When I recently left my job, my colleagues very generously clubbed together to buy me a gift voucher for Ottolenghi. I was extremely touched by the gesture and nearly shed a little tear when I opened the envelope. Filled with excitement I booked the table asap; a side table to be precise, as I’d heard about the communal seating arrangements, which are really not my cup of tea. I wanted to enjoy a romantic meal with Chris and also to sneak some photos of the food without attracting any attention although, I warn you now – Ottolenghi is dark. Romantic yes, good for photos, no. Get your imaginations limbered up ready, you’re going to need them.
The prices at first looked very reasonable – between £9.80 and £10.80 for a hot dish ‘from the kitchen’ and £6.80 and £8.80 for a cold dish ‘from the counter’. That is, until you notice the teeny writing at the bottom which states that you need to order 3 dishes per person to create a full dinner. I would say the plates are bigger than tapas but a wee bit smaller than a starter. Having the voucher though, we had no sense of restraint whatsoever and dove straight in with gusto, ordering nine dishes between the two of us. “I really think that might be a bit much for two people” the waitress advised. Oh, how we laughed (on the inside), and then informed her we would have no problem polishing off every last morsel. It was reassuring however that she did speak up rather than just letting us spend more money on food we might not be able to eat.
Firstly, the bread at Ottolenghi deserves special mention, particularly the corn bread. The other varieties were duly dunked in the bowl of grassy olive oil provided but that corn bread was the one we really savoured and squabbled over. It was cakey and slightly sweet, yet savoury and delicately spiked with chilli; I could have eaten half a loaf, no trouble. That crusty looking bit on the bottom is cheese by the way. Unfortunately the waitress didn’t know which type; she suggested Parmesan but I’m not totally convinced.
The nine dishes we ordered then arrived, tapas style, in waves. Here’s a few of the highlights.
Scallops with grapefruit and morcilla were beautifully charred on the outside and so absolutely, precisely on the cusp between cooked and raw within. The silky nuggets sat atop a punchy gremolata, which was balanced by sweet pink grapefruit. It came with a disappointingly small sliver of morcilla that was aiming for crispy but erring on the side of burnt, which was a shame. The dish was otherwise perfect.
That purple coloured blob you can see in the foreground of the above picture was Chris’s favourite dish overall: braised rabbit leg with Jerusalem artichoke purée, caramelised fig and orange and star anise reduction. The rabbit and anise worked in happy harmony as always; each piece coated in the sticky, spice scented, citrus-sweet sauce. The Jerusalem artichoke purée was the real stunner on this plate though. Somehow, someone had managed to wring out the very essence of artichoke into that purée; Chris described it as, “like walking into a wood shed that has been shut for 10 years.” You know, in a good way. Some accompanying caramelised figs sounded promising but were a total let down, being slightly unpleasant in texture due to a really hard caramel coating.
Other noteworthy dishes included the super soft rare beef fillet with a coriander and mustard sauce which was bursting with fresh herby flavour and I made a mental note to re-create it and drizzle it over something like a beef dopiaza. Eating the beef with the grassy flavour from the coriander sauce was like eating the cow with what the cow had been eating; it just seemed to make sense.
Crispy pork belly arrived with two apple-y accompaniments; one a sweet, slightly sharp apple and thyme chutney and the other a refreshing salad of crisp golden delicious apples and mustard cress. You can see that our meal was a little meat heavy overall although my favourite dish of the evening was the aubergine with miso, which is honestly what that blob is in the last picture above. The miso dressing was intense and really brought out the meatyness (probably why I loved it) of the silky smooth aubergine without overpowering one bit. I could have eaten a whole plateful and I’m considering going back for lunch to do exactly that.
The one salad we did order turned out to be the only disappointment of our meal. The combination of peaches, goat cheese and balsamic-orange blossom dressing sounded like a sure fire winner but was lacking in the skilful balance which was so evident in all the other dishes. What actually happened was that the ingredients combined to produce the unmistakable sweet, synthetic flavour of…bubblegum. That’s quite an achievement in it’s own right I suppose, but nevertheless not what I want from my dinner. Quite extraordinary.
Overall, we were incredibly impressed with Ottolenghi. The gift from my colleagues allowed me to relax and not worry about the cost, which of course enhanced my enjoyment of the meal no end. Otherwise, the place was filled with people who were either a) clearly rich or famous (best sleb spot of the night: Paul Whitehouse) b) wining and dining clients or c) wealthy families with a gaggle of small children in tow. The place was filled with kids, including one who made it her sole purpose to stare at us and our food throughout the entire 1 1/2 hours we were there. I went from trying to engage the child through trying to ignore her and then eventually on to considering dealing her a clip round the ear.
Don’t let that put you off though, the food is excellent – un-fussed, confident and pretty as a picture (you’ll have to take my word on that bit). At the end we were truly stuffed (we did eat enough for three people) and decided to skip desserts in favour of coffee and Armagnac, then waddled off into the night contented and vowing to return for lunch to try a few more dishes without breaking the bank. I’d like to see a branch of Ottolenghi closer to me daaahn Saaarf but then, it’s not really an Ottolenghi kind of location down here, is it daaahling.
287 Upper Street
London N1 2TZ
0207 288 1454
There are other branches – see website for details