Restaurant review: Berners Tavern is grown-up and gorgeous but won't suit everyone
Saturday 12 October 2013
It's been a while since I did this. The shuffle past sharp-suited doormen into the shock-and-awe lobby. The jostling at the bar alongside cocktail-sipping gobshites. The awkward attempt to interact with waitresses dressed in scanty black mini-dresses. The realisation that I'm the only female in the place wearing trousers, a dodo among flamingos.
All this can only mean one thing: it's Ian Schrager-time! The New York hotelier, of Studio 54 legend, last launched in London round about the time Bridget Jones went into hibernation, and has burst out again just in time for her return. If Helen Fielding was still writing her Independent column, the London Edition hotel is the place Bridget would come for her mojitos. It's huge and glitzy and faaabulous. And it feels entirely at odds with everything else in London right now.
The city's centre of gravity may have shifted east in the 13 years since Schrager opened the Sanderson, but the world's hippest hotelier is staying loyal to the West End. His revamp, with the Marriot group, of the grand old Berners Hotel, a faded Edwardian fossil on the same street as the Sanderson, brings another dash of pure razzle-dazzle to Fitzrovia.
The Edition's lobby is a marvel, its rampart stucco-work, marble pillars and monumental scale conjuring a collision between Grand Central Station and Versailles. And the restaurant is even more of a jaw-dropper – a thrilling still-life of a room, crammed with pictures and lit to a golden glow, like a Photoshopped version of an actual restaurant.
Schrager's operating partner of choice is home-grown, in the form of Jason Atherton, who, after years of service in the Gordon Ramsay infantry, now seems to be expanding faster than the universe. This new venture – his third opening in recent months – may be called Berners Tavern, but it's no more a tavern than the River Café is a café, or Pollen Street Social is a working men's club.
There are other dining-rooms in London as beautiful – the Criterion and the Wolseley come to mind – but this might just go straight in at number one for most stunning venue in town. Rooms that look this good don't normally have to earn their keep by also serving fantastic food, rather like models who never learn how to be interesting. But here, the twist is that the food is as much of a draw as the view.
I visited twice, once for Friday night dinner, once for a mid-week business lunch, and found the food pretty much faultless. The menu, like the pictures on the walls, covers everything; it's a salon hang, crowded with sharing platters and grills, Sunday roasts and dude-foodish sandwiches, elegant seafood dishes and Friday fish and chips.
Atherton's style is always much more refined and adventurous than it sounds, and that attention to detail has survived the scaling-up to a jumbo 140 covers. A starter of 'egg, ham and peas', a variation on a dish served at his Social Eating House, is an instant classic – a deep-fried duck egg served with tiny fries to dip into the yolk, on a bed of smashed, minted peas pimped up with pancetta-like crisps of Cumbrian ham.
Dishes veer eclectically but pleasingly between styles and continents. A painterly-looking ceviche of scallops is galvanised by a strange but seductive greenish substance – jalapeño and lime ice, masquerading as wasabi. Romney Marsh lamb chops and a hunk of sweetly chargrilled hispi cabbage come with silky aubergine purée and apricot-spiked couscous. Perfect, pearly halibut is partnered with a saturnine squid-ink risotto and crisp bites of squid popcorn.
There's fun to be had, too, with refined takes on guilty pleasures. A lunchtime sandwich was so crammed with fried rock shrimp, lettuce and Marie Rose sauce that it required a snake-like hinged jaw to tackle it. And it's hard to resist a warm, cinnamon-dusted doughnut, filled with molten chocolate and served with almond ice-cream.
All this is presented with a certain amount of ceremony – little jugs of sauce, extra chafing dishes and so on. But other elements of the service don't quite match up: at neither meal did I get the sense of a maître d' commanding the room, or glimpse a sommelier, although our dinner was interrupted by a mysterious blonde greeter, who came and hovered for a while, making inexplicable small talk.
Grown-up and gorgeous as the Berners Tavern is, this Schrager-bomb of a restaurant won't suit everyone. But for a statement of the swaggering confidence of London's world-class dining scene, it is, as Bridget would say, v v good indeed.
Berners Tavern, The London Edition Hotel, 10 Berners Street, London W1 (020-7908 7979). Around £75 a head, with wine
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