Our resident bon vivant, Lucy Shaw, heads to Loyal Tavern on Bermondsey Street for a brooding Barbera and a buttermilk-poached cod and white bean stew that would make José Pizarro proud.
The concept: Hoping to become the London equivalent of the bar where everybody knows your name in hit American TV show Cheers, what was once Village East on Bermondsey Street is now the Loyal Tavern.
Founded by Riding House Café creator Adam White, Village East was rebranded as Loyal Tavern last September with a new look and a celebrated new chef to boot. The venue is in good company, sharing a street with French fancy Cassé-Croûte and two José Pizarro restaurants – tapas bar José and the more formal Pizarro.
Aiming to attract a devoted following of locals and regulars, Loyal Tavern is cosy and unpretentious, but also home to seriously good cooking – don’t let the shabby chic tan leather booths deceive you – a middle of the road gastropub this is not.
The décor: The interiors are an intriguing mash up of gritty industrial décor (exposed piping, metal drinks racks) and farmhouse chic (frilly lampshades brightening the booths, an abundance of dried flowers suspended from the ceiling).
The 100-seater former textile factory is split into three areas – the front is filled with old wine barrels and aimed at those seeking a quick drink who are happy to stand. The best seats in the house are the row of booths running the length of the bar that give the impression that you’re travelling in a vintage train carriage filled with flowers. An adjoining dining room houses the majority of the restaurant’s tables.
The food: Head chef Tom Cenci has clocked up stints in kitchens all over the world, including Canada, Istanbul and Paris. Most recently he worked alongside Dan Doherty at Duck and Waffle in the Heron Tower.
Cenci is refreshingly modest about his cooking – he aims to create comforting dishes that people want to come back for. Like many young chefs working in the capital, he has a local, sustainable ethos and is keen to shine a light on British ingredients, sourcing a lot of his produce a stone’s throw away in Bermondsey.
The menu is split into snacks, starters, mains and desserts, but being greedy and suffering from food envy, I opted to share everything we ate.
Signature dishes: It was clear we were in capable hands from the very beginning, with the arrival of salty shards of chicken skin crackling slathered in hot sauce and resting in a pool of blue cheese dipping sauce. The savoury morsels proved so moreish, sharing rather than devouring the third shard required super human levels of restraint.
The flatbreads are worth exploring. Served naked with a bowl of dip, we went for parsnip hummus with black truffle, which was impossibly smooth and creamy, and loaded with earthy flavour from both elements, the muskiness of the truffle enhancing rather than overpowering the parsnip.
Among the stars of the show was a simple sharing plate of charred cauliflower with sesame yoghurt and chilli. Creamy, crunchy, nutty and savoury, like the chicken skin, I found it a struggle to share this dish, wanting all of the gooey goodness to myself.
Of the main events – two glistening silver-skinned slivers of seabass resting on a bed of mussels atop a creamy coconut-laced curry, and a rustic buttermilk-poached cod and white bean stew dotted with fiery flecks of nduja, were both supremely comforting and full of the kind of flavours that hug you from inside.
The portions are incredibly generous, perhaps a little too big – their large size seeming at odds with the technique, skill and astute understanding of flavour that went into them. The winning dish was the stew, which took me straight to Spain and reminded me of something José Pizarro has on his menu down the road.
At once rustic and refined, the pearl white perfectly cooked cod flaked off the fork, while the white beans hit the sweet spot between al dente and too soft, and the spicy Italian sausage gave the dish a wonderful peppery heat and extra layer of flavour.
It was the kind of dish I imagine top chefs crave after a long day in the kitchen – something simple and unshowy but exquisitely crafted and full of flavour. I hope Tom never takes it off the menu.
The drinks: Most of the wines are offered in four different formats – 75ml tasting samples, 175ml glasses, 500ml carafes and 75cl bottles. If you ask nicely, 125ml glasses are also available. Among the sparklers on offer are Taittinger Brut Reserve and Kent estate Hush Heath’s Leslie Reserve.
I began with a glass of Catarratto by Sicilian producer Fabrizio Vella, which charmed with notes of green apple and lemon curd. My wine of the night, however, was a bit a of curve ball – a 2016 organic Slovenian Barbera by Guerila from the Vipava Valley.
Full of forest fruits, it was both full bodied and fresh, making it dangerously drinkable. Bar manager, Antonio del Monte, comes by way of The Ned and Soho House. A longtime Negroni lover, he’s created a list of twists on the Italian classic.
Who to know: Look out for ebullient sommelier Angie, who has a tattoo of a sharp-fanged wolf on her neck, but couldn’t have been friendlier and more approachable. “Everyone thinks that I must be angry because of my tattoos, but I’m a very happy person,” she told us while pouring a second glass of the bewitching Barbera.
What could be done better: The food arrives when it’s ready, so be prepared for a pile up of dishes that you may have to devour quickly or risk them going cold. A mix up when we ordered meant that our starters and mains arrived at the same time, though the staff were incredibly apologetic and swiftly resolved the situation.
I’d have liked to have seen more experimentation with the desserts, which seemed something of an afterthought compared to the savoury dishes.
Last word: While Loyal Tavern is keen to attract a local crowd of regulars, I feel this approach is selling the place short. With interesting wines, warm staff, reasonable prices and cooking that is as accomplished as it is comforting, Loyal Tavern is a really rather lovely venue that has broad appeal. Cenci wears his skill lightly, but his arrival at the restaurant makes it well worth the pilgrimage to Bermondsey Street.
Loyal Tavern, 171-173 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UW; Tel: +44 (0)20 7260 2560