Nopi, 21-22 Warwick Street, London W1
Saturday 19 March 2011
It's unusual for a group of cafés to spawn a restaurant. Usually it works the other way round, with star chefs lending their names to more democratic versions of their original venues. But the four Ottolenghi delis aren't just any cafés. They're a foodie cult, whose devoted congregations tithe substantial sums for Middle Eastern/Mediterranean fusion food, eaten at refectory tables, or taken away for private communion at home.
Through his cookbooks, high priest Yotam Ottolenghi has spread his gospel of esoteric grains, tahini-drizzled vegetables and complex spicing; anyone who has attempted one of his recipes will be familiar with the reverse loaves-and-fishes effect whereby 5,000 ingredients are required to make one simple plateful of roast vegetables.
And now a new temple has been raised. Nopi is a proper, full-service, all-day restaurant, named for its West End location (NOrth of PIccadilly), a bit of urban rebranding about as likely to catch on as the recent attempt to turn Bermondsey into South Central. From outside, Nopi is restrained and posh-looking, the white and gold scheme suggesting an upmarket jewellers. Inside, a single altar bowl of red chillis and a heap of crosshatched loaves provide the only Ottolenghi-ish touches in a minimal room which can't quite decide if it's Bond Street or Borough Market.
The canteen-like Ottolenghi look has been recreated here in beautiful, expensive materials, the floor clad in sheets of marble, the white-tiled walls diffusing light from pendant lamps hanging over each table. But the opulence is tempered by humble, café-ish touches – there's a wall of rough, whitewashed brick, and tables are dressed with sheets of paper, plucked from slots in the wall, as in some old-fashioned grocer's.
It all feels more like a gallery or a stage set than a place you'd linger in to have fun, though a chic young crowd are packed in on a Friday lunchtime. "Who ARE all these people?" marvelled my guest, Alexei Sayle, as we applied ourselves to a longish menu divided simply into veg, fish, meat and sweets. I realised Nopi might not be Alexei's kind of place while he was listening, incredulously, to my attempt to explain that burrata was, as I had read in The Independent, the New Cheese. "The brave people of Benghazi are fighting with their bare hands," he snorted, "and we're talking about the New Cheese...?"
Ottolenghi's trademark fetish for esoteric ingredients is present and correct here, but the cross-border combinations that seemed radical when the Notting Hill original opened in 2002 have since entered the mainstream; we need no longer fear such Scrabble-hand specials as kashk and labneh. Head chef Ramael Scully's menu still reads thrillingly, particularly the focus on slow-cooked dishes, including ossobucco and pig's cheek, partnered with fruit like pomegranate seeds or barberries.
All the dishes are served as small plates for sharing – the menu suggests three savoury dishes per person. With most priced from £9-£12, that doesn't make Nopi a cheap date. Alexei, whose last meal out had been the £4.95 all-the-trimmings chicken dinner at the Colindale Asda, was nonplussed not just by the prices, but the relatively small size of the portions.
Dishes come to table, tapas-style, as they're ready. Best of those we tried were both meaty. Braised lamb belly with wild mushrooms and sumac had a smoky depth of flavour, the meat soft as butter. Twice-cooked baby chicken – first poached in stock, then blasted under the grill – was vividly spicy, and further revved up by a sweet chilli sauce. Grilled garfish, served whole, was so bony that it seemed to grow once we'd stripped it of its morsels of flesh.
A warm ball of the fabled burrata (to mozzarella what spun silk is to raw cotton) was cut by toasted coriander seeds and blood orange; coming soon, to a dinner party near you. Probably not so, slices of raw kohlrabi, like a big radish without the personality, served with sour cream and salad leaves. All the dishes look beautiful, for as long as they last; as with Ottolenghi, this is chick food – big flavours, few carbs.
Desserts stay true to that; a galette of caramelised pineapple with coconut ice cream, and a quince jelly holding slices of fruit, topped with a Vin Santo sabayon, like posh trifle. Service is first-rate, charming and informed, and no charge is made for filtered water and excellent sourdough.
Good though most of our dishes were, we both found something disorientating about the Nopi experience, with its unfamiliar ingredients, unpredictable meal structure and unclassifiable décor. That disorientation intensified after a visit to the loos, a nightclub-style hall of mirrors which makes it hard to avoid catching unexpected views of yourself mid-act. I'll do anything for lunch, but I won't do that.
My faith in Yotam Ottolenghi and all his works remains solid. But I don't feel able to hail Nopi as the second coming. In fact I can't quite imagine when I'll find the right occasion for a second visit.
Nopi, 21-22 Warwick Street, London W1 (020-7494 9584)
Around £40 a head before wine and service
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
Side Orders: Spice of life
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