Thursday, February 17, 2011

NOPI: The Preview

Yesterday was totally like the best day ever! Yeah man. I had been waiting and waiting for it to roll around for weeks. Why? One word. NOPI.

Ottolenghi is one of the darlings of the London food scene - it would seem that the man can do no wrong. A meat eater who will happily showcase the discoveries to be made in vegetarian dishes, his cafes have gained him a secure star on London's culinary hall of fame. But was his new restaurant venture NOPI, with co-executive chef Sarit Packer, going to be up to scratch?

There's no better way to put a new restaurant to the test than to go on the first day of its soft opening. In a way, you're almost seting yourself up for disappointment - the kitchen isn't quite up to scratch, the staff haven't quite polished the service, the timing's a bit off. Well, there was none of that yesterday.

Instead, we were confronted with an almost perfectly seamless meal, a series of brilliantly executed dishes that will stand out in my memory for times to come.

The food is what it's all about. During the soft opening, they've opted to showcase the sharing dishes that will form the backbone of their main menu after they're fully launched. Dishes are of a mediterranean bent and bursting with flavours.

As expected from Ottolenghi, there is a significant vegetarian selection, but those who cannot do without their meat will be happy to spy dishes such as ossobuco, beef brisket croquets and baked lamb belly peeping out from the menu too.

We started off with the seared prawns with fennel, white oregano and feta which was elegant but simple. The prawns (see opening shot) were plump and firm, nicely offset by the saltiness of the feta. So far so good.

Next up was the baked blu di pecora cheesecake with wild mushrooms. I cant even begin to explain how much I loved this dish. My initial doubts about a savoury cheesecake disappeared in the blink of the eye. It was light, fluffy and delicately flavoured and definitely my favourite dish of the day.

The hake kebab was oddly shaped like a fishcake, perched seductively atop of a bed of yoghurt and garnished with pickled lemons and salad. it was nice, the hake was flaky and soft, nicely seasoned but a bit bland until you paired it with one of the lemons and then, zing, it came alive. Culinary magic at work.

I'm never normally a polenta fan but, for the sage and parmesan polenta that came with the ossobuco, I'll make an exception. Cheesy beyond belief, this swiftly put paid to my theory that polenta was overrated and overused. The cheesiness worked well with the melting ossobuco for another dish the tastebuds thoroughly approved of.

Dessert came in the form of quinces, with quince jelly and Vin Santo Sabayon. Unlike the jellies of our childhood, this was a barely set jelly with an initially disconcerting texture, particularly paired as it was with the warm sabayon.

It was one of the more unusual desserts I've come actoss in a while and very much the better for it. It's nice, as a non-chocolate pudding eater, to be faced with something other than cheesecake or creme brulee.
And therein ended the meal.

Unlike the Ottolenghi cafes, NOPI is quite a formal dining experience. Sleekly presented staff vanish your coat away at the blink of an eye and seat you quickly and efficiently. The white walls with gold touches shouts modern sophistication, and if you were left in any doubt, the mirrored emporium that is the toilets screams Soho glamour.

But it's not all starched napkins and stiff upper lips. Our waiter and waitress were fantastic - making suggestions here and there, joking and, most importantly, smiling - goodness knows they've got something to smile about if they get to eat that food every day.

And I'll leave you with a snap of the very mirror-y toilets...

Waiting rating: Excellent. Funny, talkative and friendly. Curiously no unattractive people - was this intentional?
Scoffing potential: Seemingly endless.
Wallet buddy: £25 a head with a glass of wine during the 50% off period. Double it thereafter. Unlike lots of other places, it is worth it.
The crowd: Business lunchers, quite a formal set
21-22 Warwick Street
London W1B 5NE
(0)20 7494 9584

Tel: 020 7856 2154