Ottolenghi, London N1 - Reviews - Food + Drink - The Independent

Ottolenghi, London N1

The Next Big Thing is the working-class caff recast for middle-class tastes. So, at the new Ottolenghi, it's out with pie'n'mash and in with the Parmesan risotto

Having lived through nouvelle cuisine, the dizzy heights of towering food architecture, the blibs and blobs of splat-and-dash saucery and tasteless foams drizzled over unnatural extrusions, I worry that my Next Big Thing may well be my last.

Having lived through nouvelle cuisine, the dizzy heights of towering food architecture, the blibs and blobs of splat-and-dash saucery and tasteless foams drizzled over unnatural extrusions, I worry that my Next Big Thing may well be my last.

But the current trend is one close to my heart, and thus to my stomach. A new generation of restaurateurs is moving away from the clothed tables and ermine-lined lampshades of the bourgeoisie and into the working-class glamour of casually dressed cafés. They are doing it with style, with designer chairs, and with very good cakes.

We are witnessing a gradual de-greasing of the spoon, if the last three moves are anything to go by. First is Will and Sam Sarnes's brand new, child-friendly Babes 'n Burgers in London's Portobello Road, with its organic burgers, haddock fingers and lactose-free shakes. Second is the prototype Leon, in Soho's Great Marlborough Street, which looks like another fast-food outlet but uses only olive oil, seasonal ingredients, free-range chicken, grass-fed lamb, and fish from sustainable shoals or organic farms.

Third is perhaps the bravest move of all, as ex-Medcalf and St John chef, James Thomson, has just opened the take-out/eat-in Fish Club in St John's Hill, near Clapham Junction, claiming fish and chips "can and should be the take-away meal of the 21st century" instead of the national disgrace it is at the moment.

And then there is Ottolenghi in Islington, the shiny new big brother of the popular Notting Hill food shop and coffee stop, which has done much to change Londoners' perceptions of deli dining. Here they have gone several steps further up the food chain, installing a bakery under the masterful eye of Dan Lepard, and turning the windows into statements of intent piled high with heavenly looking cakes, meringues, salads, sour dough and focaccia breads.

Move inside and the long, white gullet of a dining- room is pierced by two long, white communal tables. By day, gleaming toasters line up on the tables, their cords spiralling upwards towards the ceiling, while pots of butter and home-made jams are set out for a help-yourself breakfast. At lunch, yummy mummies and office fodder sit down to coffees, cakes or any of a dozen salads and a few simple main courses that can be combined for around a tenner. My glistening, rare piece of tuna wrapped in nori and panko crumbs came with a spiky salad of beetroot laced with cumin and lime, and romano peppers with spring onion and balsamic for £9.50, and was a joy.

At night, the toasters are packed away and candles are lit, flickering from tall, glass candlesticks placed at toaster points down the tables. Now it's journos, local couples, Almeida-friendly luvvies and groups of friends in dinner-party mood. The locals at my elbow - literally - are in love with the place, finding it a worthy replacement for their much-missed Granita.

Chef Esther Mordo - who last cooked at the Yoezer Wine Bar in Jaffa, Israel - has put together a pared-back, easy read of a menu with no border controls between Britain, Europe and the southern Med. It kicks off with a selection of dips and starters to share at £5 a head, then lists five main courses running from spinach and Parmesan risotto with Italian egg yolk and nigella seed croutons to garlic- and herb-roasted pork belly with apple and peach, sauté potatoes and a green salad.

Dips come fast and are an instant hit with the slab of sandy topped focaccia and dense, nutty wholemeal bread. Aubergine dip is tangy with yoghurt and toasty with pine nuts; fresh lebaneh (strained yoghurt cheese) has citrussy notes; and a little herb salad of mint, coriander and dill is a delight. Everything tastes fresh.

The service, as is appropriate, is casual. Perhaps a little too casual, but it's quite good-looking, so it is easy to forgive blank stares and wrong answers. Just look good and bring the food, that's fine by me. Next, a rib-eye steak with a good peppery jus (£15.50) is correctly rare and served with soft furls of fresh pasta and a salad of squeaky, bright-green beans. Nice. Good meaty prawns and large fleshy scallops (£14.50) cooked with arak (a Middle-Eastern spirit), olives and tomato are served on a soft, wet, swampy base of polenta, and quickly sink. But the seafood is so lightly and intelligently cooked, it rises above the swamp like rather nice monsters from the deep.

The wine list isn't casual at all, being weightier and pricier - going up to a Barolo Ceretta '99 at £68.50 - than one might expect, but a fruity Louis Tete Brouilly 2003 is light, soft and serviceable for £21.90.

To finish, Eton mess (£6) served in a tall, Irish coffee glass, is, as usual, a heavy concoction of too much sweet yoghurt cream and not enough berries and meringue. I recommend going for the cakes in the window instead.

Ottolenghi is a great package of food, fashion, design and romance. At dinner, prices rise beyond the casual, but in these dark days and godless nights there are new luxuries afoot, and it is goodness, simplicity and freshness that are worth paying for.

14 Ottolenghi 287 Upper St, London N1, tel: 020 7288 1454 (no bookings at lunch). Open Mon-Sat 8am-11pm, Sun 9am-7pm. Around £80 for dinner for two, wine and service (less for lunch)

Scores 1-9 stay home and cook 10-11 needs help 12 ok 13 pleasant enough 14 good 15 very good 16 capable of greatness 17 special, can't wait to go back 18 highly honourable 19 unique and memorable 20 as good as it gets

Second helpings: More communal tables

Berits and Brown Main Street, Kippen, Sterlingshire, tel: 01786 870 077 Named for the two couples who set up the business, this delicatessen, coffee shop and wine merchant has been the talk of Kippen since it opened in March - much of the talk coming from the always-full 12-seater communal table. It's all very relaxed, whether you build your own sandwich, or order a bespoke platter of cheese, charcuterie or smoked fish from the Summer Isles.

Steins The Towpath, Richmond, Surrey, tel: 020 8948 8189 There is hope for London yet. I love the idea of this charming, casual, al-fresco Bavarian beer garden with its long trestle tables and its identical blonde-haired, blue-eyed Bavarian servers. Try the excellent weisswurst or Bavarian Nuremberg sausage with good, sweet mustard, a pretzel, sauerkraut and roast potatoes, then walk it all off along the river.

Wagamama 54-58 Mount Pleasant Road, Tunbridge Wells, tel: 01892 616 514 Alan Yau opened the first Wagamama near the British Museum in 1992, introducing us to a brave new world of communal tables, ramen noodles and electronic ordering. Although Yau is no longer connected, Wagamama is now a global force, with the 30th outlet opening last week. Now the good people of Tunbridge Wells can queue for gyoza, chicken katsu curry and Wagamama ramen soup noodles with the lot.

E-mail Terry Durack about where you've eaten lately at t.durack@independent.co.uk

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