If you’re an enthusiastic home cook who’s just as likely to devour a new cookbook as a NY Times bestselling novel, then you’ve probably heard of Ottolenghi through his popular books: Plenty, and the recent Jerusalem, or maybe even because of his restaurant, Nopi, and various delis around London.
With roots in Middle Eastern kitchens, and as a successful restaurateur in London, Yotam Ottolenghi, has a knack for teaching those of us who aren’t familiar with exotic herbs and spices to combine them with simple ingredients to create stunning, tasty dishes. On a recent trip to London, I made a long awaited pilgrimage to eat at Nopi in Soho, London.
It was New Year’s Eve, so rather than being able to choose from the regular menu, we were offered a (rather pricey) set menu, but that didn’t deter us. Our party of six comprised three different generations of my family, including perhaps the most discerning diner among us, Monkey. We arrived for an early dinner, fresh from seeing a West End show: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Tucked away in a small road behind Regent Street, Nopi has an unimposing façade, it’s location marked by a golden O. Inside, the place glowed gold: big urns held festively colored chrysanthemums, on a large table were huge platters of cold vegetable appetizers, the napkin rings too were golden Os and the two-level space is rich with warm, cream and rust colored marble. The overall feeling is one of soothing opulence.
We were shown downstairs to one of the communal tables, which was close to the kitchen and rather surprisingly set alongside storages shelves laden with huge bins of vegetables and rows of supplies like rice wine, olive oil and a giant bucket of my favorite, Malden salt.
It being New Year’s Eve and all, we decided to treat ourselves to a bottle of prosecco. When it arrived, we were surprised to see our server break out a cork screw at which point he informed us that this was a specially fermented wine, and we should expect it to be cloudy. As you know, I’m a fan of fermented anything so I was dying to try it. It took a couple of sips for us to get our taste buds wrapped around it – yeasty and only mildly fizzy, it wasn’t what we were expecting – but we were quickly hooked and I hope I can find it back home in the Bay Area.
The menu featured 18 small plates divided into Veg, Fish and Meat. We were each allowed to pick three dishes, and between the six of us we managed to try everything bar two items: we overlooked the sweetbreads and a savory cheesecake. But first, we were offered an espresso cup of pea and mint soup as an amuse bouche. It was a velvety puree, topped with crème fraiche and we all agreed we could have polished off a large bowl of the stuff. Alongside, was a hearty wholemeal bread and the greenest, most peppery olive oil I’ve had in a long time. It was divine.
First up we were each brought an appetizer. Mine was three chunky slices of aubergines (eggplants) cooked to perfection and delicately flavored with herbs, lemon and accompanied by a delicately fragranced yoghurt. Monkey took delivery of three fat, delicious courgette (zucchini) and manouri (cheese) fritters, also served with yoghurt, this time flavored with cardamon. Also delivered to the table was octopus (which got a rave review), three types of beans and a super creamy burrata topped with crunchy toasted, coriander seeds. No-one had a single complaint. It was all to die for.
Next we each were served our remaining two platters, in my case: sweet potatoes with burnt aubergine yoghurt and cod with radishes which was recommended by our server. I was so into the vegetables that the cod, while perfectly cooked, didn’t really speak to me. I liked the sweet potato wedges, but there was almost too much on the plate and although (following inquiry) they were supposed to be served at room temperature, they were actually rather chilled as if just taken from the fridge.
Monkey loved his broccolini and couldn’t really make a dent on his twice-cooked chicken – he didn’t like the sweetness of the skin and had probably eaten too much bread as usual. Other favorites around the table included venison, and pork belly which was cooked to pure perfection: with the crispiest skin atop just the right amount of pork fat. I noticed that my brother had pushed this plate to one side and asked him if he was planning on eating it. “Oh yes! It’s like a sticky toffee pudding, I am saving the best until last!” Despite longing glances on my part, I only got a couple of bites.
During our meal, Pierre, the manager, stopped by to see how we were doing. He was charming and eager to hear our feedback – which is when I learned the sweet potatoes should have been at room temperature.
By this stage, we were all rather full, and despite the fact that the set menu included a dessert each (that would be six) felt we could only really manage two to share. The caramel ice cream, with salted peanut brittle and chocolate sauce caught everyone’s eye and we made light work of it. It was definitely worth squeezing in as my final treat of 2013.
I can’t wait to return to Nopi and try Ottolenghi’s deli which recently opened in Notting Hill, although it’s going to be a while, I know it’ll be worth the wait. With the current exchange rate being brutal against the dollar, this was most definitely one of the bigger splurges of the year, but it was worth every British penny.
Monkey’s rating: 4.5 out of 5 (because he says there wasn’t a big selection for kids, not that I’d expect one)
Alice Dishes’ rating: 5 out of 5
Nopi Soho is at 21-22 Warwick Street, London W1B 5NE, Tel: 020 7494 9584