A Tale of Two Taverns.
Apparently, a tavern is somewhere that serves wine and an inn is somewhere that serves beer and ale. According to Wikipedia, in the UK, the word “tavern” is no longer in popular use”. I’m not sure that the owners of the relatively new Newman Street, Berners and Merchants Taverns would agree.
And other than the fact that it serves wine, I’m not sure that the word “tavern” gives quite the right impression of what Berners Tavern is all about. And for me, it’s all about the room. Pretty jaw-dropping, somewhat spectacular, this is a glamorous, exciting and dramatic dining space. An hotel dining room, yes, but not the drab, dull exercise in neutrality that normally greets you. A delicate and ornate carved ceiling, an eight-storey bar, drop dead gorgeous chandeliers and funky pictures covering all the walls make this a space which makes an immediate impact. If only the food could match it.
This is the latest outpost in the rapidly-expanding Jason Atherton empire. On top of his flagship restaurant, Pollen Street Social, he’s recently opened Little Social, and Social Eating House. Walk through the ever-so-trying-to-be-trendy hotel entrance (it’s part of The Edition – no – me neither) and clock the pool table on the left, bar on the back wall and loud music belting out in the background. It’s the sort of hotel where a minor rap star might feel very at home. The cast of TOWIE would think they’d died and gone to heaven. Patronizing? That cap fits and I am wearing it with pride. Shoot me.
The restaurant strikes me as slightly more low-key than the hotel. The menu is fairly wide and with a nod to British/seasonal. It ranges from a shellfish platter to a burger and chips and you can have a number of different types of steak mixed in with the daily specials. It’s fairly safe. For my starter, I chose the leek and crab salad. The leeks were fridge-cold and stringy, rendering them tasteless and for no discernible reason,, dusted with breadcrumbs which, sadly, were equally devoid of flavour. The crab salad in the middle was fine, but needed some zest to liven it up.
The sea bass with samphire and little brown shrimps wasn’t much better. A thin fillet, with crisped skin, it was overcooked and slightly dry. Not really bad, just not good enough. The samphire and shrimps and the creamy mustard sauce? All too salty. Certainly not bad enough to actually complain about, but nothing to write home about either. The duck fat chips, however, were excellent. And the service was good too – I’ve read about snooty and dismissive service here, but that wasn’t my experience.
Crossing the East-West divide the very next day, another tavern, another world.
Merchants Tavern. The door was opened for me by Thomas Blythe, former general manager of the legendary St John, in Smithfield. A pro. The door is a little heavy, madam, he said, as he opened it.
He had me at that, frankly.
On entering, there’s a bar on the right and a casual seating area, in front of a wood-burner, the smell of which pervades the restaurant. I could spend many a happy hour there. I suspect I will. The décor is that look of the moment, industrial/vintage/upcycled. Very comforting, very relaxed, very tavern-y. An open kitchen at the back lets you check out the cooking action.
This is the brainchild of Neil Borthwick, whose other half, Angela Hartnett, is surely responsible for the Italian influence in the cooking, which bills itself as a little bit Spanish, a little bit French, a little bit Italian and a little bit of British, in good measure. But really, the food is that not uncommon hybrid of cuisines I’d place under the “modern European” umbrella.
First, good chunks of excellent crusty sourdough and delicious salted butter. Showing remarkable restraint, I made myself stick to the one piece. A starter of juicy sautéed scallops, sitting on a bed of pumpkin mash, with black trompette mushrooms and some crispy nutty bits on the side: it hit the spot nicely. An elegant and delicate dish, it was one of many that I could have chosen from an interesting and unusual menu.
And because I could and because I always find it difficult to resist, pork belly. A delicate rectangle of Gloucester Old Spot, with garlicky breadcrumbs, buttered cabbage, sautéed cauliflower, on a purée of potato, this was a dish of pure comfort and joy. We didn’t really need the autumn slaw, with delicious Roscoff onions, or the mashed baked potato, but we did anyway.
No dessert, because these days, something other than my waistband has to give, but fresh mint tea brought the added bonus of large, fresh-from-the-oven madeleines. A perfect end to the meal. Tick.