Magic in the hall of mirrors
Sometimes you shouldn't eat your hero's food. But in this case, it was everything I'd dreamed of. There is style but also sincerity in what they do at Nopi in London, writes CATHERINE CLEARY
A lull has fallen on the sale frenzy in London Regent’s Street and the cathedrals of shopping are getting ready to close. Women are carrying huge bags in the crooks of their tiny arms. We are on our way to worship at the church of Yotam.
Nopi opened in 2011. It’s the restaurant of Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi. The philosophy graduate came to London in the 1990s, trained as a chef and then worked as a pastry chef.
Just over 10 years ago he opened his first Ottolenghi cafe with two business partners. Three more London shops followed, and then Nopi. His three cookbooks and food column have built an evangelical following of dinner party Yotamites. His culinary legacy has been to put za’tar and sumac on mainstream supermarket spice shelves.
The restaurant is in Warwick Street, a Soho street where spectacles are large and waists are skinny. There’s a warm truffle and mushroom smell when you walk in and someone has parked a cluster of Liberty shopping bags with the coat check desk.
The look is romantic CSI mortuary, a place that could be sluiced down with a hose after a particularly messy sitting. There are honeyed marble floors, one whitewashed wall and white tiles everywhere else.
Brass lamps hang like heavy clock pendulums, coat hooks and beautiful oak tables warm it all up. Two slots in the wall with precise measurements written above them in millimetres hold the blotting paper table toppers they put on your table. A sparkling white napkin waits for you in a brass ring, like a fairy tale giant’s wedding ring.
We’re ignoring the main dishes on the menu and going for 12 sharing plates between four. These are priced between £8 (€9.85) and £12.50 (€15.39) each. Throw in sides and nibbles and it feels like looting a sweet shop. We have to decide which of the £4 (€4.92) sides to ditch. “The Brussels sprouts,” Liam and I chime in unison. Can anyone make those nuggets of slime and sulphur sing? Not without buckets of bacon, butter and cream. And so they’re instantly back on the list. Bring them on, to see if Ottolenghi can make me smile over a mouthful of January sprouts.
I hate Googling ingredients at the table (later we will Google Ian McEwan because there’s a man downstairs that looks like him). So I ask the waiter what Belper Knolle is. Not a brand of leather recliner, but a Swiss cheese. It’s the kind of place where the wait staff know this stuff inside out. We order a bottle of Mar d’Avall, a Spanish Grenache (£28/€34.52), and nicely chilled tap water.
They give you side plates to eat from, which adds to the sense of plenty that comes from sharing this feast. Your small plate is full most of the time. It’s fabulous and fun. There are messy splatters on our table blotters by the end, a Jackson Pollock in food.
Tangy sour dough sets us up before the parade of plates starts. The bread gets dipped in a grassy-sweet olive oil that I could happily drink. Lavosh bread – cracker snappy shards of crispbread smothered in sesame, pumpkin and onion seeds – has a bottom note of sweetness. Its accompanying burnt aubergine purée is bonfire smoke turned to a silken paste. Pomegranate seeds are tiny bursts of happiness in your mouth. I vow to incinerate an aubergine at home more regularly. Lemon-drenched sardines come with nubbly arrocina beans, parsley and more of that grassy olive oil.