2013 was a big year for Jason Atherton. He was declared the best dressed chef in the UK by GQ (surprising, given when seen on TV he normally looks like a gaunt East Enders underling) and then much more importantly, the Social Eating House was awarded a Michelin star, becoming his second starred restaurant. His restaurant empire (up to 13 at my last count) continues its expansion across London and South East Asia, with Berners Tavern being the most recent addition. It is situated in the swanky Edition hotel a few minutes’ walk from Oxford Street; the dining room has grand pretenses – it is capped with an immensely high ceiling adorned with intricate cornicing and dribbling nouveau riche chandeliers. It is trying very hard to be stylish and it is certainly an apt setting in which to enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail. From a small and generally citrusy selection I chose “Dill or No Dill” (£11.50) which was a refreshing mix of Tanquery gin, smashed cucumber and fresh dill, with a hint of lemon juice and elderflower syrup. Surprisingly, the weedy sourness of the dill worked very well with the fragrant gin and sweet syrup – highly recommended.
The head chef is Phil Carmichael who has served under Atherton for almost ten years, starting as a senior sous chef at Maze London, then going on to work in Prague and Cape Town. His menu has a nice mix of meat and seafood dishes (but only has a token handful of vegetarian options) – the focus is on French bistro food, supplemented by some grand sharing plates, including chateaubriand and whole baby line caught bass. It has received rave reviews from the majority of critics – Zoe Williams in the Telegraph archaically stated that “one struggles to find fault” with the Tavern.
However, it is with a heavy heart that I report that we made a horrendous ordering error…..we chose the appealing sounding “British Fruits of The Sea”, which included dressed crab, langoustines, clams, cockles, whelks and periwinkles, all served over ice for a cool £65. The dish was very grandly served and looked extremely pretty, but unfortunately did not deliver on any level. Everything was very cold and slightly congealed – it seemed like it had been cooked at best first thing in the morning, and worst the day before. The clams were tasteless and contained a lot of sand – I don’t think they had been left to rest in water to tease the worst of the sand out of them – I suspect a lazy commis chef may have plopped them straight into boiling water. The periwinkles were small, black “common” winkles – I attempted to skewer the body out of around 50 of these little buggers but I only succeeded in actually retrieving about 4. The whelks were plentiful but extremely dull – I struggle to believe that they were not cooked from frozen.
The meal was somewhat salvaged by the chunky, sweet langoustines and the creamy/salty dressed crab, but these did not sufficiently wash away the bitter taste from my mouth – it is not acceptable to charge £65 for a dish of such poor quality.
Thankfully, we finished with a remarkable coconut creme brulee with pineapple, coconut and Malibu sorbet (£8.5) – the texture of both the brulee and the sorbet was silky smooth, the alcohol and sweetness perfectly balanced. Our other dessert was possibly my favourite so far of 2014: chocolate rice pudding with orange star anise jelly, white chocolate and orange sorbet (also £8.5) – the quality of the chocolate was excellent, the rice was still firm and the consistency perfect, a real triumph. The desserts were fantastic, and a reminder of the fatal error we had made earlier in the meal.
Verdict: order anything but the fruits of the sea