbelief if it’s supposed to served in this way and it’s quickly whipped off the bill with not another mention.
Just as we’re both contemplating the fact we rarely order desserts in a restaurant as nothing ever sounds as tempting as the savouries or delivers the flavours we desire, we’re handed a menu that seems to speak directly to each of our sweet tooth’s. Having mere seconds before dismissed the notion, we’re all of a sudden weighing up each of the options and wondering how many we can manage, the choices include too many of our favourite things; pistachio, blood orange, chocolate, salted caramel, sherry… We narrow it down to a blood orange panacotta served with candied pistachios and ice cream that rounds off our meal rather well.
The vibrant bar is busy even on our midweek visit, music is lively and fun, the room seems to emit an almost Mediterranean energy that attracts more than one passers by’s curious and envious glance in our direction through our protective glass viewing pane. Service is fairly chaotic though and trying to catch the eye of our single and over busy waitress becomes tiring, I manage to miss several trains whilst waiting for the bill.
My second visit is a Saturday evening and service is far smoother, I wonder if they’re more prepared for a busy service at this time or perhaps our bar stool position simply keeps us in better view. We were unable to book a seat but down to waves of pre-theatre diners we managed to nab two of those bar stools with relative ease.
Being a creature of habit and this being, not strictly but certainly my sort of comfort food, we end up ordering fairly similarly. This time we start with olives, fat and salty they assist with the sinking of our bottle of red, these are followed by the boys must haves; padron peppers (no hot ones in this batch FYI), and manchego which is plated with wafer thin shards of toasted bread and a slightly too small cube of quince paste but is otherwise as always a great nibbling plate. The miniature bites of luxurious heaven, sorry burgers, are now obligatory as is bread, we also order potatas fritas expecting the classic potato bravas but instead receive a tin of chips, yes the name should have given this away, with alioli and bravas sauce, they’re excellent renditions in every way and I’m a fan of chips in any other given situation but in this instance they jar, me no likey; I can’t help wondering why they didn’t go with the traditional version that I adore so much at both Jose’s and Brindisa. We also get chorizo again at the boy’s insistance, and I feel we’ve horribly under ordered, there are so many things I still want to try that I wonder if we’ve not really done the menu justice at all. Look at those legs of ham on the counter that we haven’t partaken of and the proper cooking, but yes it’s mainly ham and meat on the menu that I’m suddenly feeling deprived of.
Knowing full well the dessert menu is loaded with temptations we do well to save space however and order the cold chocolate fondant with salted PX caramel and espresso ice cream; this is an absolute winning decision and one of the best desserts I’ve had in a restaurant ever. Yes, we fight over this. A glass of delicious sweet red wine eases the pain of sharing and I can’t resist buying myself a little souvenir of the Salt Yard recipe book, fully aware it’s the inclusion of those perfect mini burgers and the potential of having them at home that I’m buying into and yet I know this will never happen as long as I know I can pop in for one whenever I’m next in the area and peckish, order a glass of wine at the bar and sit in salubrious surrounding.
Now I’ve broken that first visit, there’s nothing stopping me, I need to go back for a taste of that ham and to try some more of those dishes.
Who am I kidding? You know it’s those burgers I’ll be back for.