Central London

Published on May 5th, 2017 | by Ben Southwood

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The National Café, Covent Garden

I have to say I really didn’t expect a restaurant in a famous tourist location to be good. Especially not really good. I mean, why try? People are still going to go to the National Gallery, especially tourists, and they’re still going to need somewhere to eat. This laziness is what sustains awful restaurants like the Aberdeen Angus Steakhouses, as well as mediocre restaurants like Caffè Concerto: people just want somewhere to sit down and have dinner, they aren’t going to review dozens of blogs and websites and work out the best possible spot when the main event is whatever it is they’re visiting.

But, bucking this trend completely is the National Café, which sits on the right of the National Gallery, looking from Trafalgar Square, at the very beginnings of Charing Cross Road opposite St. Martin-in-the-Fields. This is probably because it’s run by Peyton and Byrne, Great British Menu judge Oliver Peyton’s storied company, recently rescued from bankruptcy. Their finances may not always have worked, but on the strength of what I ate, they serve ambitious food.

Take a glance, for example, at the picture that tops this piece. That is not beef. It is not even lamb. It is not venison or game of any sort. It’s pork! It’s Iberico pork, and yes, Iberico pork is usually or always served that pink, but it is not usually served that pink in a restaurant bolted on to a tourist attraction as an easy all-day eatery. It’s not usually served there at all. This version was a snack, with a red pepper sauce and on an extremely garlicky flatbread. Tender and meaty.

And none of the food I ate there rested on laurels of any sort. Devonshire crab ravioli with cockles, shrimp butter and asparagus was actually a single raviolo, a chewy-tender parcel filled with generous fluffy moist crab meat and covered with savoury fishiness of all kinds. It was delightful.

Again, I really didn’t expect that my first taste of 14 year old Galician milk cow beef would be in the National Café. I thought I might have to venture to Lurra or some other specialist Basque or Galician spot to have this hard-to-source specialty. I thought I might have to pay out of my ear. I didn’t pay for this one either—I was invited—but at £22 it was the same as I’ve paid for a gastropub ribeye many times.

It was deeply coloured, and, despite its extreme age (for a cow), extremely tender, though perhaps less funky and even cheesy than I’ve been told to expect. It came with a sort of pesto, some dried out red onions, cherry tomatoes, and some crunchy fresh salad. All of that tasted as you might expect.

Even the dessert, which looked like a fairly straightforward down-the-line offering, was interesting and impressive. They were called salted caramel doughnuts with cinnamon and toffee sauce, but I thought the toffee had a slight palm sugar or condensed milk edge to it—all to the good. They were fluffy and thought they seemed light, they were heavy and had a slight firmness.

National Café way outdid my expectations for what a bolt-on restaurant, surely aimed at tourists, could be.

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