Opera Tavern was built in 1879 by the then celebrated public house architect George Treacher. Those were the days when there was a traditional pub with tiled facade and etched glass windows on almost every street corner. This more ornate example was considered the most striking of his 1870s buildings.
Catherine Street, under that or other names, has been a thoroughfare since the 1600s. Its proximity to theatres meant that drinking dens thrived along with establishments for all the other colourful pastimes that go with an area famed for giving a good time. But certainly the quality of the Opera Tavern indicates that by the Victorian era, it was a neighbourhood that, if not exactly gentrified, was probably somewhere you could take your auntie without fear, for an evening of thespian entertainment.
Simon and Sanja Mullins began working on the Opera Tavern project in May 2010, when they were offered the site. They felt that there was a gap in the market for their food, a style that has been so well received at their other two establishments, Dehesa and Salt Yard, presenting tapas dining at its finest.
The ground-level bar area features a Robata grill. In Japanese, robata means “by the fireside,” and refers to the ancient country-style cooking of northern Japanese fishermen. Charcoal grilling serves very well at Opera Tavern, delivering not only added flavour to the food but theatre to its expectant audience. It’s where fresh Iberico pork is grilled to medium rare, as one would good-quality beef steak, rendering it tender and tasty.
The first-floor dining room offers seating for around 40. Its windows look out onto The Theatre Royal, which fronts Catherine Street (earlier named Bridges or Brydges Street) and backs onto Drury Lane. The building standing today is the most recent of four theatres on the site dating back to 1663, making it the oldest London theatre.
The décor in this dining room has an understated flamboyance quite in keeping with its theatreland location. Chandelier and polished plaster walls reflect light from sconces. The room is small enough to feel intimate and sufficiently casual to mirror the makeup of food and clientele. Classic and contemporary elements here.
We ordered Padrón Pepper and Crispy Ibérico Pigs Ears to nibble while we pondered the menu. The squat little fried peppers are ubiquitous on tapas bills of fare these days but that’s no bad thing. They are popular and authentic and moreish. All mild ones in our dish but there is often that capsicum cuckoo in the nest. The one that packs a searing punch.
The pig’s ears were addictive. Not two whole ears flopping over the edge of a plate, these were delicate slivers of, well, porcine lug which were crunchy and just the thing served alongside a chilled sherry or sparkling prosecco.
Plenty of choice for a group of friends of dithering taste. Wayne is a vegetarian, Felicity will eat fish and vegetables, Attila is a carnivore and Julian is just a picky eater. Something for everyone on the Opera Tavern menu – order a couple of plates per person and allow Julian to try a little of this and that. From the ground-floor grill comes some fine cooked meats. Hams, charcuterie, cheese, fish, and vegetables are listed here in tapas-sized portions.
The Mini Ibérico Pork and Foie Gras Burger has become a signature dish just a couple of weeks after opening. That was our first choice. It’s succulent and full of flavour, very different from your chain patty. A connoisseur burger if ever there was one. It’s small but very rich.
Salt Marsh Lamb Leg and Kidney with Smoked Paprika was my guest’s choice. This skewer was served on its own miniature wooden chopping-board. Glossy and tempting with plenty of caramelised grilled flavour. Not overly strong in the offal department and that can only be a blessing.
Hams feature highly at Opera Tavern. Consider the Jamón de Teruel, Soincar, Aragon, D.O.P with perhaps some Capacollo with fennel, and then some cheese such as the soft and oozing Torta de Barros made with ewes milk in Extremadura. This was served with crisp flatbread and some onion chutney – a cheese with real character. But if you want a selection then try the Three Manchegos with Quince. This is a fruit which looks like a fuzzy apple and is rock-hard in its uncooked state. It’s used extensively in Spain for making Membrillo, or quince jelly.
Braised and Chargrilled Octopus with Smoked Potatoes and Piperade tempted me. And it did not disappoint. All those cephalopods are notoriously difficult to cook. Or should I say that the cooking is easy but one needs to know for how long to cook. The version here was as soft in texture as flaky white fish.
Braised Short Rib of Beef with Polenta, Cavolo Nero and Sage is a must-try for all those who crave beefy beef. This cut of meat needs long slow cooking to produce a tender round that could be eaten with a spoon. The polenta was a good foil for the robust meat.
Salad of Pickled Salsify, Chestnuts and Roosevelt Potatoes with Winter Truffle Dressing was a light dish to pick at, alongside the short rib. The mound of creamy white vegetable had a tangy edge from the dressing that cut through the rich beef flavour.
Courgette Flowers Filled with Goats’ Cheese and Drizzled with Honey is well worth trying. Once again it’s the contrast between sweet vegetable and salty cheese filling that works so well. Yes, it’s a classic preparation but I only eat it when visiting tapas bars. Life is too short to stuff a flower.
Slow Cooked Quince with Biscotti, Mascarpone and Moscatel with a glass of Moscato Rosa was my guest’s dessert, I being too full to contemplate another mouthful. He pronounced this to be a delightful end to the meal. The slices of fruit were poached but retained a good firmness with perfumed apple flavour. The wine had fresh floral notes with hints of cherry and red fruits.
This is indeed high-end tapas. The first-floor dining room presents the more formal face of tapas whilst the ground floor will attract those who would prefer a fast bite. Great location and, no surprise, a thoughtful and charming restaurant from the Simon Mullins stable. It’s not the cheapest tapas in town but you get what you pay for in quality of food and ambiance. I’ll return to graze my way through the menu.
23 Catherine Street, London WC2B 5JS
Phone: 020 7836 3680
Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018