Berners Tavern

Address: 10 Berners St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 3NP
Bookings: Booking required
Day: Saturday
Meal: Dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 9/10

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 10.45.56Last weekend, I went to Berners Tavern. It is a long-standing fixture of Life at the End of a Fork’s illustrious top-ten restaurants list, notable both for the food it serves and the impressive room in which that serving takes place.

The joyous occasion was my younger brother’s birthday, and so after spending the afternoon hunting around Covent Garden for a suitable gift (he narrowly missed a set of black working socks and blue tie), I headed off to Fitzrovia to meet the family.

Regretfully, my partner in culinary crime was absent from the dinner, marooned outside London because Greater Anglia had closed various train lines for the weekend, presumably because one of their staff had spotted a rogue leaf on one of the tracks and had called in a full bomb squad to remove it. Given her absence, apologies in advance for the dearth of photographs, and the dark, blurry quality of the only one that does exist from the meal.

But back to the restaurant. Berners Tavern couldn’t be less like a tavern if it tried. It is one of the most spectacular dining rooms in London, vast in area, the ceiling high and ornate, and every single inch of the walls smothered in paintings. The paintings may be of variable quality, but their combined effect is dazzling, making the place both very majestic and a little surreal.

I ordered a 2-person slow cooked Herdwick lamb shoulder, which came with potatoes, roasted sprouts, and a sprinkling of bacon, bathed in lamb sauce. I split the dish with my dad. Having eaten lamb the last time I visited Berners Tavern, I was forewarned of its gargantuan size, and so broke the habit of a life-time by not ordering a starter.

This decision was not regretted. The lamb was glorious, so tender as to practically disintegrate at the touch of a fork, wholesome and hearty. We dug into it with genuine joy, even conversation ceasing briefly as reverence for what we were eating took hold. The sprouts and the potatoes were simple, perfect companions.

My siblings and mum ordered steaks and some sort of fish that I was too lamb-fixated to enquire after, but there were certainly no complaints.

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 10.45.56There was one odd distraction. Midway through the meal a woman in a white, wispy dress, her faced blanched white with powder, her eyes sad and lifeless, her arms outstretched, came walking slowly into the dining room from the adjacent hotel lobby. She began to step softly from table to table, running her hand across the backs of people’s chairs, pausing to bat her eyelids mournfully, to sigh heavily. For a moment, I genuinely believed that a raving lunatic was in our midst – perhaps that some wealthy lady staying in the adjoined hotel had just uncovered a husband’s infidelity and been driven to insanity on the spot, and was now venting it on some hapless diners.

But as the staff stood by either smiling or ignoring her, I recalled that it was Halloween weekend, and that this was just one more piece of theatricality from a pretty theatrical restaurant.

If you live in London, Berners Tavern is one of those restaurants you must dine in at least once in your life.

 


Barrafina

Address: 43 Drury Ln, London WC2B 5AJ
Bookings: no bookings allowed
Day: Wednesday
Meal: dinner
Price: ££ (including alcohol)
Rating: 8.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.50.53Barrafina probably serves the best tapas in London. If somewhere north of Spain does it better, then please inform us in the comments section below and we will be eternally indebted to you.

There is a life, an energy and an exuberance to the dishes at Barrafina that you rarely find in a restaurant, and very rarely across such a breadth of the menu, and so consistently, visit after visit.

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Going there for a mid-week dinner, we ordered portobello croquettes, which were piping hot and erupted with flavour at the prod of a fork, the creamy mushroom interior rich and powerful.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.49.34Eruptions were a theme of the night: we ordered a stuffed courgette flower – probably the highlight of the whole dinner – which overflowed with goat’s cheese laced with honey at the slice of my knife. The dish was so delicious we ordered two, to prevent warfare breaking out over how to split a courgette flower exactly in half.

