My husband is from London and has been extolling the virtues of Yotam Ottolenghi since pretty much the day we met. Every year we get one of Ottolenghi’s cookbooks for one another as a Christmas gift, and we have favorite go to meals from these cookbooks that have made our regular meal rotation. To put it simply, I adore Ottolenghi’s approach to food. Ottolenghi is an Israeli born, Cordon Bleu trained chef who’s famous for his unusual-to-the-west Mediterranean and Middle Eastern ingredients. He’s also particularly notable for his incredible aesthetic, from the design of his restaurants, to his plating of food. He writes a regular column for The Guardian (from which I wish to make basically EVERYTHING), and has published numerous cookbooks, including two dedicated entirely to vegetable cookery, Plenty, and its sequel, Plenty More. Ottolenghi is not himself a vegetarian, which I actually appreciate. I think his approach to vegetable-as-main courses are heartier and sturdier because of it. I think he is the premier vegetable chef at the moment (though hardly just that). His dishes are poetry on a plate.
This past November, I finally got a chance to visit not just one but two Ottolenghi restaurants in person. I pretty much want to move in to NOPI, except the bathroom rather terrifies me. It’s all mirrored – even in the stalls, and gives one a sense of inertia. Especially when one is a bit (or more than a bit) hungover. Not that I was. Not at all (blushes).
We first went to Ottolenghi, because its the original, and it was our anniversary. Ottolenghi’s restaurants are noted for their clean, elegant, open feel. One can either eat at a long table, which to me is reminiscent of a medieval banquet table, updated, and made elegant, or at a few small intimate tables or a counter. Despite the white tables, counters, and walls, the restaurant has a convivial atmosphere. Perhaps its because when one enters, the windows are bulging with tasty dessert offerings, and one is also greeted by a feast-for-the-eyes cold selection. Ottolenghi’s restaurants and delis feature a selection of daily cold offerings of small plates and salads, and a selection of made to order hot dishes. But don’t let the “cold dishes” fool you – they were my favorite of the night. Check out this eggplant dish: roasted eggplant with lemon yogurt, harissa oil, rose petals, and coriander. Oh. My. God. Ottolenghi does things with eggplant (called aubergine most everywhere else ion the world) that will blow your mind. And since its probably my favorite vegetable, this was already going to be a match made in heaven. A lemon yogurt and rose petal heaven.
That wasn’t all we had though. Ottolenghi serves up small plates, and we also sampled the yellow fin tuna with mixed sesame seeds, and soy, honey, and spring onion ginger sauce. It was stunning – the fish itself practically melted in your mouth, and the brightness of the sauce with the delicate bite of ginger was outstanding. I could eat this fish every day. Seriously – I don’t know how the employees here don’t just stand around eating from these bulging platters of goodness all night. That any paying customers ever get served is surprising. OR, I’m just a greedy, greedy girl.
We rounded out our meal with pan fried sea bass with basil mayonnaise, avocado and tomatillo salsa with olive crumbs, and pumpkin and puy lentil mash with fried shallots, goat’s cheese, and fresh herbs. For a final selection we had the red, golden, and candy striped beetroot with clementine, yuzu yogurt, and spicy macademia nuts. I am a sucker for anything with goat cheese and avocado. Seriously, give me eggplant, avocado, and goat cheese and I could probably live happily with nothing else to eat for a long time. And those beets were so pretty to the eye, and so tasty on the palate. Yuzu yogurt is brilliant. Bright, citrusy, fresh – I want to recreate this at home.
But we didn’t stop here. There was also dessert. At Ottolenghi restaurants you can order dessert a la carte, or select from the colorful, tempting concoctions that sit in the street facing window, beckoning to passersby. We chose a little cake from the window – a financier (pronounced fee-non-see-ay). I had never had a financier before, but they are French in origin, and sort of a cross between a muffin and a cake, and are traditionally made with an almond base of either ground almonds or almond flour. They are not too sweet, but are just sweet enough, though this one was served with a warm vanilla custard. My husband and I shared it, but next time, I’m getting my own. Once your pour that piping hot custard over the fresh berry and almond cake you suddenly have something elevated to out-of-this-world status.
I would also add that as far as price point goes – I think it’s possible to have a very reasonable meal here, or a very extravagant meal here. My husband and I shared a bottle of wine, the dishes mentioned above, including dessert, for about 75 pounds including tip. Let’s pretend like the dollar/pound sterling difference doesn’t exist for a minute (cause insert expletive here, that one hurts), and we’ll compare it to our fish and chips night. Granted, this wasn’t from a “Chippie” or stand, but rather a sit down restaurant, and also included wine, we came out at about 68 pounds. And while I love me some fish and chips, the quality, elegance, and precision of Ottolenghi is not to be compared. Indeed, most of the meals we had out (all of which typically included a bottle of wine, so if you don’t drink, it could be different) ended up somewhere in this price range, but none compared for taste or quality. It’s no surprise, then, that while we sat at the Ottolenghi in Islington and there was a constant, steady stream of people popping in to get a few of the cold items for take out. My husband and I are jealous of their ability to do this. It has to be the best take out EVER.
Which is why I begged, pleaded, and cajoled my husband to let us sample NOPI before we left as well. I didn’t really have to cajole – my husband loves Ottloenghi as much as I do. On our last day we headed out to NOPI, which stands for North Piccadilly, where it is located. NOPI’s head chef is Ramael Sccully, with whom Ottolenghi co-authored NOPI the cookbook. NOPI bears similarities with the original Ottolenghi restaurants, yet also features full main courses one can order. The menu also has a somewhat more Asian inspired feel.
Inside it is a bright, open, airy place, much like Ottolenghi’s original restaurant, except here instead of chalk white contrast you get gleaming brass and copper accents, which give the place both a warm and bright atmosphere. Here though, they offer the more casual, communal dining downstairs, where you get a full view of the kitchen, and slightly more formal dining upstairs. My husband and I actually chose to eat at the bar, even though we had a reservation for a table. The bar was available when we arrived early, and our table was not, and in any case, I enjoyed chatting with our bartender/server.
Here we had another blow-your-mind eggplant dish. But what I am really head over heels for is the Valdeon Cheese Cake with pickled beet roots and thyme honey. I want to go back to London RIGHT NOW and have this again. Its a savory cheesecake, a BLUE CHEESE CHEESECAKE served in its own little hot copper skillet, so it impresses visually as it arrives. But then you taste it. And then you taste it again. And then you try to eat it all before your husband can get more of it. Because this cheesecake, while rich, is perfectly proportioned for sharing. Ahem. The bartender told us it is one of the items that is always in demand on their menu, and has been there since opening. I can so see why.
NOPI also has an interesting cocktail program, and their bloody mary was perfectly curative for the aforementioned hangover. They also have a great selection of nonalcoholic concoctions, or mocktails, which pair perfectly with their menu. After the cheesecake, though, we couldn’t quite face dessert here. But with two cocktails, and several small plates, our meal came to about the same as our dinner at Ottolenghi, so pretty fair I’d say.
In all honesty, I won’t make a trip to London again without a stop at these restaurants. And they serve brunch at some locations a well – so next time I’m in London, that’s where you’ll find me, bloody mary in hand. But a word of caution – these restaurants are popular, so plan to book ahead, or wait. Or you can do as we did and arrive early – we got to Ottolenghi just before 6pm, and got seated at the counter right away. But I won’t count on that happening again. We will definitely book next time.
If you go, do tell me all about it and let me live vicariously through you?