Over volcanic hills, swinging round vomit-inducing hairpin bends in the gravel tracks, we drove. Across the timeless, verdant countryside we whipped our car, through countryside which had bubbled up thousands of years ago and stayed the same - until we found the ivy-embraced, craggy little farm which was threatening to crumble into the landscape. Behind the building, little puffs of white sheep scuttled in the distance. A bucolic idyll.
Then I opened the car door and stepped out.
The air was noisome, salty, and thickly perfumed with urine, stale sheep’s wool and rain-dampened hay. Milena waddled out of the house. She came closest to the embodiment of a Horacian hag I’ve ever witnessed. She beckoned us over to the farmhouse and to cross the threshold protected from the weather with a muddy flaxen rag. Her rugged face remained humourless. As we moved closer, the intoxicating stench intensified to migraine-inducing levels.
Blinded by the darkness and the stink, it took a while to adjust until. Eventually we could make out shelves upon shelves supporting waxy rounds in various shades of yellow. Milena waddled closer to us, now bearing a heaving barrel splashing out sheep’s milk. It was fresh from that morning – she woke up every day at 6 to milk the ewes. The curds in the barrel were similar in appearance to something a baby might have regurgitated. She scooped them up and dolloped them into curved wicker moulds, her hands gnarled, stubby and deeply mottled with purple knotted veins. In their curved, rib-like shape they had adapted to her craft. She pressed the curds into white, curdled mulch that wobbled in the moulds. After much squeezing and puffing she tipped the substance out of one of the moulds to produce a quivering and uncertain, nude, white, ricotta peak. The other, a pecorino-to-be – our future round of pecorino - she set aside to coagulate.
We returned a couple of weeks later to pick up our pecorino, for which Milena extorted a princely sum (and only then did a smile play at her lips). She instructed us to let it ripen for 4-6 months until it had reached its requisite level of maturity. And so it rested in our kitchen, weeping oil and dispersing its urinous, hay-like scent: a little, coagulating piece of Tuscany. It eventually reached vintage state, rock solid, and flavour fortified to the max. (It was tasted and eaten by me with a sense of obligation rather than pleasure. It turns out I prefer the pasteurised shop-bought version after all.)
Tenuous as it may seem, when I left Berner’s Tavern a couple of weeks ago, I found my opinions to be rather similar in state to the freshly born pecorino cheese – swirling and raw and mildly uncertain. So instead of writing about it immediately, I let my thoughts settle and ripen over time until I had something more definite and salacious to carve up to be consumed by the reader. My experience left me pulled in multiple directions.
Since we could only get a very late booking for the restaurant, my dining companions and I had booked a table in the Punch Room bar beforehand, located, like Berner’s Tavern, within The Edition Hotel. We called to warn the bar that we would be about 20 minutes late, only to be notified, upon arrival, by an unsmiling blonde that our table had been given away. This was vaguely reasonable, except that they were incapable of providing a concrete time for when we might get a table. An hour later we were led into a bizarrely half-empty bar. The timing would not have been an issue had a similar situation not occurred at dinner - this time, their fault. Hypocrisy was in full swing: we made sure to arrive on the dot for our booking at the restaurant. Alas, the table was not ready – so, like many restaurants who wish to exploit their customers by sending them to the bar, Berner’s Tavern followed suit. We ordered drinks expecting the table wait to be brief. Alas, it was not. We waited 45 minutes – an appalling amount of time. There was no compensation. And no apology. The unrepentant manageress seemed to think that the honour of bestowing a “booth” table upon us would mollify us. Funnily enough, it didn’t – in stark contrast with the paradigm set by Le Caprice where truffles were brought to our blissfully unaware table at the collapsing of a soufflé in the kitchen. At Berner’s Tavern, however, customer care does not appear to exist. The charm and grandeur of the painting lined, high-ceilinged cavern is simply not enough.
In terms of food (when we eventually got round to it), Berner’s Tavern lacks the precision and care of Atherton’s other venture, Little Social (read review here). My beetroot- smoked salmon was good, but lacked thought: pretty, thinly sliced, delicately smoked salmon with the crunch of macadamia and radish. However, much needed acidity was overlooked, and the promised lemon purée failed to make an appearance. One dining companion was satisfied with his prawn cocktail and the other’s Moroccan lamb was warm and delicately spiced.
Berner’s Tavern prides itself on its grandeur, celebrity restaurant status, and accomplished chef/restaurateur at its helm. Thus its pedestalled position makes it open to scrutiny. Call me a pedant, but pluralising the already pluralised Italian pasta, ‘orecchiette’ to ‘orecchiettes’, is poor.
The dish itself wasn‘t bad and the ingredients created a pleasant umami flavour. However, it needed something extra to tie it together, and it also arrived inexcusably lukewarm. My friends were satisfied with their dishes, though – the macaroni and cheese with braised ox-cheek and bone marrow and brioche crumble was a particular success.
Unfortunately, the tardiness of the meal and poor customer service meant that dessert was not sampled. The manager did come over at the end to apologise, dealt us his card, and promised it would not happen again. He offered us an unwanted drink on the house, but it was too little, too late.
Suitable for: business meetings, celebrations, friends, family, smart dates
Customer Service: 2/10