Opera Tavern occupies a former pub in Covent Garden, an area of London where you are more likely to encounter tourist joints than the kind of restaurant to which you ever would return. Hail the Opera Tavern.
There are exceptions. Rules is ideal for classic British food and L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon serves superb French dishes to diners with fat wallets. Clos Maggiore takes care of Provence and Tuscany and the Ivy coddles celebrities. Actually, the Ivy is good and you no longer need wait months for a table.
Opera Tavern, which specializes in Spanish and Italian-influenced tapas, is more than just a welcome addition to Covent Garden. It’s among the handful of best new London restaurants of the past year or so, using great produce and skillful preparation to produce delicious food, with a touch of theatricality in the service that makes a meal there fun.
I can’t say I was bowled over the first time I walked in. I’m a big fan of Barrafina -- Sam and Eddie Hart’s tapas bar in Soho -- and didn’t expect too much from this upstart, particularly when I saw that the chefs work in a corner and there’s nothing to gaze at when you sit at the bar.
(By the way, it’s worth watching out for “Barrafina, a Spanish Cookbook,” to be published on July 7 by Fig Tree.)
Things look up at Opera Tavern when you see the menu, which is as tempting as a shiny apple in the Garden of Eden. Hopes leap after you order a bottle of Txakoli di Getaria, Ameztoi 2009. It’s a fizzy Basque wine that’s poured from a great height, splashes into the glass (or nearby, at least) and is best described as easy drinking because it’s escapist fun, as undemanding as reality show “The Only Way Is Essex.”
The menu starts with snacks such as crispy Iberico pig ears and Venetian-style sardines before moving on to wonderful skewers of meat: Moorish Iberico pork; Gressingham duck with figs; and salt-marsh lamb and kidney with smoked paprika. They cost 2.50 pounds ($4) to 3.50 pounds each, and are so moist and rich you may care to order several.
I’d happily take two of each, but then I also would want a minimum of two mini-Iberico pork and foie gras burgers. These are of such magnificence, sharing is almost impossible. One guest I took along said she’d try a bite of mine. Friendships have foundered on less. I bought her one and she understood.
Word is out among London chefs about the fine food. One time when I arrived, Claude Bosi, who holds two Michelin stars at Hibiscus, and Anthony Demetre, with one each for Arbutus and Wild Honey, were sitting at the counter. My guest that time was Pierre Koffmann, who once held three stars at La Tante Claire. The three of them were almost silenced by their enjoyment of the cooking, though I did get a few words out of Koffmann later.
“I didn’t expect anything, to be honest,” he said. “In England, tapas can be a gimmick. But it was fantastic. I liked everything. The mini-burger was brilliant, and the chorizo with piquillo pepper was fantastic because the peppers were very sweet, with the chorizo a bit spicy. All those pinchos, the little skewers, were fantastic, too.
“All the food was properly seasoned. You can eat a tomato salad -- if the seasoning isn’t good you can’t enjoy it. I say to my chefs, ‘The difference between good food and bad is only a pinch of salt.’ I go to Spain once or twice a year. In the north, they’ve got fantastic food. But when you go to a place like Opera Tavern, you don’t need to go to Barcelona for tapas.”
All credit to executive chef Ben Tish and to James Thickett who heads the kitchen, helped by sous-chef Ben Mulock. This new establishment, a sister to Dehesa and Salt Yard, is a triumph. I particularly enjoy the growing number of places such as Bocca di Lupo, Spuntino and Barrafina, where you can sit and eat at the bar. It’s a counter-revolution.
Opera Tavern, 23 Catherine Street, London, WC2B 5JS. Information: +44-20-7836-3680 or http://www.operatavern.co.uk/
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? 50 pounds a head, including wine.
Sound level? Not quiet: about 75 decibels and up.
Inside tip? The best seats are at the bar.
Special feature? Basque wine.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Ideal.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)