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London Dining: First Looks At Two "Taverns": Merchants And Berners

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I wonder when the practice of naming elegant urban restaurants "taverns" started. Maybe in 1994 in New York, with Danny Meyer's Gramercy Tavern, though it probably pre-dates that. Whatever its history, the "tavern" shingle is hanging outside quite a few London restaurants at the moment, and it certainly evokes generosity and good times -- and there is nothing in the rule book that prevents a tavern from serving high-class food, as I discovered on a recent trip, where we ate at Merchants Tavern and at Berners Tavern, both brand new and both very good -- though with a serious caveat for Berners, about which I am able to write only a brief note. That caveat aside, both should be high on any traveler's where-to-eat-great-food list.

* * *

Our first visit to Merchants Tavern was during its soft opening (when it commendably charged half price) and our next was on only Day Two of full operation. But even if the wood stove in the bar room hadn't yet been fired up, the place was running pretty smoothly and I feel no need to cut either the kitchen or the dining room much slack.

The restaurant is led by head chef Neil Borthwick (with his sterling three-Michelin-star résumé); the well-established chef Angela Hartnett; and the men who founded and operate the Canteen group of restaurants, Patrick Clayton-Malone and Dominic Lake (note that I am friends with many of those who collaborated on the project). It is in a spacious Victorian commercial building in Shoreditch. I was about to write "out east in Shoreditch," but this neighborhood is in high ferment and seems far more central than it did half a decade ago. And perceptions aside, it took Jackie and me only about 45 minutes to walk there from near Trafalgar Square - get Google maps to recommend a route and stroll some London streets you've probably never been on.

When you arrive, to a friendly welcome, you'll enter a spacious bar with a very good chief bartender who nearly managed to cure my cold with his whisky-ginger concoction, or so it seemed at the time. Beyond this is a two-section partially skylit restaurant with lots of comfy banquettes and an open kitchen (it's ever-gratifying to sit back and watch other people working, isn't it?). Colors, textures and lighting create a sense of warmth that is indeed somehow tavernesque.

The food in the dining room (there's also an appealing bar menu) is of striking elegance and precision, reflecting Mr. Borthwick's rigorous training; it is also full of flavor, which reflects his good taste. "Pickled mackerel," to give one good example from among the first courses, wasn't what I thought it might be. It had not been brined beyond recognition: the job of the minimal cure was to enhance the innate flavor and texture of the fish. Little beets and tender greens were lightly and beautifully glazed; there was a drizzle of subtle orange-scented emulsion; and a spear of cooked Belgian endive retained a mild bitterness that complemented the other elements.

Another fish dish -- this one a main course -- was heartier but no less refined: Brill roasted on the bone (which helped keep it moist -- brill is tricky that way) was appetizingly gilded and served on a bed of tender, subtly rosemary-scented beans. Every few bites I came upon a special treat: a cube of bread that had been crisped, then softened in a gentle vinaigrette, almost as in an Italian panzanella.

Boneless pork butt, known in the UK as neck fillet (for two to share), was roasted, rested, then thickly sliced and given a touch of the grill to lightly char the surfaces; it was "sauced" by a sauté of moist chanterelle mushrooms and by a whole skilletful of creamy cauliflower-and-cheese gratin that itself could make a cook's reputation. It was accompanied by what the menu called forgotten carrots, which I thought would mean heirloom varieties but which actually meant "forgotten in the oven": they were long-roasted, dark, wizened, cracklingly glazed and intense in flavor.

There's more to tell - like the crushed pumpkin with a scallop starter, which highlighted the ingredient's fibrousness, creaminess and fruitiness, and like the heather-honey tart topped with Scotch whisky ice cream (Mr. Borthwick is a Scot). But that had better wait for further acquaintance with this excellent restaurant.

* * *

The night we went to Berners Tavern, in Ian Schrager's new and hopping London Edition hotel not far from Oxford Street, Jackie and I found it hard to put up with the loud, puerile music and the noise of diners shouting to be heard over it. Or with the cold greeting, verging on rudeness, from the woman at the podium and from her colleague who settled us into our comfortable and spacious banquette (yes, more banquettes -- I love this trend). The noise and the initial lack of humankindness constitute my caveat, but if you thrive on these plagues -- as many diners evidently do -- the rest of the news is very good.

The restaurant is beautiful: a vast, lofty dining room paneled in painted wood completely paved in framed art and surmounted with a ceiling of fancy plasterwork inherited from the previous tenant (also a hotel dining room). And, once we got past the icy "greeters," the service by those who actually brought our water, food and wine was exemplary: warm, interested, enthusiastic about working in this hot new restaurant.

The din and the chilly greeting had blunted our appetite to a nub. So we ordered simply and minimally - with some regret, because the wide-ranging and interesting menu of the enterprising chef, Jason Atherton, is full of temptations of all kinds. If we'd felt hungry and patient, we might have had braised leeks with crab salad then shared a whole slow-cooked ox tongue and cheek, for example.

But there is also a little selection of enticing sandwiches, so I had a bacon-cheeseburger with caramelized onions and Jackie a fried-rock-shrimp roll with a spicy mayonnaise-based Marie Rose sauce and lettuce. Both were terrific. The hamburger was well seared and crusty, with a juicy pink interior, and its aged-beef flavor was strikingly meaty. The garnishes were not add-on decorations; they were part of the composition of the dish. Likewise, the shrimp roll was a coherent whole, with contrasts of texture and flavor, though I might have wished Mr. Atherton had chosen a tastier variety of shrimp or prawn. The french fries that came with both sandwiches were crisp perfection, with just the right amount of chew.

Our glasses of good, interesting wine came quickly; so did our food. We left the restaurant in a far better state than we'd arrived -- though we did scoot quickly by the dour gatekeeper on the way out so we could end on a happy note.

Merchants Tavern. 36 Charlotte Road, London EC2A 3PG; +44 (0)20 7060 5335; http://www.merchantstavern.co.uk/; booking@merchantstavern.co.uk. Open lunch and dinner Tuesday to Saturday; lunch only on Sunday. Typical dinner for two, including wine, £115 ($185).

Berners Tavern. London Edition hotel, 10 Berners Street, London W1T 3NP; +44 (0)20 7908 7979; http://www.bernerstavern.com/; bernerstavern@editionhotels.com. Open daily for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Typical dinner for two, including wine, £125 ($200).

Two Taverns In London: Merchants And Berners
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