Purists often moan about the state of tapas in London. Most tapas places in London tend to be restaurants serving both traditional dishes and newer creations at a sit-down table. This is a far cry from tapas as it’s found in Spain – bar snacks actually served at a bar.
The Opera Tavern, set inside a renovated pub just around the corner from Covent Garden, has the best of both worlds with its bar and a separate dining floor. I’ve been eagerly anticipating the Opera Tavern’s opening since the people who run it also operate The Salt Yard, another tapas restaurant that’s a favourite of mine.
I visited the Opera Tavern on a chilly February evening with Baron Greenback to celebrate his thirtysomething birthday. Drinkers will be disappointed to learn that this review won’t feature any booze in it – I’m a teetotaller and Baron Greenback isn’t much fond of alcohol either. We were probably one of the few tables that night not to be enjoying the extensive wine list.
The Tavern’s dining floor pays homage to its pub setting with the odd 19th century pub ornament lining a wall here and there, but the decor is otherwise more contemporary with chandeliers, mirrors, bare floors and the occasional monolithic piece of modern art. The guys at Dos Hermanos have some pics of both the interior and exterior of the building. The photos don’t capture how loud the dining room can get – adds atmosphere when sharing plates of food with friends, but not so much for a romantic night out.
Of all my dining companions Baron Greenback is the most conservative in his tastes which is reflected in his tapas choices. Although his choices weren’t awful, I do wish he’d followed the advice of the enthusiastic and helpful service – it would have made the generally good food even more memorable.
The Picky Glutton’s tapas choices
I couldn’t come to a tapas restaurant without ordering the jamón ibérico de bellota, a delicious, if pricy, platter of cured ham.
Although the jamón ibérico de bellota looks waxy and almost brittle, it actually melts in the mouth with a deliciously distinctive woody, salty taste. Although one could eat it with a hearty chunk of bread, I prefer to enjoy the delicate flavour of the meat all on its own.
My all-time favourite dish at The Salt Yard is also present on the Tavern’s menu – courgette flowers stuffed with goats’ cheese and drizzled with honey. Time and affection may have amplified the repute of The Salt Yard version in my mind, but the Tavern version of this dish wasn’t as tongue tinglingly exciting.
It was still nonetheless very enjoyable. The courgette a little crunchy without being too hard, the fried batter crisp but not too oily, all giving way to the soft, stinky cheese complemented perfectly by the slightly sweet honey. Even if it’s not quite the same as The Salt Yard version, it puts the version that crops up occasionally at tapas rival Fino to shame.
Deep fried courgette flowers stuffed with goats cheese and drizzled with honey.
The evocatively named salt marsh lamb with anchovies and pumpkin gnocchi looks just as tasty as it sounds. The juicy medallions of meat were slightly tougher than I expected, but was well complemented by the slightly sweet, fluffy gnocchi and the salty anchovies.
That was once a cute, fluffy little lamb. Get over it.
I’m not usually a fan of cod. I find the fish to be a dense slab of blandness, but I was willing to give it a try here and placed my trust in the chefs and I was glad I did. The slightly salty fish wasn’t too flaky and had a slightly piquant taste to it. Even better was its bed of arroz negro – a surprisingly tangy rice dish coloured by squid or cuttlefish ink. Definitely one of the highlights of the evening.
Almost as good was the Tavern’s special for the day – kale tempura. The crisp batter was a little oily but it gave way to the firm vegetable, its slightly bitter taste offset by the drizzled vinaigrette on top. The egg seemed like an unnecessary addition, but what the heck I’ll eat it.
Is tempura even Spanish? In this case, I don’t think it really matters.
Baron Greenback’s tapas choices
As befitting a wannabe supervillain, Baron Greenback tends to prefer heartier, more strongly flavoured dishes. He picked a corker with the braised short rib of beef served with polenta, sage and cavolo nero. The cavolo is a strongly flavoured, tart cabbage that blends together oh so well with the creamy polenta and rich, tender, flaky beef. One of the highlights of the evening.
The Baron couldn’t help himself and went straight for the proverbial jugular.
The Baron was intrigued by the sound of the gorgonzola and date croquettes. I had my doubts though and they were vindicated. The breaded exterior wasn’t too crunchy or hard, but the distinctive taste of the gorgonzola was lost so it may have been almost any other cheese and the taste of the dates was almost too subtle to discern. Even the Baron agreed that it was the most disappointing dish of the evening.
For some reason the Baron wanted fries. They were definitely fries and not chips and were pleasant enough, but weren’t anything special. The garlicky aioli sauce and the surprisingly tart ketchup livened it up a little though.
Both the Baron and I had the same dessert which turned out to be the standout dish of the entire meal. A walnut and date tart with honey ice cream may sound simple, but it was truly, utterly delicious.
It would be a mistake to simply dive in though – wait for the ice cream to melt a little. Not too much, just enough so that it starts seeping into the tart – that’s when its creaminess amplifies the nuttiness and sugary sweetness of the tart. Simply excellent.
The tapas at The Opera Tavern may not be entirely traditional, but it’s nonetheless very satisfying. The excellent blending of flavours in almost all of the dishes is rivalled, of the other comparable places I’ve been to in London, only by its sibling eatery The Salt Yard and Venetian restaurant Polpetto. It may not be as affordable as Polpetto, but it still deserves a five star rating.
Name: The Opera Tavern
Address: 23 Catherine Street, London, WC2B 5JS
Phone: 020 7836 3680
Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday – 12.00 to 00.30; Sunday – 12.00-17.00.
Total cost for one person including soft drinks: £44
Updated 20/2/2011 – new star rating graphic added