On the site of a former London pub, there's a new restaurant that serves heritage-breed meat (butchered in-house) and sustainable fish carefully purchased from trusted farmers and fishers, with interesting wine and cocktails, in a charming, friendly environment.
That could describe a dozen modern British restaurants, couldn't it? But on our recent trip Jackie and I visited only one: Newman Street Tavern, which is a noteworthy member of that cohort, for its food, its approach and its comfortable setting. The ground floor of the corner building a couple of blocks from Goodge Street Underground station is arranged as a bar, but don't let that evoke an image of noisy crowds and soccer games -- er, football matches -- on a giant television. There's pleasant music and lots of floor space between the ample tables: it is a place I'd happily spend time of an afternoon drinking well and perhaps eating some plump, briny oysters from the raw bar or a pork pie. On a cold Saturday night in February, it was a warm, welcoming room to enter after a frigid 35-minute walk.
The upstairs dining room is cozier and almost as informal, with painted wainscoting below dense arrangements of (mostly) food-related pictures in simple frames. We were a group of five at a round table, and three of us got to sit on a great curving banquette. We ordered unexpected wine from a list with enough unusual entries to keep things interesting. Food was mostly very good, and some things were terrific. (Among the terrific things -- really memorable -- was the homemade bread, baked in a pan like supermarket white, but with a yieldingly crunchy crust and with flavor you rarely find in pan breads. The butter was homemade too and had an appealing mild tartness to it.)
One standout among the mostly fine first courses was a brandade of salt cod that was simultaneously richer in taste and lighter in texture than most. It was served warm and with its top browned, in a little bowl that, like most of the varied crockery, was potter-made for the restaurant and pleasing to view -- and to handle. Other stars were those wonderful oysters and an intense but not cloyingly rich crab bisque.
The presence on British menus of faggots - pork and pork-offal meatballs wrapped in caul fat - ebbs and flows. At the moment, the tide seems to be in: we saw them on at least three menus during our ten days in the UK. The ones at Newman Street Tavern were powerfully seasoned, appropriately offally and well sauced
Consistent with chef-partner Peter Weeden's practice of buying meat as entire carcasses, the menu has main course entries such as "Middle White pig;" the cuts of the day are announced when you sit down at the table. This really does remind the diner that there's more to, say, pork than -- say -- chops and belly. The night we were there, my roast kid plate included a number of little nuggets (was that a finger's-breadth length of tiny tenderloin?), including rolled boneless belly, liver and kidneys. The latter two were perfectly, pinkly cooked and tasted of the organs they were but their flavor softened by the youth of the animal -- and by its nature, because in general the flavor of young goat (to many people's surprise) is milder than that of lamb. The breast tasted good too (seasoning and broth-based parsley sauce were perfect), but it was unnecessarily chewy in texture.
For me, texture raised an eyebrow also with the roast Galloway beef. The cut of the day was silverside (a muscle from what in the U.S. we call the round). It was cannily cooked -- flavorful and tender -- and was served with a sweet, sharp beet-horseradish accompaniment and a good sauce, but its texture recalled that of braised meat -- not a bad thing in itself, but a mild disappointment when you have the words "roast beef" in your mind.
There were, however, no raised eyebrows on the dessert front, unless they were raised in amazed pleasure. We had crisp, buttery almond tart with light, refreshing almond ice cream; an impeccable sticky toffee pudding that I couldn't resist ordering on such a cold night; and -- at the other end of the richness/comfort scale -- a pretty and true-tasting blood orange and Campari granita. Then, there was "set Ayrshire cream" with rhubarb, which was panna cotta, but with better cream than you'll ever find in Italy -- and nearly unsweetened, so what you tasted was that cream tinged with vanilla.
Despite some (well-intentioned) lapses, this is a restaurant that should be on your list when you visit London; it's in an area that is slightly off the tourist track but still very central and easy to get to on foot. But be sure to reserve a table well in advance -- and don't forget to order a side of sautéed potatoes with garlic.
Newman Street Tavern http://www.newmanstreettavern.co.uk. 48 Newman Street, London W1T 1QQ; +44 (0) 3667 1445. Open every day for lunch and dinner, except Sunday dinnertime. Bar open all day. Dinner for two, about £100 ($150).