Salt Yard tapas in Covent Garden
Updated 14/6/2020 – added details of 2020 meals and updated the Verdict as well as the formatting. Disclosure: I used a publicly available discount for some of my 2020 meals. This discount was available to the general public; as ever I did not seek any special treatment just because I’m a reviewer.
Updated 20/2/2011 – new star rating graphic added
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.
Original 2011 review
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.
I first reviewed The Opera Tavern way back in 2011, which feels like a lifetime ago in more ways than one. This Covent Garden outpost of The Salt Yard has certainly gone through a lifetime’s worth of changes since then. The original Salt Yard Group sold The Opera Tavern to the imaginatively-named Urban Pubs and Bars back in August 2018. The latter then proceeded to buy what remained of the Salt Yard Group a few short months later, with many of the original Salt Yard brain trust moving on to greener pastures.
Physically, The Opera Tavern feels little different from the way I remember it. During my visits shortly before the lockdown kicked in, it had much of the same clubby yet cozy and laid back atmosphere – albeit with far less buzz given the tepid numbers of people coming in through the doors.
Gastropubby dishes at The Opera Tavern
That low level of popularity may have something to do with the standard of The Opera Tavern’s menu, including its keystone homages to the site’s previous life as a pub. Even when considering this is ostensibly tapa, the flagship Iberico pork burger was more of a finger sandwich in size than a burger, which might have been acceptable if its ingredients had been assembled to a suitably high standard. But apart from a light woodiness, the patty was hard to distinguish from any other meat – a generic quality made worse by the excessively smooth grind of the patty. The manchego and shredded onion rings added little, leaving all the heavy lifting to the admittedly punchy aioli. The Opera Tavern’s Iberico pork burger falls into the wagyu burger trap: burgers made from expensive cuts of meat tend to lead to disappointment.
The nduja scotch egg was far better. The soft, tightly crumbed shell gave way to reveal a thin but piquant and moist layer of nduja-infused ground pig orbiting a rich, runny yolk. Although the porcine layer could’ve been more generously proportioned, this Scotch egg still had much to recommend it.
Seafood dishes at The Opera Tavern
Modestly firm octopus came with charred yet soft and chewy bread and shrug-inducing sauces. Given that the appeal of octopus lies in its firm bouncy texture which acts as a conveyor for flavours derived from other sources, this dish was half-formed at best.
The crayfish and prawn tortellini isn’t the dish to serve to your fussy Italian in-laws. Not because there was anything especially wrong with them, but because there wasn’t anything especially right with them. The forgettable pasta envelopes cradled a filling that was only mildly evocative of its advertised aquatic duo, lifted only modestly higher by the bisque-like sauce. This plate of tortellini wasn’t bad, just embarrassingly wan in an era when increasingly laudable, high-quality pasta can be found across London.
Cod swam to the rescue with its delicately light and glossy yet meaty flakes. It was complimented perfectly by an addictively creamy and umami bernaise-style sauce along with umami tomato and woody, gently chewy mushrooms.
I would never have thought to pair anchovies with stracciatella cheese, which is one of the many reasons why I’m not restauranteur material. The umami and saltiness of the fleshy l’il fishes blended surprisingly well with the milky creaminess of the cheese, a pairing bound together even more tightly by the crunch of the distinctively nutty hazelnuts.
Sorry folks, I forgot to take a photo of this one.
Meat dishes at The Opera Tavern
Jamon iberico de bellota was, as expected, a scarlet-hued delight with a sweet umami segueing almost seamlessly into a nutty fattiness.
Onglet steak was reasonably tender in its own right, but – when compared to the cut sometimes available at Southwark’s Bar Douro – it was a tough ol’ boot relatively speaking. The peppery crust couldn’t hide the lack of browning, a flaw that was hidden – to an extent – by the puchy aioli, the bitterness of the supple greens and the sweetness of the fleshy pepper sauce. Not bad overall, but still clearly a second-rate steak.
Beef ravioli was even more of a disappointment than its crayfish and prawn stablemate. Many of the pasta envelopes had tough, undercooked corners while the overly minced filling was lacking in both mouthfeel and flavour. The generic sauce was just as lightweight, leaving it to the sweet, slippery onions and umami bits of jamon to prevent this dish from being a total disappointment. Even so, those toppings couldn’t disguise the slapdash amateurishness of the ravioli.
