“We like to think of ourselves as the haute couture of the food-to-go world.” Bold words. Dangerous words. A choice of words that in the wrong hands could be turned against you. Uttered by Pret they’d be risible; by Otarian cause for litigation. They appear on the ‘philosophy’ section of Yotam Ottolenghi’s website, and having just eaten at his new venture NOPI – and met the man himself – I can vouch for them as entirely justified.
When I mentioned Ottolenghi to a colleague he asked if he was a comedian, so perhaps you’d be justified in wondering who he is. A former philosophy student turned chef, cafe owner and columnist for the Guardian’s Weekend supplement (pennies dropping left, right and centre) he’s steadily built up a cult following across London for his fresh, locally sourced, stringently self-produced pan-Mediterranean food. While many restaurant “ethos / our story” sections provoke hilarity, his is honest and inspiring. He cares deeply about what he does, he obsessively tweaks everything he serves, he treats every dish like a first born child. A welcome counterweight to the Jamie Oliver way.
More than all that though, I just love his style. Who else designs hall-of-mirrors toilets like this, two streets down from Bob Bob Ricard and almost as surreal?
NOPI is a postmodern palace of marble and brass, a bustling deli of delights. Dishes range from £9 to £12 and they recommend ordering three each (as do I). Introductory bread and celeriac mash (served from a sumptuous display by the entrance) will line the stomach but you need several platefuls to leave sated. The only problem is which to choose. Seven meat, eight fish and eight veg plates make 23 choices and our combined buying might only covered half of that. So we randomly pointed at things and sat back for the show to begin.
Starting with beef brisket croquets and Asian slaw was a bad move. They were probably the finest thing we had all night: tender and juicy wet inside while crumbly and crunchy without, little pucks of joy we had some serious fork fencing over. I’d barely impaled half of one with a bushel of slaw on top when someone knocked it all off in their haste for another scoop.
This seemingly innocuous plateful removed all pretense of decorum from the four of us with one fell swoop and from then on it was each glutton for himself. Slow cooked pig cheek with celeriac and barberry salad was hoovered in an instant while ossobuco with sage and parmesan polenta barely touched the table. The latter was all gloopy grey chunks of meat in sauce as opposed to one big piece – quite different from Polpetto or Platform but equally as inspiring.
Seared scallops with pickled daikon and green apple were lightly burnished brown and had obviously danced in the wok for a few minutes only while braised carrots with mung beans and smoked labneh were probably the best veggie offering. Although what I managed to claim of the raw brussel sprouts with oyster mushrooms and quail eggs came a very close second. Ottolenghi favours what he terms “noisy” ingredients like lemon, garlic, chilli and pomegranate and the latter were deployed to exposive effect in a craggy meatball dish.
Plates came at sporadic times, partly due to an intentionally releaxed service, partly probably the dumb waiter queues (the kitchen is downstairs) and potentially because the place has only been open a month. Our cheesy choices (baked blu di pecora cheesecake with wild mushrooms, and burrata with blood arange and coriander seeds) came last. Whether this was intentional and supposed to constitute a cheese course, I don’t know. The cheesecake was a touch dry but otherwise phenomenal while the very much on trend burrata put L’Anima’s version to shame.
Sweets meant vanilla ricotta with blackcurrants and rhubarb, sultana financier with brandy cream and cardamon rice pudding with rose syrup and pistachio. We were several litres of Montalcino worse for wear by this point (having overstayed our two hour slot by two hours) but vague memories of these were very fond.
NOPI aint too cheap, that’s for damn sure. Only a fortunate few will be able to treat it like a drop in deli. For the rest of us though, it’s an interesting new addition to Soho’s sultry streets to indulge in as frequently as possible.
Price Per Head: Just about £31.75 if you don’t touch booze
Clientele: Soho media types and well-heeled foodies
Yotam’s recipes on guardian.co.uk
The NOPI website includes an enlightening Tumblr that recounts the restaurant’s operational goings on.
Lovely shots as ever from London Eater
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VOTE FOR £31.75 in the OFM awards, if you fancy…