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db Eats: Berners Tavern

Brooklyn born Ian Schrager, the man behind New York nightclub Studio 54 and hip hotels The Sanderson and St Martins Lane, is back on Londoners’ lips with the London Edition on Berners Street in Fitzrovia, which opened amid much fanfare last September.

The hotel gives good buzz. Walking through its double doors is a voyeuristic thrill – there’s a real sense of seeing and being seen, particularly at multi Michelin-starred chef Jason Atherton’s Berners Tavern. Housed in a former ballroom, the restaurant is characterised by its Belle Epoque ceiling, chestnut mohair banquettes, ornate bronze chandeliers inspired by the ones hanging in Grand Central Station and floor to ceiling amber-backlit bar.

Jazzing up the walls is a collection of quirky artworks piled on top of each other in golden frames conjuring a snapshot of how the Royal Academy looked in the early 1800s during its annual exhibition. Housed within the frames is a range of images running the gamut from lemons and lion heads to books, busts and even a mustachioed man and his dog.

Visiting one Friday in late January, I was sat in a prime people watching position and able to observe the lunchtime service unfold like a TV drama, the scene populated by flitting waiters carrying grand silver trays, gazelle-like waitresses  armed with leather-bound wine lists and ladies who lunch preened to within an inch of their lives.

Much of Berners Tavern’s beauty lies in the sheer thrill you get from watching the world go by for an hour or two through a rose-tinted lens. All London life is here and everyone seems excited to be alive.

Fresh from Michelin star success at his Soho spot, Social Eating House, Berners Tavern is the indefatigable Atherton’s fourth London restaurant. With a fifth in the pipeline at Gary Rhodes’ former Tower 42 in the City and numerous projects on the hob in Asia – taking his tally of restaurants to 13 – one wonders whether Atherton is in danger of spreading himself thinner than carpaccio, but the expansion plan seems to be working thus far.

Just this week it was announced that Atherton will be backing one of his chefs, Lee Westcott, to open his first solo restaurant on the site of Nuno Mendez’ Michelin-starred Viajante at the Town Hall hotel in Bethnal Green when the Portuguese chef starts work as executive chef at Andé Balazs’ Chiltern Firehouse hotel in Marylebone later this month.

To his credit, Atherton visits each of his four London restaurants every day to check that things are ticking along smoothly. Keeping Pollen Street Social as his cooking base, Atherton has entrusted Berners Tavern to Welshman Phil Carmichael, who he’s worked with since the launch of Maze over a decade ago. A self-styled classicist, Carmichael has kept the menu simple with brasserie staples that shine a light on British seasonal ingredients.

Egg, Ham and Peas

The majority of Carmichael’s ingredients are sourced from within the UK, with all the fish caught in Cornwall save for the oysters, which hail from London-based Wright Brothers.

Inspired by Chris Corbin and Jeremy King’s hugely successful all-day restaurant The Wolseley in Piccadilly, Berners Tavern, which boasts its own street entrance, is open daily from 7am until midnight, and manager Matthew Mawtus has ambitions to see every seat filled at all times of the day.

Able to house 140 covers at a time, the menu fits neatly onto one page, and, in keeping with the capital’s insatiable appetite for meat, offers a selection of grass-fed British steaks served with duck fat chips. Showing his playful side, lunch began on a high note with what has fast become BT’s signature dish: ‘Egg, Ham and Peas’, formed of a deep fried Clarence Court duck egg, mushy peas and wisps of crispy Cumbrian ham encircling the egg like flames.

With feather-light batter and a brilliantly gooey yolk, the egg was spot on and brought to life by the slivers of salty ham and minty peas beneath in an inspired combination of flavours and textures. Having seen many a snap of the dish, I’d decided upon the Orkney scallop ceviche with avocado, radish, baby gem, jalapeño and lime ice before sitting down.

Orkney scallop ceviche

Possibly the prettiest looking dish I’ve ever eaten, the ghostly traces of pink-rimmed radish resting languorously atop the silky scallops, it felt sacrilegious hacking into such a masterpiece but rewarded with a lip-smacking assault on the senses, the ice-cold lime sorbet in the centre superbly invigorating but in no way overpowering the subtlety of the jalapeño-scented scallops.

Keen not to miss out on the duck fat triple cooked chips, chunky and golden with a hot, fluffy interior, they give Heston Blumenthal’s effort at Dinner serious competition.

Wine at Berners Tavern is a serious affair, with Basque-born head sommelier Jonathan Fillion keen to double his 400-bin offering in order to incorporate every Bordeaux estate in the 1855 classification from first growth to fifth. While the average customer would never know it, almost all of the wines on the list are biodynamic or organic and from small, family-owned estates.

House fizz – Ruinart Brut NV – is fairly priced at £12 a glass, while bottles range from £21 for the house white, to £1,850 for Domaine de la Romanée-Conti Le Montrachet. Wherever possible, Fillion tries to educate diners by offering an unusual alternative to commonly ordered wines styles, with an Entre-Deux-Mers as the Sauvignon Blanc choice, and a Languedoc Chardonnay in place of a white Burgundy, which is proving the best by the glass seller on the list.

Caramel and calvados eclair

On my visit, Fillion charmed me into trying a waxy white Rhône from the 2009 vintage: André Perret Marsanne, Vin de Pays des Collines Rhodaniennes. Made form 65-year-old vines, the golden drop was rich, weighty and seriously delicious.

Craving something sweet, the lure of homemade salted caramel ice cream proved too strong to resist – the supporting act to a gold leaf-flecked caramel and calvados éclair so exquisitely presented, it looked like it had just hopped off the Eurostar from Paris.

Its beauty slightly surpassed what it offered on the flavour front, and I was hoping for a harder salted caramel hit than my scoop delivered, but this is just splitting hairs. There is very little not to like about Berners Tavern. It specialises in that hardest to bottle of experiences – atmosphere, though the thrilling ambiance takes nothing away from the skill coming out of the kitchen.

The dishes have Atherton’s stamp all over them and are some of the most lovingly crafted and beautifully composed creations you’ll find in the capital. While he may have a lot on his plate, Atherton clearly has his eye on the ball.

Berners Tavern at The London Edition Hotel, 10 Berners Street, London W1T 3LF; Tel: +44 (0)20 7908 7979

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