Exquisitely tender and rich iberico pork cheeks were almost upstaged by the vegetables. The crisp umami of blackened cabbage and sweet, slippery onions tinged with sharpness made for perfect porcine bedfellows.
Although the lamb cutlet didn’t have enough fat, this l’il sheep drumstick was winsome enough with its earthiness and reasonable level of tenderness. The real star on this plate, however, was the liver meatball with its pungent offaliness and coarseness neatly softened by a creamy sauce and lightly sweet carrots.
Vegetarian dishes at The Opera Tavern
Stuffed courgette flower is the trademark dish of the original Salt Yard and can be found at all its spin-offs, including The Opera Tavern. The version here wasn’t quite as well-formed as the version at sister spin-off Ember Yard – the batter coating the courgette flower wasn’t as crisp and it was a touch greasy too. While delicate, the goat’s cheese stuffed inside the flower was merely so-so as it lacked both character and pungency. The honey drizzled on top was the best thing here with its delicate floral sweetness. It’s a worrying sign when a flagship dish is this uneven.
Hummus made from pureed almonds, rather than from chickpeas, tasted as beige as it looked – especially when taken with the equally uninspiring yoghurt and pomegranate. This yawnsome threesome straddled fleshy aubergine that must have wondered how it ended up in bed with such grisly partners.
The tuber cubes of the patatas bravas were evenly fluffy without a hint of grease. The sauce was more like a brown sauce-ketchup hybrid than I expected, but hardly worse off for it.
Milky, creamy burrata with a yielding skin rarely needs any further embellishment. As if to prove that point, the relatively earthy beetroot accompanying the luxuriant burrata here was inoffensive enough but ultimately a distraction from the main event.
Desserts at The Opera Tavern
While far from inedible, the whorls of choux-like pastry were a touch too chewy while the smooth and light ice cream to the side was a tad too ethereal and wispy. This imperfect pairing of unbalanced textures did at least have sharp, sugary mandarin slices to fall back on, as well as a brittle caramel shard.
Breeze blocks of biscotti were inedibly hard unless dunked in coffee first. Even then, the only reward was a wilted taste of almond. The flat white used for dunking was a bland and watery affair, yet somehow managed to pack a respectably forceful caffeinated punch that kept me going well into the afternoon.
There was nothing forced about the curiously-named ‘forced’ rhubarb meringue. The cream soda-like taste of the light, milky and refreshing cream neatly enhanced the tartness of the poached rhubarb pieces. The meringue pieces were gently crisp and sugary, contrasting well with the squidiginess of the rhubarb, with only the milquetoast puree letting the side down.
The chocolate delice was effectively a gussied-up, deconstructed Crunchie bar but without enough added finesse to justify its £7 price tag. Crunchy, sweet and viscous pieces of honeycomb deserved a dark chocolate ganache with more panache. Even the cream and caramel hiding underneath the honeycomb pieces were lacklustre and unworthy. Shame.
Original 2011 Verdict
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 Polpetto. It may not be as affordable as Polpetto, but it still deserves a five star rating.
Updated Verdict for 2020
Given all the boardroom upheaval occurring behind the scenes, it would’ve been a small miracle if standards at The Opera Yard hadn’t slipped at all. The surprise is therefore not the fact that The Opera Tavern’s cooking isn’t as drool-inducing as it once was, but that it hasn’t degraded even further to La Tasca-like levels of fetid decay.
Even so, that credit only goes so far in excusing the seesawing at The Opera Tavern. The quality not only varies wildly from dish to dish, but often on individual plates with one standout ingredient surrounded by an entourage of unworthy do-nothings. It’s as if the quotidian pre- and post-theatre menus so prevalent in Covent Garden have taken over, squeezing out much of the verve and character that once made The Opera Tavern so memorable in favour of a middling spread that won’t offend anyone.
Perhaps there’s a way back to greatness for The Opera Tavern, but for now there’s nothing to sing about here.
Name: The Opera Tavern
Address: 23 Catherine Street, London, WC2B 5JS
Phone: 020 7836 3680
Opening Hours: Monday to Saturday noon – 23.00; Sundays and bank holidays – 12.00-22.00.
Reservations: yeah, if you want.
Total cost for one person including soft drinks: £44-55 approx.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ (originally ★★★★★)