The tapas comes thick and fast at Barrafina, and everybody sits perched up on a bar, facing the hustle and bustle of the kitchen, a whir of waiters and cooks, chopping, frying, pouring and serving, all the with energy that characterises a kitchen staff who know they are part of something special.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.50.20No sooner had we mopped up the last atom of goat’s cheese with a crust of bread, then the next dish was sliding across the bar top towards us. We’d ordered a selection of miniature mushrooms, onions and carrots, soaked in chicken stock, an egg with a stunningly orange yolk heaped across them. This dish was a work of art to behold, but was the only mildly disappointing one we ordered, a slight blandness pervading it.

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We then tucked into the most filling of our plates, two chunks of iberico pork, sliced from Spanish pigs grown fat on acorns, and placed some swede puree and carrots.

Finally, I broke the habit of a lifetime and ordered a savoury dessert, a selection of Spanish cheeses, insisted on by my partner in culinary crime. She wasn’t wrong.

No review would be complete without an element of complaining, and Barrafina cannot get off the hook entirely. It doesn’t take bookings (which is irritating, but forgivable), but then commits the cardinal sin of not letting you leave the restaurant whilst you wait for your table.

In the age of mobile phones, there is nothing easier in the world than taking a number and releasing a diner to enjoy the distractions of Covent Garden whilst they wait for their table.

Screen Shot 2017-08-10 at 20.49.48But Barrafina does not do this. It insists you stuff yourself against a wall and wait in a line for a table to become available, something we did for over an hour on Wednesday night, becoming more and more filled with a visceral fury at a family of four who finished their meal and then proceeded to sit for a further thirty minutes without a morsel of food or drink passing their lips. Instead, they just chatted, and occasionally glanced at their phones, oblivious to the suffering and hunger of forty people who stared at them with simmering rage.

It was only the amazing food we subsequently had that calmed us down. But if anyone from Barrafina reads this, PLEASE reconsider your waiting policy, and you may just find yourselves on the receiving-end of a complaint-free review.


Comptoir Gascon

Address: 63 Charterhouse St, Clerkenwell, London, EC1M 6Hj
Bookings: no booking needed
Day: Tuesday
Meal: dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

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There aren’t many things in life more miserable than a wet Tuesday weeknight. But then again, there aren’t many remedies for misery better than a trip to an excellent French restaurant that serves large glasses of inexpensive wine and enormous, tender duck breasts as if they were going out of fashion.

Well aware of this, we braved the rain (actually we huddled in an Uber) and shot off to Comptoir Gascon, the little brother of neighbouring Michelin-starred restaurant Club Gascon. Overlooking London’s oldest market, Smithfield, where meat has been bought and sold for over 800 years (and, for our Scottish readership, also the place where William Wallace was hung, drawn and quartered), Comptoir Gascon serves up cuisine from the Southwest of France.

Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 20.15.25I lost no time in ordering the aptly named ‘piggy treats.’ Served on a wooden platter, it is a lesson in the utility of pigs, serving one up in almost every way imaginable: a fried pig’s ear, black pudding, pork pate, a dried sausage, Bayonne ham, a confit sausage. Never have I felt more gratitude to a four-legged creature.

My partner in culinary crime ordered a sea bream ceviche, which was delightfully fresh and sharp to the taste, and followed this up with a succulent steak, a little cluster of garlic perched on top of it.

I ordered the duck burger, which was as decadent as it sounds, arriving with a rich slab of foie gras draped across the bird’s back like a tribute.Screen Shot 2017-06-28 at 20.23.31

The restaurant itself is small and dimly lit, rustic in feel, drowsy French music interrupted only by the occasional shriek of merriment from the kitchen staff downstairs, which was unorthodox, but not off-putting.

The only drawback to the meal was a side-dish of sautéed greens, which had a nauseating after-taste and smelt like it had been doused in a particularly pungent bubble bath.

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Well-cleansed vegetables aside, I recommend this restaurant whole-heartedly. It is actually better than its Michelin-starred sibling, both in food and atmosphere, and is cheaper to boot. So, next time the rain is falling and weekend is oh so far away, hop in a taxi and make your way down to Smithfield Market, and discover all the wonderful things that can be done with a pig.