Hotel food with a twist
Hotel restaurants are very different from restaurants in hotels. This may seem like a minor semantic difference, but there’s actually a yawning gulf between the two. Hotel restaurants are identikit eateries serving up a large menu of lowest common denominator dishes designed for weary travellers too tired to care and unadventurous tourists who don’t know any better. Restaurants in hotels, on the other hand, are designed as destinations in their own right with menus and interiors designed to appeal to hotel guests and non-guests alike.
Berners Tavern is definitely a restaurant in a hotel. Located on the ground floor of the newly opened, Marriott-owned Edition hotel in Fitzrovia, and part of Jason Atherton’s burgeoning London empire, Berners Tavern is quite unlike any restaurant I’ve seen before in a Marriott-owned hotel. My shoddy camera phone photo barely does the high ceilinged dining room justice. It’s a very atmospheric place, especially at night, with the multitude of paintings on the walls and the intricate plaster friezes lit by a central row of candle-lit lamps, all of various shapes and sizes. In a way, it’s a much more grandiose version of the vaguely similar decor at the nearby Newman Street Tavern. The plush seating is very comfy, but the service needs a little work. Although always efficient, it varied from friendly and confident to cold and hesitant.
First things first
The food at Berners Tavern can sound deceptively dull and homely, but many dishes have an unexpected creative twist or two. The egg, ham and peas is an example, if not an especially good example. A runny soft boiled egg shrouded in a crisp crumb coating and accompanied by flavoursome mushy peas and very crispy, salty, earthy, almost bacon-like ham. Each element was fine in of itself, but none of them really complimented or contrasted the other.
Far better was the pan braised halibut and risotto mixed with squid ink served with garlic squid and broccoli. The creamy risotto was enhanced by the battered baby squid, creating a deliciously salty, tangy combination with the soft grains of rice contrasting nicely with the firmer tentacles. The meaty, tender fillet of halibut and tenderstem broccoli were both good in their own right and provided a variation in taste and texture, although the squid and risotto were easily strong enough to be enjoyed on their own.
The duck fat chips were unimpressive. Although all had a lovely golden colour, the exterior was a little too crunchy and verged on chewy in places, while the insides were too bitty.
Going back for seconds
Snails plucked out of their shells, a well as a smudge of black pudding, were served in surprisingly generous serving of potato and parsley soup. The parsley unsurprisingly dominated the taste of the moderately thick and very creamy soup, but the overall effect was of a sweet and moreish pea soup. Unlike other snails I’ve had in the past, which were earthy and chewy, these ones were tender and buttery. They were nonetheless exceedingly moreish, especially when taken with a mouthful of soup. The snail-to-soup ratio may seem a little out of kilter and stingy, but this was more than compensated for by the fluffy triangular piece of toast filled with an earthy mushroom-like filling. Although I couldn’t really use it to mop up the soup, it was so addictive and complimented the taste of the snails so perfectly that I didn’t really care.
The pork chop would be nothing without its accompaniments. An initial hit of charred smokiness faded quickly, leaving me to deal with a dense, slightly tough chunk of pig. The so-so chop was saved by the sweet and flavoursome fig chutney – the combination is somewhat similar to the classic Christmas pairing of turkey with cranberry sauce, but this meaty-fruity combo is far tastier. The moist, slippery and buttery lettuce went down a treat, as did the sweet and buttery mushrooms although I couldn’t detect the promised presence of cobnuts.
The slightly buttery, crunchy and buttery tenderstem broccoli tasted even better with the addition of thin almond slices scattered on top. It sounds odd, but their crunchy nuttiness was a perfect compliment for the crunchy butteriness of the greens.
My second visit ended on a sour note. The calvados and apple eclair was underwhelming in every way from the muted flavours to the stodgy, heavy, almost stale-tasting pastry and the unremarkable salted caramel ice cream. Given that calvados and apple are a classic European dessert pairing and can be powerfully flavoursome, this dire rendering was a bitter disappointment.
Third time’s the charm
If you’re expecting a chunk of baby sheep to show up in the crispy lamb breast starter, then you’ll be disappointed. If you’re not begging for more after the last mouthful, then you’re an unmitigated idiot. Although the patty-esque slab of meat was rather bitty, the crumb coating was delightfully crispy. It went exceedingly well with the sweet, nutty and fluffy topping of butternut and pecorino cheese. As if that wasn’t addictively moreish enough, a saucepan of bone marrow crumble is provided for you to spoon on top yourself – the crusty layers of gelatinous globules were the perfect finishing touch to a warm and comforting dish full of delightfully complimentary textures.
The roasted sea bass was flaky and light, but otherwise unremarkable leaving this main course to be defined by the tastes, smells and textures of its accompaniments instead. The salty fishiness mixed with the sweetness and mild heat of mustard was pleasing, as was the wrinkliness of the kale and the chewiness of the shrimp.
As warming side dishes go, it’s hard to beat the fluffy smashed swede and its occasional spicy hits of ginger. ’Smashed swede’ conjures up images of blotto Scandis, not vegetable dishes. Or is that just me?
Sweet potato creme brulée sounds adventurously quirky, but the sweetness of the root vegetable merely served to emphasise the custardish-ness of the creme brulée. The crackling could’ve been a little crisper, but it was still very good and accompanied well by the intensely sweet figs, aromatic and lightly spicy nutmeg and crunchy cocoa nib ice cream.
It’d be a shame not to have oysters during oyster season and Berners Tavern has the option of native rock, West Mersea and Fine de Claire oysters. I ordered a couple of all three, but couldn’t quite identify which was which though. In any case the general quality was a little underwhelming – fleshy oysters with a mineral tang were a highlight, but the briney oysters with a little bit of grit were merely okay and the oysters with far too much grit in them were either poorly sourced, poorly shucked or both.
Joining me for this final meal at Berners Tavern was the Euro Hedgie. He was just as taken with the crispy lamb breast and the pork chop as I was on my previous visits.
The braised duck came in two chunks – a meaty, slightly fatty slab of breast meat cooked medium rare-ish and a more well-done hunk of leg that peeled away from the bone in bitty shreds. The bird was competently cooked, but it would’ve been nothing without the sweet and sharp caramelised apples and the complimentary turnips that were so sweet and sour that I mistook them for plums or prunes.
The Euro Hedgie skipped dessert, but I opted for the sugar-dusted, slightly chewy English-style doughnut. At its centre was a sweet, slightly bitter molten chocolate filling. It was all pleasing enough in a Greggs sort of way, but the real highlight for me was the tacked on almond sorbet. It wasn’t too icy so it almost resembled an ice cream and proved to be a good palate cleanser, while the bold flavour of almonds was not only unmistakable but also very satisfying.
Berners Tavern and Social Eating House, another Jason Atherton restaurant not too far away, may be similarly priced but I prefer the former. Although Berners Tavern’s creative flourishes don’t quite reach the same playful heights as those achieved by Social Eating House, the quality of the cooking at the former is far more consistent. Just as pleasing as the generally good quality, satisfying food with a twist is the atmospheric decor which is a gleaming pleasure in its own right. It may be heretical, but I even prefer Berners Tavern to Pollen Street Social, a vaunted flagship Atherton restaurant that I found somewhat overrated (and which I visited on a rare night off, hence the lack of a review), and if that’s not a hearty recommendation then I don’t know what is.
Name: Berners Tavern
Address: 10 Berners Street, London W1T 3NP
Phone: 020 7908 7979
Opening Hours: seven days a week 07.00–midnight
Reservations: highly recommended.
Average cost for one person including service and free tap water: £45-50