The imposing battleship-grey building on Catherine Street offers two dining areas, a buzzy informal ground floor bar and a more restrained first floor dining room. We were seated in the latter, and although very attractive - high-ceilinged, with a fabulous chandelier and some striking art - it felt a little awkward to be eating an essentially casual cuisine in such smart surroundings.
Opera Tavern's website describes their offering as 'Italian and Spanish-influenced tapas' - the latter part of that description surely something of a truism - and this translates into a menu split roughly 50/50 into traditional Iberian specialities and more modern small dishes using fashionable ingredients. It's an attractive proposition, offering plenty to appeal to the casual diner as well as excite the more adventurous eater.
We ordered a variety of dishes covering most sections of the menu but skipping hams, charcuterie and cheese, arguing that these tend to demonstrate only the expertise of the buyer rather than the prowess of the kitchen. For the most part the food was excellent, although to save myself from future repetition let me say now that portions were on the Lilliputian side especially given the comparatively Brobdingnagian pricing.
This skewing of the price-portion size ratio was evident from the first (literal) mouthful; pinchos morunos - little skewers akin to yakitori - of Gressingham duck with fig, and octopus and chorizo with green tomatoes, cucumber and pomegranate, were absolutely delicious but too small to share and at £3.25 each, not cheap enough to justify ordering more. Mini burgers (Opera Tavern seemingly the only restaurant in London to not have adopted the dread term 'slider' for these) of Iberico pork and foie gras, the richness of the moist meat patty offset by some smoky, crisp-fried onions and nicely charred buns, were similarly mouth-watering but so, for just under six quid each, they should be.
A pair of fish dishes impressed. Roast salmon with Datterini tomatoes, sweet shallots, ricotta and samphire suffered slightly from the shallots almost, but fortunately not quite, overpowering the sweet delicacy of the rest. Steamed sea bream with confit salsify, sea aster, capers and smoked anchovy dressing however was perfectly balanced, the fish beautifully moist from steaming and complemented by the unusual accompaniments.
Service had up to this point been typified by some fairly long waits between dishes but alas now went badly awry. With three dishes yet to come, after a few minutes' waiting we were instead presented with dessert menus, our waiter having not put through the rest of our order. This was hastily corrected, but with curtain up in twenty minutes we had to race through our last few plates - an extra shame given that one of them, chargrilled sirloin with bone marrow, Iberico pork fat chips, new season's garlic and thyme aioli, was the best of the meal, let down only by the somewhat anaemic chips; the patatas fritas in a side dish were much better although the bravas sauce with them was timid. Free-range chicken, also chargrilled, with chorizo, baby spinach and sautéed potatoes was pleasant and, unusually, substantial.
Overall, putting aside the service failure (for which only the most hurried and perfunctory of apologies was made) it was a good meal, but the issue of cost can not be ignored. With a bottle of luscious, aromatic Alquézar 2010 - at £20 one of the cheapest bottles on a steeply-priced all-Spanish and Italian list - our bill for really not very much food and 12.5% service came to £92, which rather made my eyes water. At these prices, I couldn't in good conscience recommend Opera Tavern when there is an increasing number of as-good-if-not-better and cheaper alternatives springing up all across town quicker than you can say "I'll have the croquetas and a glass of Amontillado please."
I can however recommend Butley, which with the delicious Dominic West in the title role nourished us more in two hours than had the hurried and pricy meal at its neighbour. It's on until 27 August - catch it if you can.
My gorgeous pal and dinner date Will Davies is climbing Pico Aneto, the highest peak in the Pyrenees, to raise money for the wonderful charity Kids Company. If you'd care to sponsor him, I'll love you for life. Visit his Virgin Money Giving Page for info.
Opera Tavern, 23 Catherine Street, London WC2B 5JS Tel: 020 7836 3680 http://www.operatavern.co.uk