From grotty old-school pub to exciting tapas bar is a pretty big leap, but it's a move that the operators of Salt Yard and Dehesa took with their latest venture, Opera Tavern in London's Covent Garden.
From the outside it doesn't look particularly different - cleaner and a new lick of paint - but inside it's a real surprise. The old bar is the focus of the ground floor but now set for bar-side dining, while an open grill adds extra theatre for the 35 seats. Upstairs, there's space for a further 40. The atmosphere is shabby chic with interiors featuring red walls, artwork and a wine wall shielding the waiter's station.
As with its sister restaurants, Opera Tavern's focus is on Spanish and Italian produce served in tapas style. The aim, says director Simon Mullins, was to evolve their concept with the addition of their first charcoal grill. "We've revamped our charcuterie and found new smaller producers with great products like a pistachio salami from Sardinia and a truffle pecorino from Tuscany," he says.
Although the menu's broken down into charcoal grill, charcuterie, cheese, fish, meat and vegetables, it's the Ibérico pork that's the star. It dominates the menu - as snacks in crispy pigs ears (£3) and pig's head terrine (£4), as charcuterie (£4 each) in chorizo and hand-carved ham (£7 to £13.30), as mini burgers (£5.50) mixed with foie gras and as hot presa (shoulder) with capers, shallots and lemon (£8). Mullins says: "We had Ibérico tartare on the menu recently, it sold out within minutes."
So what makes their Ibérico so special? The group's head chef Ben Tish hand-picks the fattest hams which are then hung for five years, as opposed to the usual two to three, to intensify the flavour. The presa, served medium rare, has the texture of lamb or beef with a hint of boar and melts in the mouth like the most tender beef fillet. The burger - their best seller and also served medium rare - is made from the neck fillet ground daily and mixed with foie gras to add extra richness and moisture.
Tish originally made the smoked potatoes that accompany the braised and chargrilled octopus (£7.40) with smoked milk but is now using Sosa's smoking powder to create the same effect. "We're not really into foams but we are moving with the times and if good products like this crop up then it's good to use. It's got an intense smoky flavour and really helps with consistency," he says.
The hand-dived queen scallops (£4.25 each) are sourced from Cornwall, accompanied by a simple roasted butternut squash purée, and shallot and truffle dressing. "The shallots and Moscatel vinaigrette cut through the sweetness of the squash and scallops, while the migas - breadcrumbs - are there to give a bit of crunch," says Tish.
There's a great deal of effort in this menu, from the sourcing of the ingredients to the food pairings. It's augmented by the enthusiasm of front of house. Having endured a two week pre-opening "boot-camp", the staff are chatty, knowledgeable and full of passion for what they're doing.
SAMPLE DISHES FROM THE MENU
Bar snacks Crispy Ibérico pig's ears £3
Padron peppers £4.25
Italian-style Scotch egg £3.50
Charcoal grill Mini Ibérico pork and foie gras burger £5.50
Pinchos morunos (per skewer) £2.95
Fish Grilled scallop with butternut squash purée, shallot and truffle dressing and migas 4.25
Cornish mackerel escabeche with roast beets, caramelised hazelnuts and parsley cress £5.75
Meat Braisted short rib of beef with polenta, cavolo nero and sage 7.25
Grilled Ibérico presa with capers, shallots and lemon £8
Vegetables Gorgonzola and date croquettes £4.50
Fried young artichokes with poached free-range egg and smoked garlic and shallot vinaigrette £6.50
Gratin of gnocchi, taleggio, trompettes and migas £5.75
Desserts Bitter chocolate fondant with salted pistachio caramel and milk ice-cream £5.50
Walnut and date tart with honey ice-cream £5.35
Slow-cooked quince with biscotti, marcarpone and Moscatel £5.35
23 Catherine Street, Covent Garden, London WC2B 5JS
Tel: 020 7836 3680www.operatavern.co.uk