23 Catherine St, WC2B 5JS, Tel: 020 7836 3680 www.operatavern.co.uk
Cost per person without wine: £35
OPERA Tavern has been opened by the husband and wife team behind two of London’s best-regarded tapas restaurants, Salt Yard and Dehesa. This one’s in Covent Garden, just off the piazza, and used to be one of theatreland’s better, friendlier pubs.
Losing a good pub is a shame, but it’s exciting to see it reborn as a thriving, vibrant bar and restaurant that has all the boisterous atmosphere of a proper old West End boozer with food that’s far superior to anything you’d find in one.
It’s also smart business: tapas is surely the ideal cuisine for theatregoers needing to fit in a bit of this and that before curtain-up, and with tapas of this quality they’ll be coming back in the interval and missing the second half.
We were due to eat in the main restaurant area on the first floor, but thanks to a booking mix-up, found ourselves squeezed into a tiny table in a nook in the bar downstairs – a happy mistake. It’s noisy and fun down there, with the elements of the old pub interior – grand windows, dark wood panelling, that lively tavern atmosphere – injected with a bit of Latin vim. Attention is focused on the bar, where you’re invited to sit and eat tapas finger food. Beyond it, a stout leg of Iberico pork sits on its stand next to a large robata grill, whose smoky, meaty fumes create a beautiful fug.
The menu is divided into smaller bar snack, charcuterie and grill dishes, and more elaborate tapas dishes. It’s a little confusing and overwhelming, one of those menus where you can look and look without really working out where to start.
After struggling over it with the help of a few glasses of Prosecco, we gave up and let the staff decide for us, tucking into a healthy selection (a cardiologist might contest that) of the whole menu. Among the stand-outs were the deeply flavoursome Iberico ham carved in strips from the aforementioned leg; beef onglet served pink and bubbling hot from the grill on a skewer with porcini mushroom and winter truffle; and delightful mini burgers of grilled pork and foie gras, a combination that felt naughtily indulgent. Some sturdy salt cod was served with pleasing “arroz negre” squid ink-blackened rice, while the confit of pork belly was heartily wonderful.
The wine list is impressive, with plenty served by the glass to mix and match with different courses. Puddings – well, um, I can’t remember what they were. I was enjoying myself too much – it’s that kind of a place. I think there was some unctuous chocolate fondant involved, along with some sweet dessert wine.
Oh I’ll say it, I fair staggered out of Opera Tavern. The wine flowed, the food came in endless rounds of small plate joy, my pal and I had a jolly good argument – waving pinchos morunos skewers in the air to make our points – and set the world to rights by the time we finished things off with some fortifying sherry (there is a neat list of 10). As I said, it’s that kind of a place.