It makes me quite happy that there is a trend in the western dining world in which Eastern Mediterranean/Middle Eastern Cuisine has experienced a surge in popularity -- or, as the real case may be, this cuisine is being discovered, for many, for the first time. Leading the way in this popularity is Israeli food, championed in America by the likes of Israel-born/America-raised Michael Solomonov, in Philadelphia, and in London, Jerusalem and internationally by foodie favorite Yotam Ottolenghi. It seems obvious that Israel, as a now-fertile part of the world, would have more to offer than just falafel and hummus (even if it is the most delicious falafel and hummus out there!).The Israelis have turned desert into functioning agricultural oasis, and the produce coming out of the Holy Land can seem, at times, like it's been touched by You-Know-Who.
Which is why it's so interesting that Yotam Ottolenghi has taken the food world by storm, by creating lush, interesting, abundantly-flavored salads and grain dishes and vegetarian-friendly fare (though not only)...in London, England, of all places.
It may be, though, because London's got the international audience and has been starved for market-fresh Mediterranean ingredients like Ottolenghi procures, that his eponymous cafes are such huge hits. Their success actually allowed him to open a couple of slightly more formal restaurants serving a more upscale, refined eastern Mediterranean Israeli cuisine, called NOPI. We enjoyed a delicious, multi-course dinner at the Soho location last month. I was, as expected, impressed.
We started with some nice homemade bread, and ordered cocktails immediately. My friend Helen had been sipping on a variation of one of the drinks on the list, doctored with vodka instead of tequila, and with plenty of passion fruit with seeds in the mix. (A plus: the bar was very accommodating). Once we placed our orders, the dishes started coming out when they were ready, bit by bit. First out? The courgette and manouri cheese fritters with cardamom yogurt were flavorful bites of Mediterranean vegetal, herb, and tangy flavors in one. It wasn't much of a wait before we were scarfing down rainbow chard with tenderstem broccoli and yuzu, as well. Of course, pretty much every time I see eggplant on a menu -- particularly when Mediterranean or Middle Eastern food is involved -- I need to order it. Here, it was a deliciously charred aubergine over a smear of almond yogurt (which seemed more like a miso, with its rich umami flavor), sprinkled with pickled chilis. It was fabulous. We continued with a plate of chickpeas, butternut squash, feta, and balsamic, a study in texture and sweet-savory-acidic-salty. We also enjoyed the hearty beef short ribs with a beer glaze and horseradish. We had scallops with apple, nettle, and lemon puree', and pork shoulder croquettes with kohlrabi, nashi pear, and basil mayonnaise. The classic simple staple on the menu is the chicken dish: a twice-cooked baby chicken, with lemon myrtle salt and chili sauce, in either a half or whole-chicken portion. We didn't have room for it, but I imagine it's perfectly cooked, seasoned, and balanced in flavor, with enough of a spicy bite to make it a standout. The beauty of the cooking here is the freshness, paired with an excellent, heightened sense of the interplay of texture, flavor, and elements of taste that the chefs employ. This, to me, is one of the most important skills in being a quality chef.
Sadly, we had no room for dessert. And that's a real shame, because pastry and "puddings" are a strong point of Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, his partner. Next time, I'd go for something like the roast pineapple, macadamia nuts, lemongrass and coconut cream (Asian style) or stick with the strawberry mess, sumac, and rosewater (Middle Eastern fused with old English). We were able to finish up our cocktails and enjoy a trip or two to the over-the-top bathrooms downstairs: an Alice In Wonderland, hall-of-mirrors affair where they feel compelled to label the exit door handle. Don't leave the restaurant without a trip here!
And more good news: the restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch, which are traditionally strong meals for Israelis, with elaborate spreads both savory and sweet. NOPI also features one of my favorite Israeli breakfast/brunch/lunch options: shakshuka, the egg and spicy tomato-pepper-onion dish of north African extraction that you find in every cafe worth its sumac in Tel Aviv. And much like I've done with Tel Aviv, I swear to return to NOPI and Ottolenghi's other restaurants. You should join me!
21-22 Warwick Street
London W1B 5NE
Tel: 020 7494 9584
London W1B 5NE
Tel: 020 7494 9584