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November 22, 2013updated 29 Jan 2016 1:27pm

Sitwell scoffs at the Opera Tavern in Soho and the River Café on Rainville Road

By William Sitwell

Ben Tish climbed up through the deep well of cheffydom with the constant helping hand of Jason Atherton. At the bottom of the well was the sludgy, cold and wet puddle of Skegness. Out of the well and he found himself in Soho. He joined Salt Yard and was soon made a partner.

He’s now helping to grow a little empire that includes tapas bar Dehesa off Carnaby Street, Catherine Street’s Opera Tavern (pictured above) and will soon see the opening of Ember Yard on Berwick Street (set to be something of a culinary haven with Alan Yau’s new gaff in the old Endurance pub and Russell Norman’s new Polpetto with Florence Knight at the helm).

I went to the Opera Tavern for lunch. And out they came: lots of gutsy little sharing dishes which enabled you to plunder the menu and stuff your face with Italian/Spanish charcuterie and tapas. Which is quite a long expression, perhaps we should call it Spatalianerie.

But it all worked well, served by charming staff we ate oozing and nicely seasoned Scotch eggs and a deliciously deeply rich, gooey, melting plate of five-year old Iberico ham. The same pig – or his cousin – donated his flesh to a beautiful marriage of oink and quack in the form of a mini pork and foie gras burger.

It wasn’t too rich either. Which meant there was space for some meatballs with beans and my favourite dish of the lunch: winter veg. This was a divine plate of broccoli and squash brought together with a luxurious dressing described as ‘truffled gorgonzola’. Go there just for thisplate, it was an utterly original and a brilliant – if slightly evil – way of eating broccoli which itself was spot on al dente.

This is the sort of food that we probably have Russell Norman to thank: inclusive, welcoming, served by people excited to be part of the deal.

Dinner at River Café

It made my dinner at the River Café (pictured below) all the more disappointing. The company was utterly brilliant, the room crowded and lively. But the food was nothing to write home about. A plate of Pizzette – a mini pizza – came with melted Taleggio, thyme and ham – there were potatoes in it too somewhere.

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But it was bland. No hint of the legendary strong aroma of Taleggio and too much of it’s mild reputation. At £18 it was a testing dish. When Russell Norman dishes out mini pizzas in Polpo there are strong, naughty, beautiful things. This was a poor relation.

river cafe

I also had a plate of pasta whose sauce was made of grouse and other game. I could taste the grouse, the pasta was good but it paled in comparison with the utterly sublime version that Jason Atherton serves at his brilliant Berners Tavern.

The River Café is a wonderful place, a treasured and important part of our culinary scene but it’s in danger of being left behind by the boys now waking waves further east and specifically off Oxford Street. Specifically on Berners Street.

And being my NBR (new bestest restaurant), I nipped to the Berners tavern for breakfast the morning after. Where, as I reported here, I recently had an incredible dinner.

Brekkie is good too. And unlike Colbert (see last week’s review), they totally get the breakfast mission.

The manager took my coffee order as he presented a bill to the next table. None of the, I’ll be with you when I’ve dealt with this table thank you very much Sir, crap.

He took my order with almost a knowing wink so as not to disrespect the customers he was dealing with.

It was a subtle but very effective move. It made you feel wanted, understood. It made me like this place – this utterly amazing dining room – even more. And the coffee came fast, as did the apple juice, the eggs and bacon. This is one hell of a zippy, nifty, sexy breakfast place.

Next week I’m in Ethiopia, trekking through the Simian mountains for a brilliant charity called Camara that raised money to put used computers in schools across Africa.

I’ll report back the week after. I was interviewed at The Ethiopian Embassy (bang next door to where the Iranian siege took place in 1980 – I wondered in which room the police drilled holes to listen to the armed men next door) by a man who told me that I would enjoy the food of his country as well as the endemic red fox before giving me my passport back with visa intact. Can’t wait.

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