Tuesday, 25 February 2014
Berners Tavern, Fitzrovia
The first thing you notice about Berners Tavern, and the last thing, and in fact all you notice for much of what happens inbetween, is That Room. Part palace ballroom, part Paris Salon, this lavish space, with its lofty carved ceiling, three-story illuminated bar and walls appointed with a bewildering number and variety of framed paintings, photographs and mirrors, could easily be the most impressive in town. It's like eating in the Halls of Versaille.
Unsurprisingly, then, the food has a hard time living up to it all. Not that any of it is bad, it's just rather unambitious; at the best of times, a menu of smoked salmon & watercress, steak and chips, and venison with pickled cabbage is hardly likely to be burned indelibly into the memory, but in this fantastic space it seems doubly timid, a collection of crowdpleasing British clichés at expense-account prices, served to a crowd so dazzled by their surroundings they will hopefully somehow be convinced £20 for fish and chips is value.
OK, perhaps I'm being unfair. Most of the food was well executed and not all of it was wildly expensive. A starter, for example, of crispy lamb breast and pumpkin served with a side pan of pecorino fregola and lamb marrow crumble had loads going on for £8, some good hearty winter flavours and a pleasing to and fro of crunch and soft. "Egg, Ham and Peas" was less successful thanks to a strangely watery (in both senses - underflavoured and undercooked) egg, and the "mushy peas" were, needless to say, nothing of the sort, just bland crushed garden peas mixed with slightly too much mint. But it looked the part, and the crunchy slivers of ham were pleasant.
An inbetween course of scallop ceviche arrived next, and for the most part was welcome, though I think if I'd actually ordered it from the menu I would have been rather put out that the scallops were so lightly "ceviche"d that they tasted completely raw and slimy. There was a fantastic chilli and lime sorbet in the middle though which made up for it.
Mains were, in a similar vein to the starters, familiar but satisfying. Venison was politely pink and served with a little fondant potato and roast carrot as well as the aforementioned pickled cabbage (stop me if you need a chance to catch your breath after that radical pairing of ingredients). And a ribeye, missing the char you would have got from a charcoal grill but nevertheless timed well, was surprisingly good beef - "Devon Ruby Red" apparently. Oversized duck fat chips, peppercorn sauce (I could have specified Bearnaise, but not both - perhaps they were worried the excitement would have been too much for me), a little pot of green salad, all present and correct. We ate it all, and we did enjoy it, so you know, no real complaints. Just a bit... hotel brasserie.
All of which makes what happened next with the desserts even more of a surprise. They were, well, quite brilliant. Calvados and apple éclair had a good firm pastry encasing lovely fresh Devon cream, with a ever-so-subtle tang of alcohol and some rich slivers of poached apple. The salted caramel ice cream it came with was all kinds of great, a little icy bomb of flavour.
And "rhubarb and custard", new on the menu we were told, was that rarest of things - a fresh take on an old classic that wasn't just different for the sake of it. The rhubarb itself had an impressively strong, sweet flavour - perhaps they were those ones forced to grow in the dark at the bidding of their cruel rhubarb masters. And studded amongst the smooth vanilla custard were these little nuggets of salty cake of some kind. Flapjack? Brownie? All I can tell you that it worked really well; our waiter asked for feedback and all I could suggest was not to change a thing.
So yes, desserts were worth the journey and then some. And service couldn't be faulted either - dishes arrived at a perfect pace and all the staff were as impressive and well-turned-out as their surroundings. But after all said and done, with a solid but unspectacular starter and main course each and a couple of sides, and even despite the lovely desserts (only one of which appeared on the bill), the total still came to £111. With no alcohol. And I'm sorry but that's a lot, no matter how nice the view is.