Oh dear, Dear Reader, this place has annoyed me to the point I need catharsis.....I feel like I did when Conran's restaurant margins were exposed - politely violated.
Grand room, "work of art" (GQ ragazine), pretty people, "an utterly glamorous experience" (Time Out) blah blah blah....
At 37, I feel too old for the nominally down-to-earth Berners "Tavern." It's not a work of art - ha ha ha. Sure the cornicing and decorative plasterwork on the ceiling is pretty, but who knows what the detail is like, it's so far away. (Also, pop over to the City where re-purposed banking halls are ten a penny). As for the 'art' on the walls, which fills every square inch, it's oppressive and forgettable. The flattering lighting makes it hard to appreciate the 'art' - and - bonus - harder for a prospective date to see how ugly I am! But the most important point to note about the interior design is.....sigh....not a soft furnishing in sight, so the din on a fairly busy Thursday night made it impossible to talk to one's companion across a 2-seater table without raising one's voice to the point of coughing. High ceilings with no dampeners simply amplify everything. Is up-tempo music required for a place to be trendy? Or just so that we digest quickly enough to meet the infamous "2hr" table time-limit?
Now don't get me started on 2hr time limits. Are we all so desperate to eat in trendy places that we simply put up with this one-sided limit to pleasure? It's not as if the risk is shared between diner and establishment - if 'they' want to they can kick you off the table, quoting the oft-mentioned policy, after two hours; but can we contract to pay more and stay? Or even leave without spending a penny? (Note the sharp £50/head, <24hrs cancellation policy for tables of 4 or more). BTW, on bladders, the 2 x pissoirs, and 2 x traps leads - in this busy place - to the rare sighting of a queue......for the gents! Nice soap though.
Anyways, on no fewer than 4 times did the uncoordinated multiple waiting staff to our table remind me of the time limit while I was waiting for my companion, and while we were reading the menu. Once is enough. Spread the word.....amongst your fellow waiters. Team.
So much for the atmosphere. Sorry, did you hear that, "I SAID, SO MUCH FOR....." etc
On to the food, and a menu which must at some point have been waved through by Midas Atherton. It's dull. There's nothing on it you haven't seen before. Zsuzhed-up (Is that how Lawrence L-B spells it?) classics but, they're easy to cook, stingy, and overpriced - a triple fail.
Twenty quid for the crab starter! Read that again. Now note that one layer of white crab meat bits is presented on top of a shredded lettuce, apple and coriander salad which fills out the crab shell; there's a dollop of brown meat mayo on top (because you gotta get some flavour from somewhere lol). But I'd guess that one little colchester crab could make two (mebs 3?) of these stingy starters with plenty of brown meat left over, and they're a fiver retail. So just think about that gross margin for a second, 90-95%? Moreover, it was absolutely nothing special - completely forgettable as neither perceptibly super-fresh, nor particularly interestingly spiced etc.
Fortunately my lamb main course was 'only' £5 more at £25. The "rump" was perfectly med-rare, but again....stingy. I'm not a butcher, but I think this tender, lean piece of meat has other names, and often one gets the whole piece. But this seemed to be a 'half' - presented with the cut/med-rare centre open for viewing.....but without the piece previously cut-off! (I think I spotted my platonic 'other half' being served at the next table). So it's about 2-3 cubic inches.....under-seasoned (bland), with a bit of sinew (grade A??), and the non-crisped layer of external fat left on. GCSE cooking. Fortunately the slow cooked neck meat was tasty - though to be honest, hard to mess up given enough time. This second piece was about the size of a half-smoked robusto. One leaf of cavolo nero linked the two pieces of protein, and a slick of slightly odd minty, apple-y (?) sauce added....er....washed out colour. By far the star of this dish was the accompanying barley and root risotto - tasty and good texture. So, value? No. As bad as the crab? No.
Oh, this is probably the moment to mention the bread'n'butter - so often the initial star of a meal since King&Corbin started producing those warm french flour batons with salty butter at their places. Well, the Berners' offering was lacklustre - average, slightly tired crust sourdough with....shock.....unsalted butter I think. Next!
I was still hungry by dessert time, and fancied filling cheese. But the risk of melon-ball sized portions of British Classics with "a modern twist" (Esquire Ragazine) for £12 was too great; so I chose the "apple caramel eclair, calvados cream, salted caramel ice cream." Not much to say really. Ronseal. There was quite a bit of cream filling, perhaps a bit too light and whipped, and it could have done with a more calvados for my tastebuds. The ice cream was definitely salty - tarts' umami favourite circa 2005. (BTW - I'm sure your fed up of the myriad inferioir variations on Artisan de Chocolat's early-mover liquid salted caramels, and genetic freaks such as salted caramel 'spread,' but do try the Somerset Cider Brandy Company's apple LSCs. The choc is ok - and probably should be better for Willies Cacao - but apple works). Now back to the tale.
We wanted a glass of white and a bottle of red. I chose the familiar Martin Codax Albarino (a short-tenner in Majestic), which was about a tenner for a glass - the familiar restaurant de-risking price point. But actually I suspect the wholesale price is probably £6-7/bt so really it's an 80-90% margin which - though I'm not a drinks industry expert - seems on the higher side to me. For the red we chose Minervois La Liviniere - mostly because the La Liviniere Commune's imprimateur pretty much ensures quality, and is unusual. The bottle was £58 (plus the optional 'service' don't forget) - so not too crazy for a list which, on skimming seemed to offer only about half a dozen wines below £40ish, and with a modal average around £60-70? Only problem.....the 'vielles vignes' version from the same producer is on offer in Waitrose at £8.24/ bt (normally a tenner), so the margin is morbidly easy to work out.
Incidentally, I apologise for all this boring talk of margins. Eating out is an experience and who's to judge what it's worth to you compared with me? Make your own mind up about the non-food stuff if you find too much dissonance between my version and everyone else's Emperor's new clothes, but the points I make about 'value' are pretty-much objective. I will say there are plenty of staff, so maybe the net margin is less egregious?
Can't remember whether the service was 'optional' but by the time the £225 bill arrived (coffees £4, side new pots £4), I couldn't be a5sed to say anything until.....the waiter went tip-fishing by pointing out that he had done stuff to take the pressure off our 2hr table-turn time. Phew! Obviously charity, and nothing to do with weak demand from high-paying pretty people. But the delivery was gauche, and the effect like reminding one about a Sword of Damocles which I had already forgotten.
On leaving, I made the mistake of being honest with the innocent reception person who had casually asked how the meal was. Uh oh. Sorry JJ, I never listen - why can't I get it into my brain that no-one cares? You had a good time didn't you? Amongst all these pretty non-working people. Who don't know the price of a pint of milk.
Can you tell I'm a huge fan of Schrager?
So what's the conclusion? It's a "tavern" man! Look, see, no tablecloths! Yet, to paraphrase Vic Reeves, the food is presented in the chic style (frou frou small portions), the music is clubby, and the pricing high. Is this a terribly clever way of mashing "expensive" with "casual"? Or just another margin pi55-take? Decide for yourself! (Though I'd recommend you skip).
Oh, and the answer is 45p so you can s0d off!
And now in a new feature for this reviewer:
Good for: loud-voiced, pretty, 1%-ers, with no interest in honesty or value, but with damaged egos needing to be seen in last year's hottest opening.
Not good for: anyone who understands value, likes to hold a conversation at a normal volume, and wants to see what Mr Atherton is capable of (surely it's more than this).