Thursday, 23 January 2014

Berners Tavern: Veni, Vidi, Vici?

Empires are funny things to us iPad-owning, European Union, One Direction, generation. Which, funnily enough, all represent an empire of sorts. Empire in traditional command & conquer, "do you have a flag?" meaning; is so remote to us that the brutality and suffering they perpetuated seems almost fiction. Empires are spoken of with some nostalgic pride in the UK, a great force now spent and rendered to the annals of history. While eschewing evidence that immigrants bring added value to us, while also conveniently forgetting we asked a lot of them to come in the first place, we are content to think that we were merely benevolent dictators. We bestowed upon them a parliament, democracy, cricket, medicines, road and railways. We even gave* them our religion (*ahem).

France and Germany talk far less about their 18th and 19th century jaunts across the globe: possibly because they were less successful (bazinga), or maybe its because they aren't tiny island nations with chips on their shoulders. Either way, Englishmen have always been bold explorers: Shackleton, Scott, Mallory all attest to our  inner adventurer spirt (albeit not very sucessful). Jason Atherton's adventurous culinary rise has been far more steady and meticulous than those of the explorers: but also more successful. I remember watching his first foray into the Great British Menu as the chef at Ramsay's Maze. Now he runs ten successful restaurants worldwide. His first in London, Pollen Street Social deserved its Michelin star with its take on modern British fine dining. Nods to scrappy cuts of beef, clever kitchen tricks and super slick service, this model has been rolled out again and again, adjusting the variables given each new restaurant's price point.

He isn't happy stopping there with Berners Tavern, his latest opening in September 2013. It is soon to be eclipsed by a new destination restaurant City Social in 2014, as well as running the hotel restaurant in the former Bow Street Magistrate’s Court building in Covent Garden in 2015. Berners continues the theme of his previous incarnations while adding a touch of flair, just as the next Doctor Who wears a different coat. Is this necessarily a bad thing? If you ate at all four of the London locations back to back you may get fatigue from the punchy reductions and emphasis placed sharing dishes. You may even get bored of the mood lighting and darkened woods. But to be honest, there are fewer taxing things in life to suffer through. The food always delivers, the atmosphere is somehow always just right and the price usually matches.

Crispy lamb breast
Butternut and pecorino fregula with marrow crumble

Berners itself is gloriously designed. Like a stately home of a rich art-mad European Count you can't help but feel rather special in such the large ornate room. The chandeliers are an homage to those in NYC's Grand Central station. You can spend an age studying the paintings of Johannes Vermeer paintings and Donald Judd as you are swept along by some classic jazz. The bar looks especially inviting and a stunning place to duck into with a date on a cold January. The food, typically Atherton, was rich and never lacking on flavour. A crisp puck of shredded lamb (above), unfortunately looking a bit like a bean burger, was wonderfully moist with heavy earthy flavours while the butternut and pecorino fregula was an addictive counterpart. For £8 it was a bargain, especially compared to a rather ordinary duck egg and mushy peas for £8.50.
Duck egg, ham, peas

For mains we opted for the sharing platter, one of three that flips the idea of sharing smaller mains at Pollen Street. A whole ox cheek, slices of pressed tongue, roasted marrow bones and chunky carrots all served up with lashings of super smooth horseradish mash and jus. The tongue was the star: crispy on the outside while still being big on flavour, topped with a punchy caper and herb topping. The second helping of marrow was slippery and creamy, the essence of a cow. The cheek was slightly more disappointing with a slightly overly jelly-like consistency. The cooking temperature was likely a little low for me. A little higher and the strands would have tightened and become more substantial in the mouth. For £40 for two it was possibly the best value item on the menu. Others was the whole lamb shoulder platter, enough for three, for £55; the bavette, a cheap option at £18; and the ragu at £16.50. Our only regret was not getting to try to braised lamb neck with spiced aubergine and couscous. 

A whole ox to share

Desserts were less accomplished. Personally I'm not a fan of alcohol in dessert and most of the options had some. I plumped for the cinnamon doughnut with chocolate ganache and almond ice cream for a reasonable £7. The presentation of the dish however flummoxed me. How was I supposed to eat it? Eat one and then the other? Add the ice cream and eat with a fork and spoon - which would have been hard given the grease paper. I ended up taking alternative mouthfuls of each. I apologised to my guest, it wasn't pretty. Overall the doughnut was simply okay while the ice cream was rather foul. It was like eating marzipan. It was really the only disappointment of the night.

I mean, how do you eat it?

Where: The London Edition Hotel, 10 Berners St, W1T 3LF. Closest tube: Tottenham Court Road (Northern & Central line) or Oxford Circus (Central, Victoria, Bakerloo)

How much: Dinner for two with a cocktail but no wine, £100.

Food: 8/10
Service: 9/10
Value: 8/10

Berners Tavern on Urbanspoon Square Meal

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