Tuesday, 18 March 2014
There's a lot of love for Yotam Ottolenghi, for his Middle Eastern/Eastern Mediterranean fusion cooking, his mini chain of upmarket delis, and for his best-selling range of cookery books. In a city plagued by "me too" copycats and bandwagon-jumpers (seriously, can we stop with the dirty diner joints now? Even I'm bored by them) Ottolenghi stands as a rare example of a style and philosophy of food that is both unique and worldly. Healthy-food, rather than healthfood - all freshness and light and with exotic things like freekeh and pickled kohlrabi, not vegetarian but vegetable-focussed, it's genuinely revolutionary - you can see why it's been so popular.
It just never really interested me. I'd see the queues snaking out of the Ottolenghi shops in calculatedly upmarket areas of town like Notting Hill or Belgravia and the first thing I'd think wasn't "that salad looks like an interesting and colourful take on near-Middle Eastern cuisine" but "that is an awful lot to pay for rabbit food". A "small" selection of three salads from the Islington branch, for example, is £11.50, and these may contain nothing more exotic than broccoli, green beans and mixed peppers. I could understand the popularity, I just could not myself get excited about salad.
So perhaps making a reservation at his flagship Soho restaurant Nopi was a mistake in the first place. Having established I wasn't really the target market for this particular brand of vegetable-bothering, I could have cut my losses and gone elsewhere - Danish steakhouse MASH are doing a 50% offer on Toptable, and was just around the corner. But I like nothing better than to be proven wrong, and dinner with a vegetarian seemed the ideal opportunity to put my prejudices to the test. Perhaps I'd discover what all the fuss had been about all along.
Long story short, I didn't. In fact, I left Nopi stung by an astonishingly high bill and not feeling that for the outlay I'd really received much in return. The irritations began with the menu, which is arbitrarily divided into "Nibbles", "Mains", "Starters/Dishes to share" (underneath the mains for some bizarre reason) and "sides", yet with no detailed explanations offered by the staff and no real clues elsewhere, we were left to wonder why, for example "Vegetable crudites" was a "nibble" and not a "side", or why "crushed beetroot, date molasses, dukkah" was a vegetable starter but "lavash, spiced carrot, pomegranate, spring onion" was a "nibble".
We did our best. From "nibbles" we had a bowl of nuts for £4 (fine, I suppose, but four quid?) and a few slices of decent prosciutto dressed with pickled peppers. Around about this time, as well, some bread and oil arrived, and though the flavours were good, the bread was turning stale on one side. Given the prices charged elsewhere, it seems like extreme laziness to not slice fresh bread to order.
Four tiny calçots, rather timidly roasted in comparison to the ash-coated, leek-thick Catalan style I'd had before, came with a thin, bland, vaguely mayonnaisey sauce and cost £9.50. Roasted aubergine weren't much better, being unnervingly fridge-cold, and perhaps it's for the best that we couldn't detect any of the advertised vanilla.
My "main", a whole roast poussin, was not terrible. It looked the part, had plenty of flesh (only parts of the breast being slightly dry), and I liked the Vietnamese idea of serving it with lime and flavoured salt. It just wasn't particularly... memorable. The skin was soggy with some kind of molasses marinade, and there was no escaping the cloying sweetness (even the bones were slightly pink with a clearly lengthy marinading process) other than to coat it with lime and salt. Chilli sauce was pretty dull too.
"Persian love rice", the other main, was (you won't be able to tell from my godawful photos) pretty and colourful, and the pickled kohlrabi had a particularly nice flavour. Providing texture was a little pile of lotus root crisps, and next to it a sharp and refreshing "courgette tzatziki". It was a perfectly nice collection of hardly earth-shatteringly dazzling vegetables, which cost £19. And that's too much, as is £5 for a small plate of freekeh with (undetectable) jalapeños - this was in every way like one of those salads you get in the little plastic boxes at M&S.
After all my moaning, I should probably repeat that despite everything I can see why Ottolenghi has his many fans. For restaurant-quality food that feels like it's doing you good, in admittedly impressive surroundings (the toilets are particularly interesting, like peeing in the Hall of Mirrors at your local amusement park) and served by attractive young staff that, in the main, didn't put a foot wrong, you can probably do worse. But our bill, with a couple of cocktails and a bottle of the cheapest wine, came to £132.19. And yes I know central London rents are higher but I also happen to know that at Peckham Bazaar (currently closed for renovation, but back open in April), a much more impressive range of Eastern Mediterranean dishes are being produced for a fraction of the cost. Yes, it's a bit further out of town and you probably won't have John Hurt sitting on the next table (as we did at Nopi). But your experience in every other respect will be infinitely better. So if you're not a diehard Ottolenghi fan, save your pennies for the bus fare and head out to SE15.