Dreamy tapas at Salt Yard (thanks Masterchef!)

London Eats, Restaurants
A view of our tapas feast in full swing, courtesy of Baruch.

I’ve unearthed a little gem of a restaurant and couldn’t be more pleased. My fellow chef and good friend Carolina was in town on her way to a cooking job in the Bahamas, and I made her my excuse to try something new and fabulous sounding.  It was an opportunity to splurge a little, yet know that the splurge would have an appreciative audience.  I’ve started keeping a list on my phone for just these circumstances – places I’ve got to try and the Spanish and Italian influenced tapas bar, Salt Yard, was at the top of my list.

Carolina divides delicate Zucchini Flowers
stuffed with Goat’s Cheese and
drizzled with honey.

I first came across this place while watching the latest season of Masterchef.  Since I moved to London people have been telling me I must watch this show and were generally shocked that I hadn’t picked up on it on my own.  My stock response was that it makes me too nervous to watch because as someone who cooks for a living, the competition is far too familiar and I don’t need that kind of stress when at home.  Little did I know that Masterchef bears little resemblance to the TV cooking competitions they show in the US (although I understand they do now have Masterchef US hosted by Gordon Ramsey).  I was basing my response on how I felt watching shows like Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen.  No, no, no!  Let me tell you, this is a proper culinary competition and one that I learned from and was inspired by.  Masterchef encourages its amateur contestants to be the best through proper preparation, mentoring from professional chefs in restaurant kitchens like Salt Yard and The Dorchester, and thoughtful critiques of their food.  There are not contrived competitions like prepare an appetizer using only ingredients you can get out of this vending machine or  take this whole octopus, butcher it and prepare a dish with only these three additional ingredients in 20 minutes.

Salt Yard was the training ground for two of the contestants early in the series.  They would be cooking a Spanish inspired meal for their next cooking test and the chef taught them how to bring the flavors and colors of Spain to their plates.  They were shown how basics like the classic tortilla, took great skill to get just right, and how to bring that kind of perfection to everything they touched in a kitchen. Both contestants cooked the best dishes on the show that week.  I was sold and a note went into my trusty iPhone.

So last week, as I found myself in Masterchef withdrawal – the symptoms included lackluster dinner preparation, mindless eating, slowed pulse while watching the telly, general malaise – I thought what better place to take Carolina (fellow Masterchef junky) than one of the restaurants featured on the program?

Salt Yard is an snug and unimposing spot in Fitzrovia right by Goodge Street tube station.  On this unseasonably warm March evening the entire neighborhood was bustling with a typical Thursday night, thank god there’s only one more work day left, kind of vibe.  We had an early reservation (all I could get with less than a week’s notice), but already the small bar had a good crowd drinking wine and nibbling on tapas. I adore tapas style meals, Spanish or otherwise.  Most meals out I would be happy ordering a variety of starters rather than a main course.  I love little morsels of food and it often seems like the most creative and interesting menu items are in that first course.  I love sharing, discussing the food with my fellow diners, and getting to try many different tastes and ingredients.  A quick glance at the menu had me relishing the many experiments we would soon be trying.

Tartare of Mackerel, Beetroot Puree,
Meyer Lemon and Olive Oil Biscuit

To start with I really wanted to try the Wild Boar Salami from Umbria.  With a few caperberries on the side – delicious.  We tried most of the fish dishes on the menu and while two of the four weren’t to my taste, I could still recognize the skill that had gone into them….and as a good lesson to all of us who cook for others (and the next time a client doesn’t love what I’ve prepared even though I know it was well done and perhaps even delicious), Carolina liked some of what I didn’t and vice versa.  After all, it is all just a matter of taste.

A nice chunk of perfectly cooked Hake was served on a bed of Wild Garlic Gnocchi which were little pillows of piquant perfection, while an occasional Mussel added texture to the dish and the Broad Beans were almost a palate cleanser.    The Crispy Soft Shell Crab had a hint of paprika and coriander in the light batter it was coated in while the Fennel Salad it sat on (very briefly as this was a table favorite) added a nice acidity to counter the rich oiliness of the crab.

Jamon Iberico slices.

The standout meat dish was so simple but like no pork I’ve eaten before.  It was chargrilled Iberico Pressa and Whipped Jamon Iberico Butter.  Basically pork steaks from the same pigs whose legs make the delicious Iberico ham (and the legs I had to slice oh, so thinly up at the shooting lodge).  The meat is cooked rare and melts on your tongue like no other steak I’ve been served.  The meat is on the salty side with undertones of the forest and acorns on which these pigs feed.  Fantastic!  When the Jamon Croquetas with Manchego appeared, my friend Baruch groaned with delight and said they brought to mind the Hebrew word “Nimoach” which roughly translates to “melts in the mouth.”  They absolutely did – the creamy mashed potatoes and Manchego cheese so smooth after breaking through the hot, crunchy exterior.

Desert went by in a blur of chocolate, coffee, ice cream and more chocolate.  Right away I chose the Churros with Chocolate Dipping Sauce.  I’m a sucker for anything remotely like a donut and these long thin fried pastries covered in cinnamon and sugar were the perfect end to quite a perfect meal.  My husband declared his chocolate fondant cake the clear winner of the table’s desert war, and I was glad he was so thrilled with his – more churros for me!

Our desert buffet.

Salt Yard served me tapas like I’ve never had before and I’m envious of the Masterchef contestants who got to go spend the day with its Executive Chef, Ben Tish. He brings bright, exciting flavors to jewel box-like plates of food.  Modern Mediterranean morsels that bring a little sunshine to an often dreary London.  We left behind the warmth of Salt Yard, full and in a good mood that only a very satisfying meal can really give you.   In the spirit of the evening, Flamenco music and perhaps a little Spanish style shuffle around the floor ourselves at a bar down a steep flight of stairs nearby. Perfect.

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