Friday, 13 September 2019

The Opera Tavern, Covent Garden

There are a few restaurants - increasingly few - that despite at least one very pleasant meals at, I've for whatever reason never got around to writing up. My 40th birthday last November was an excuse to plug a few of the more glaring gaps (many thanks the Guinea Grill and Chez Bruce for countless good times), but to anywhere else I love that still remains unblogged I can only apologise and say that I'll hope to get round to it eventually. Promise.

So consider this post a very long-delayed response to so many very brilliant meals over many years at the Opera Tavern. This Italian-Spanish bistro, part of the very commendable Salt Yard group, arrived in Covent Garden at a time when decent Covent Garden dining spots were pretty few and far between. It immediately made a name for itself by offering what soon became its signature dish, a mini Iberico pork and foie gras burger, a revelation at a time when the Meatwagon's #meateasy popup in New Cross had only just got going, and Londoners had only just started discovering the joys of rare meat in a bun.

Weirdly - and slightly disappointingly - that Iberico burger appears to no longer feature on the Opera Tavern menu, at least not at time of press, but then perhaps that's for the best. These things are generally better in our memories than revisited, and there's every chance it would pale in comparison today to offerings from Bleecker burger or Zephyr in Peckham. Or maybe not. I suppose we'll never know.

What I do know is that there's still more than enough reasons to visit the Opera Tavern, burger or no burger, beginning with their excellent - I mean seriously excellent - jamon & manchego croquetas. These beautiful little mouthfuls of gooey bechamel spiked with top Iberico ham, glued into place with silky-smooth aioli, are alongside José Pizarro's, pretty much the best in town, and a must-order even if popping in briefly for no more else than a glass of cold sherry. Opera Tavern is competing in this year's "Croqueta challenge" taking place at sister restaurant Ember Yard, and on the basis of this, they stand a good chance of coming back with a (croqueta-shaped) trophy.

Padrón peppers, I realise aren't the most demanding dish a tapas restaurant could produce (even I've never managed to balls them up, and I once tried frying potatoes in a ceramic tray on the hob; it didn't end well), but are I think an essential part of any Spanish meal nonetheless. These were, as expected, all salty and crunchy in the right places but also contained a surprising number of quite spicy ones. Someone once told me that the percentage of hot padróns in any given batch is depending on the time of year - more in the summer, fewer in the winter; I'm not sure how true that is but I'm going to believe it until someone gives me a better explanation.

If I missed the nostalgic hit of the Iberico pork burger, this plate of smoky chargrilled chorizo took me right back to my first few months as a food blogger all the way back in 2007, waiting shivering in the line at Borough Market for a Brindisa chorizo roll. Here it came on a bed of chunky hummus, topped with sundried tomatoes and paprika-spiked chickpeas, and was as comforting and addictive as ever. Tapas - and Spanish food generally, outside of the most falutin' of 3* gastro-temples - is often defined by being stripped-back and simple, but there was actually quite a bit going on in this dish. It still worked, though.

Patatas bravas, invitingly golden brown but not over-crisp, arrived dusted with paprika salt and with a little pot of romesco (I think, or tomato - sorry I wasn't really paying attention I was too busy wolfing them down) sauce to dip them in. As an aside, this was a vegan dish, and like all the best vegan dishes (in fact the only good vegan dishes), it just happened to be vegan to begin with rather than being a bastardised version of something else with the dairy taken out.

Next, a wonderfully colourful tomato salad, involving huge sliced bull tomatoes, smaller cherry tomatoes, a lot of salt and good olive oil, and little sprigs of micro basil. I don't blame British restaurants for using home-grown tomatoes, or the best of the Isle of Wight which I often see mentioned on menus, but the simple truth is tomatoes grow best where there's lots of sun and very little rain, and the best tomatoes are Italian, or Spanish, and I'm going to make the most of them before Brexit kicks in and they cost £10 each.

Last of the small plates were these very deftly-fried courgette flowers stuffed with Monte Enebro goats cheese and drizzled in honey. Another Spanish classic, done brilliantly, perfectly balanced vegetal bitterness with sweet honey and rich dairy, satisfying in every way. They'd be a must-order, too, if there weren't so many other must-orders.

But speaking of must-orders, we had been invited here on this occasion for a reason. The "Sharing plate of Iberico pork" is 300g of the very finest black-leg pig, roasted to such a gasp-inducing softness of texture the only way I can describe it is that it's like the slow-roast duck they do at very top Chinese restaurants like Park Chinois, where the little slices of meat just seem to dissolve on the tongue. It came with little blobs of pepper sauce, and a kind of chutney, but really this was all about the stunning main ingredient - £30 for what is surely, by some distance, the finest pork dish in London. And if you don't agree, you haven't had it yet, simple as that.

So after all these years, the Opera Tavern - stately, seasoned, sensational - is still, in 2019, the pride of Covent Garden. Sorry - to them, mainly - that it's taken me so long to put my thoughts down but better late than never, and anyway I'm convinced that their food will have found even more fans in the next decade than the last, with or without the odd gushing blog post. A confident, mature operation that barely puts a foot wrong from the menu to the service to the polished surroundings, it is as close as this part of town gets to a Sure Thing - a crowdpleaser, reliably great at what they do. And there's hardly any greater compliment than that.


The above meal, and the incredible pork platter, were comped, but I have paid for dinner at the OT about 10-15 times over the last decade, and will do many years into the future.

1 comment:

Colemansdad said...

Thanks for the heads up. Wanted to try somewhere different so decided to give it a go after an Old Vic matinee.
Superb food, ambience and good priced wine list. Amazed that it was dropped by the Good Food Guide. Octopus with coriander ..inspired.