WLC’s resident sybarite, Lucy Shaw, heads to the new-look Opera Tavern in Covent Garden for a fiery nduja Scotch egg, creamy Manchego croquetas and a smoky white from Etna.
The concept: Along with Sam and Eddie Hart (of Barrafina fame), Hispanophiles Simon Mullins and Sanja Moll were among the first restaurateurs to reinvent the notion of tapas in London, incorporating influences from their beloved Italy and pioneering the small plates phenomenon in the process. Their first Spanish outpost was Salt Yard on Goodge Street, near my old university campus.
Ambitious in their drive to turn the capital on to the charms of Monte Enebro-stuffed courgette flowers and silky slivers of nutty pata negra jamón, the pair soon expanded their empire with Dehesa off Carnaby Street, Ember Yard in Soho and Opera Tavern in the heart of theatreland, which had foodies drooling over its signature Ibérico pork burger made with foie gras-filled patties and aged Manchego.
The décor: In the summer of 2018, Opera Tavern and its sister sites were sold to the Urban Pubs & Bars Group. Keen to preserve the character and charm of the quartet, the group re-opened the new-look Opera Tavern, complete with a racing green awning, this August with a new menu devised by head chef Lukasz Kiełbasiński, previously the senior sous chef at Salt Yard.
As part of the makeover, the 24-cover ground floor has been redesigned as a tapas bar filled with contemporary art, communal tables and counter seating. Upstairs, the more formal 45-cover restaurant benefits from its own bar.
The laid back feel of the original restaurant remains. The top floor has a cosy living room feel, with its petrol blue walls, grey leather banquettes, Pop Art posters and open fireplace.
The food: Like the majority of chefs in the capital, Kiełbasiński works with local ingredients that reflect the seasons. Keen not to ruffle feathers, he has kept favourites like the Ibérico burger and nduja Scotch egg on the menu, much to my delight.
The latter was among the highlights of our visit. The gorgeous, crunchy, golden globe delicately dusted with smoky paprika sat elegantly atop a glossy daub of saffron aioli.
When cut in two, its innards revealed a perfectly gooey sunshine yellow yolk nestled amid moist bites of fiery Italian sausage in a playful twist on English classic. Also on point were the simple sounding jamón and Manchego croquetas, which, rather like a steak tartare in a French restaurant, are a good gauge of the chef’s skills in an Iberian joint. Super savoury, creamy and comforting, with a well-judged ham-to-cheese ratio, our quartet of croquettes showed that we were in safe hands.
Signature dishes: Fearing a full sized Ibérico pork burger would leave room for little else, we bypassed the piggy treat in favour of a plethora of fish and veggie dishes. Among the most delicious were the Cantabrian anchovies lying languidly atop a generous pool of snow white, almond-flecked stracciatella. Food fads move fast in London, and if industry gossip is anything to go by, Puglian favourite stracciatella (meaning little shreds in Italian) is set to be big in 2020 – bye bye burrata!
Essentially the creamy heart of burrata made from buffalo milk, when paired with salty anchovies and almonds it creates something of a Marmite-like love it or hate it dish that I adored. Its salty-sweet strangeness won’t be to everyone’s taste, but I admired the derring-do of the chef for putting it on the menu.
The drinks: Any modern restaurant worth its salt needs a strong cocktail game and Opera Tavern serves a selection of seasonal sips alongside timeless classics like the Negroni and Bellini that tip their hat to Italy.
We loved the sound of the Salted Amalfi cocktail, blending manzanilla with limoncello and clarified lemon, but opted instead to start the evening with an appetite-whetting glass of Bodegas Hidalgo Manzanilla Pasada Pastrana, which, with its salty sea air tang, takes you straight to the shores of San Lucár.
Volcanic wines are enjoying their moment in the sun among wine geeks, and a generous glass of Carricante/Catarratto from Etna didn’t disappoint, its smoky, mineral notes mingling with pretty aromas of pear, peach and white flowers.
What could be done better: Not everything we tired rang our bell. The slow cooked Galician octopus with saffron aioli sounded wonderful on paper, but the reality was a bit of a damp squib – or squid to be more precise, the hunks of octopus on the chewy side and, like revenge, served cold, while the batter of the Monte Enebro-stuffed, honey-drizzled courgette flower could have been lighter on its feet.
Last word: The Urban Pubs & Bars Group have been careful to preserve the rustic charm of the original Opera Tavern, and its new makeover is more of an evolution than a revolution. Covent Garden has become an increasingly sophisticated foodie neighbourhood, so the space has plenty of competitors, but if you’re searching for a satisfying pre-threatre feed, it remains one of the best spots in town to chow down.
Opera Tavern, 23 Catherine Street, London WC2B 5JS; Tel: +44 (0)20 7836 3680