An evening view of the billowy meringues in Ottolenghi's Islington windows: "Like it or not, we are identified with those giant balls of sweetness, " write Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi in their cookbook. (I can attest to their utter deliciousness.)
It’s a chilly spring night in London, and we’re standing on the sidewalk in front of Ottolenghi.
But where is it?
I’m looking for the luminous white restaurant shown in the dazzling photographs that punctuate the pages of Ottolenghi: The Cookbook. Against bright white walls, ruby pink pomegranate seeds strewn over a fennel and feta salad shimmer like jewels. Lush oriental lilies tumbling over a stand of billowy meringues have the same inner glow as the tiny girl in an orange chair, looking expectantly at something—maybe a white chocolate raspberry tartlet—on a plate just off camera.
But tonight it’s dark inside. Really dark.
Where are all the corkscrew toaster cords that dangle from the ceiling like so many party streamers? (Didn't The Observer say Ottolenghi had the "finest breakfasts in town?") And where are the sleek white communal tables filled with happy people who know just how lucky they are to be there?
I’ve wanted to dine at Ottolenghi ever since I picked up the cookbook in Boston last summer. I fell in love with Yotam and Sami’s story: two chefs, both born in Jerusalem in 1968, one “in the Jewish west,” the other “on the Arab east side,” who met 31 years later, thousands of miles away on a London doorstep.
The pair opened their first, mostly takeout spot in Notting Hill, but soon expanded to locations in Knightsbridge and Belgravia. Islington is “as close as it gets to a flag-ship…the biggest Ottolenghi and a proper restaurant.”
In their own words, the food is “vibrant, daring, highly original.” It fuses flavors of the Mediterranean basin—garlic, lemon, olive oil, fresh coriander, mint, yoghurt, pomegranate, sumac and za’atar, orange blossom and rose water—with exquisitely fresh local ingredients, to create sophisticated, often innovative dishes with vividly contrasting tastes and textures. The big surprise is that most of the recipes are fairly simple and straightforward: there’s nothing so complicated that you can’t replicate it at home.
B and I have fallen hard for the vegetarian recipes, including chargrilled broccoli with chilli, garlic and slivered almonds, and roasted aubergine with saffron yoghurt. The restaurant’s version of harira, a traditional Moroccan lamb and chickpea soup, is tweaked just enough to be totally addictive: It's packed with fresh spinach, ginger, cumin, saffron, coriander and lemon. At our olive oil tasting last fall, everyone raved about the intensely flavored olive oil and apple cake.
Last November during a short layover at Heathrow, I had to be forcibly restrained from commandeering a wildly expensive taxi for the express purpose of trying to zip in for supper at Ottolenghi without a reservation.
But back to the sidewalk. While we’re peering through the darkened windows, the door is pushed open and a laughing couple with flushed cheeks exits. Big sigh of relief—it’s open for business.
Once we’ve traversed the dimly lit dessert counters, we find ourselves in a sleek white rectangle, mostly lit with flickering candles in baroque glass candlesticks. Down the center is the long, parsons-style communal table, nearly every sinuous Verner Panton chair occupied by someone who is enjoying him- or herself immensely. The only interruptions in all this gleaming white are the occasional orange chair and on one wall, a long chicken wire sculpture, intricately “embroidered” with wire flowers.
And, of course, the vibrant food.
The menu is based around small plates “from the counter” and “from the kitchen.” You’re encouraged to order three, which gave four of us a chance to taste most of the 15 dishes on the menu that night.
Here’s what we ate. (Sorry there are no pictures: In the candlelight even my fast lens couldn’t do justice to the gorgeous array of colors and textures that appeared on each plate.)
Crushed roasted courgette (zucchini) and tomato with walnut, feta, pomegranate seeds and parsley. Vibrant, contrasting flavors and textures: Smooth and crunchy; salty, sweet, tangy. The recipe is not, alas, in the cookbook.
Roasted spicy pumpkin with mixed leaves, fried manouri cheese, oven-roasted cherry tomatoes and basil sauce. Another winner: soft Greek sheep’s milk cheese melting into sweet, curry-spiced pumpkin and tangy tomatoes.
Grilled pear with red endive, rocket, pecorino, spicy macadamia and orange blossom dressing. Warm fruit paired with salty cheese, nuts and honey. With all the greens, an end of winter salad looking forward to spring.
Baby aubergine with spiced chickpea and tomato sauce, feta, lemon and coriander. More bright, vividly contrasting flavors and textures playing off the mild, creamy flesh of small, round, roasted eggplants.
Char-grilled fillet of English beef with sweet coriander and mustard sauce. Charred on the outside, rare on the inside, napped with a sweet and hot mustard sauce. Simple, addictive: “I couldn’t stop eating it.”
Line-caught seared tuna, wrapped in nori and panko with wasabi cream. A sublime rendition of buttery rare tuna with a crispy “crust” enlivened by a mellow but zingy wasabi sauce. “Super duper sushi.” A favorite of all four of us.
Pan fried sea bass with Swiss chard, olives, pine nuts, parsley and preserved lemon. Sophisticated blend of ingredients, pristine fish. There is a similar recipe in the cookbook.
Buttered King prawns with tomatoes, black olives and arak, served with grilled focaccia. Succulent, tenderprawns in an irresistible butter sauce scented with anise and Kalamata olives. An easy to make favorite: Recipe coming soon!
Steamed razor clams with fresh herbs, cream, pink peppercorns and samphire. Wonderfully fresh, plump clams flavored with dill and samphire, a crisp, salty sea green that grows wild along the English coast and marsh land.
Pan fried quail with caramelized pear, Parma ham, mograbiah, tarragon and pine nuts. One of the few dishes that never quite came together. Mograbiah is a large grain couscous used throughout the Arab world.
And for dessert:
Passion fruit meringue tart. Melting, tropical, syrupy sweet. As the menu advises, “Sweet tooth required!”
Baked cheesecake with caramel and macadamia nuts. Opulent and doubly rich with toasted caramelized nuts and smooth, dark caramel sauce.
Vanilla and ginger cheesecake with rhubarb. Sweet-tart rhubarb topping lightens this dense, voluptuous cheesecake.
Plum tart with crème anglaise. Dry crust, oddly flavorless. The only real loser, salvaged by the luscious crème anglaise.
As we drained the last drops of a dark, berry-like 2004 Travalini Gattinara, I found myself deeply envying the older couple seated next to us: They had dropped in for dessert, he digging into one of the enormous chocolate meringues for which Ottolenghi is famous, she devouring the moist chocolate cake with Baileys cream. “Our daughter lives in the neighborhood, and we come whenever we visit--which is often,” they smiled.
Ah, to have such an easy excuse. As for me, well, I know just where I'll be on future Heathrow layovers.
In the May 2010, Yotam Ottolenghi's new vegetarian cookbook, Plenty, will be published in the UK. Many of the recipes appeared in different versions in his New Vegetarian column in The Weekend Guardian.