Wednesday, June 4, 2014

NOPI: Ottolenghi's Seductive Mid-East Soho Brasserie

Yotam Ottolenghi is one of the most exciting talents in the cooking world today, with four fabulous London restaurants, three award-winning cookbooks, and a weekly newspaper column that's read by food enthusiasts from all over the world. One of the darlings of the London food scene, Ottolenghi's particular skill is in marrying the food of his native Israel with a wider range of incredible textures and flavours from the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia. What started as a small stylish deli in Notting Hill in 2002, soon became a London phenomenon, and following the publication of his first cook book ‘Ottolenghi’, which drew on the inspirational and innovative food served at his chain of delis, Ottolenghi's success went global. The latest venture is NOPI, Ottolenghi's first fine dining restaurant in Soho and is short for ‘north of Piccadilly’, serving food that's been described as ‘contemporary London,’ where customers are greeted with fresh baked bread and Ottolenghi's trademarks platters full of salads, which celebrate the bold flavours, he's so well known for.

One of my culinary inspirations, Yotam Ottolenghi

However, Yotam Ottolenghi's path to the world of cooking and baking has been anything but straightforward. Having studied philosophy and literature in Tel Aviv, he made a radical shift and enrolled at London's Le Cordon Bleu in the late 90's. Starting as pastry chef at The Capital Restaurant in Knightsbridge, he was later hired by Baker & Spice, which is where he met Sami Tamimi, his business partner today, also from Jerusalem, yet from the Palestinian side. They combined culinary forces and created the famously familiar, and highly innovative Ottolenghi brand of cuisine: fresh ingredients, full-bodied sunny Mediterranean flavours, all served up with European flair. "We share a common cooking language. We prepare uncomplicated dishes from the best, most colourful and aromatic ingredients fresh from the market: simple, yet generous and glamorous as well." 

"We chose the name Ottolenghi because it has a mysterious ring and sounds somehow different. Nobody really knows where to place it".


Sami Tamimi and Yotam

The interior design of the delis and restaurants are an integral part of the Ottolenghi experience. To create the stylish and striking interior of NOPI, Yotam turned to his friend Israeli architect-designer Alex Meitlis, who has designed the interiors for all the chef’s branches. NOPI has been described as a “brasserie with a twist” and is split between two levels. The main dining area is designed with brass, oak, gold-veined Greek marble elements and has beautiful replicas of antique lamps from old Jaffa hanging from the ceiling, while downstairs there's a more informal feel with its long communal tables looking into the open kitchen. NOPI is a total new creation, not a traditional brasserie but a modern one where plates are designed to be shared and are based on Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Asian influences.

"Aesthetics are very important to us at Ottolenghi’s. 
But when all is said and done, to me, it's always about the food".


Ottolenghi protégé and Nopi head chef Scully Ramael

Nopi is open all day serving everything from the first cappuccino of the morning right down to a last Vin Santo before bedtime. The kitchen is presided over by Aussie-Malaysian head chef, Ramael Scully, formerly head chef of Ottolenghi's Islington branch and the creative force behind the menu. Ottolenghi's approach has been to grow the 'group' while empowering individual managers and chefs to run the branches with their own independent identity — about 70% of the dishes on Nopi's menu are protégé Scully's creation. NOPI’s menu changes according to the seasons but signature dishes include Courgette and Manouri Fritters, Twice-Cooked Baby Chicken with lemon myrtle salt and chilli jam, and Roasted Aubergine with goats cheese, vanilla endive and spicy walnuts. The evening we dined at NOPI, we started with two of their signature cocktails: a Coriander and Ginger Martini with Hendricks Gin, lime juice, fresh ginger and baby coriander, and Konick's Tail Vodka Martini with a twist, then followed our server Tony's suggestion of ordering 3-4 sharing savoury dishes per person, which proved a pretty difficult task given how everything on the menu seemed so tempting. 

A table full of Ottolenghi's signature salads greet guests as they arrive at Nopi

Nopi's iconic gold napkin ring echoes the 'O' in the restaurant's logo

Nopi's dinner menu changes with the seasons

We started with two 'nibbles' to enjoy with our cocktails, then ordered six sharing plates which arrived three dishes at a time in no particular order. Each dish from the Mixed Seed Lavash with Avocado, Pio Tosini Prosciutto, and Octopus with Red Quinoa and Bojita Olive Purée, to the Courgette and Manouri Fritters with Cardamom Yogurt, Roasted Aubergine with Goats Cheese, Vanilla Endive and Spicy Walnuts, and Pork Belly with Crushed Squash, Pickled Walnuts and Sake were all wonderfully unique, beautifully prepared and absolutely delicious. What we enjoyed was the Ottolenghi magic — mouth watering dishes redolent of summer and the Levante, that have been transporting Londoners into exuberant rapture since Yotam and Sami open their first foodshop in 2002. "People come up to me and say, 'You changed my life!' which just sounds impossible," he laughs. "It's completely bewildering."

Nopi's Coriander and Ginger Martini with Hendricks Gin, lime juice, fresh ginger and baby coriander

A Konick's Tail Vodka Martini with a twist

A 'Nibble' with our cocktails: Mixed Seed Lavash with Avocado

Pio Tosini Prosciutto and Beer Piquillo

A glass of Château La Coste, Côtes de Provence, France, 2013

A glass of Dolcetto D'Alba DOC, Olek Bondonio, Piedmont, Italy, 2012

Octopus with Red Quinoa and Bojita Olive Purée

Courgette and Manouri Fritters with Cardamom Yogurt

Roasted Aubergine with Goats Cheese, Vanilla Endive and Spicy Walnuts

Pork Belly with Crushed Squash, Pickled Walnuts and Sake

Broccolini with Spiced Buttermilk and Black Fungus

Twice-Cooked Baby Chicken with Lemon Myrtle Salt and Chilli Sauce

A Josephine King paper painting hangs on the wall at Nopi entitled — "I told him I was an artist; he said 'can you cook?' — is on loan from the Riflemaker Gallery

Courgette and Manouri Fritters
Serves 4
Recipe courtesy of Yotam Ottolenghi

3 medium courgettes
2 small shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Grated zest of 2 limes
2 oz self-raising flour
2 large free-range eggs
2 tsp ground coriander
5 oz manouri or feta cheese
1/4 cup sunflower oil

Cardamom Yogurt Sauce:
7 oz sour cream
2 tbsp roughly chopped coriander
1 1/2 tsp ground cardamom
2 tsp sunflower oil
Zest and juice of 1 lime
Salt and black pepper

In a small bowl, mix the cream, chopped coriander, half a teaspoon of ground cardamom, two teaspoons of oil and the lime zest and juice. Season to taste, cover and chill.

Chop off the ends of the courgettes, then grate the flesh into a bowl. Sprinkle with half a teaspoon of salt and leave for 10 minutes so they release their juices. Squeeze the courgettes to remove most of the liquid, then add the shallots, garlic, lime zest, flour, eggs, ground coriander, the remaining cardamom and a pinch of pepper. Mix to form a thick batter, adding some flour if it's a bit runny, then fold in the manouri.

Heat some oil in a large frying pan and add heaped spoonfuls of the batter shaped into little pancakes or quenelle-shapes and cook on each side for around three minutes. Remove and drain on kitchen paper. Serve three fritters per portion with a generous dollop of the sauce.

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