Tom Cenci may have come down a few storeys since leaving Duck & Waffle, but the food at his new venue is putting guests on cloud nine. James Stagg reports
Having spent six years at the high-intensity, 24-hour operation that is Duck & Waffle at the top of London's Heron Tower, rather than coming down to earth with a bump, Tom Cenci has landed on his feet at Loyal Tavern.
Now commanding a brigade of six rather than 50, he's able to get hands-on again and put his imprint on every aspect of the former Village East site on London's Bermondsey Street. Taking some time to recharge after Duck & Waffle, a chance encounter with Adam White – who owns the Rail House Café, Riding House Café and former Village East site – opened the door to taking on the project of rebranding and relaunching Village East with a blank canvas.
"It was actually tricky to come at it from a standing start, but we decided to cook good, solid comfort food and it grew from there," Cenci explains.
Given Cenci's background, having learned his trade under Herbert Berger at One Lombard Street before spells at Nobel Rot in Mayfair and its sister restaurant Graze, prior to joining Duck & Waffle, the food was never going to be without flair, even if the chef has designed the menu to be "simple, pure and honest".
"It's a tavern and we want people just to come in and enjoy it. They can just have a drink at the bar, a five-course meal or a late-night toastie – the choices are there," Cenci says.
The menu itself is split into snacks, starters, mains and desserts, though diners are encouraged to mix and match as they please. Snacks include a selection of grilled flatbreads, the pick being ‘Nduja, Gruyère, sour cream and chive (£4), as well as a delicately spiced lamb skewer (pictured top), (£3), inspired by Cenci's time working for Harvey Nichols in Istanbul. It's served with an almond aïoli that provides some welcome sweetness and nuttiness to cool down the lamb.
From the starters the dish attracting most attention is the venison tartare (above) (£12.50), which is served decorated with sprout tops filled with miso mayonnaise. The chopped venison is dressed with beef fat mixed with rapeseed oil to add to the depth of the dish, which is in turn enhanced by the miso mayonnaise.
"It's something that's very simple but very seasonal with sprouts and game," Cenci says.
Meanwhile, another simple yet appealing starter is charred mackerel, apple and pine nuts, served on a salt block (£6). Dressed with lime juice, olive oil and parsley, the freshness of the mackerel is enhanced by the salt block, which serves both as a talking point at the table and subtle seasoning for the fish.
From the mains, Cenci's bestseller is the beer-can chicken with fennel, apple, kale and pickled walnut salad (£17.50). "We originally put it on as a special, but it sold out every night, so it's now on the main menu," he explains. The chicken is first brined in beer that would otherwise be wasted when the lines are cleaned, before being roasted. "The brine helps to break down the protein and season it," Cenci says. "And then the can helps to keep it moist. We even pour some beer from the can into the tray so that the chicken steams in it, too."
Another crowdpleaser is slow-cooked pig cheeks, fresh black pudding, buttered mash and peppercorn sauce (£17.50). Here the pig cheeks, cooked off with stock and wine, are served with buttery mash and some show-stoppingly fresh black pudding. "It's from Fruit Pig Butchery [in East Anglia]," Cenci explains. "It's amazing. So fresh you have about a week to use it in. Other black puddings can be dry, but this is incredibly soft."
With desserts Cenci (above) sticks to classic pairings, though is pragmatic about the preparation of the likes of hot brownie and vanilla ice-cream (£6) or coal-roasted pineapple with salted caramel ice-cream (£5).
"We have a small team and we basically don't have a pastry chef, so we're looking to keep things simple," he says. "Desserts can be a hard sell – in most restaurants the amount they sell compared to other dishes is very small. What you don't want is to pay a pastry chef a lot of money and the desserts aren't selling, so we keep things simple and honest."
Cenci is certainly honest enough to admit relishing being back behind the stove. "Duck & Waffle was much more dish development and consistency checking," he says. "Here I'm more hands-on. You miss that when you are managing. It's nice to be behind the stove again and cooking. It brings me a lot of joy."
From the menu
- Roast beetroot, tamarind, dates, orange, toasted seeds £5
- Blackened cauliflower, sesame yogurt, chilli, green sauce £7
- Kid goat and pork belly meatball, pickled cranberries, pomegranate £6.50
- Gurnard, crab bisque, carrot, orange, seaweed £16
- Buttermilk-poached cod, ‘Nduja, white bean stew £16.50
- Baked celeriac, mushroom broth, confit yolk, Parmesan, truffled breadcrumbs £13.50
- Tavern Mac burger, American cheese, fry sauce, chips £14.50
- Banana bread, mascarpone frosting, pistachios, coffee, toasted buckwheat £6
171-173 Bermondsey Street, London SE1 3UW
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