Review: Ottolenghi, Islington N1

All hail foodies’ new cult restaurant - a North London favourite for well-priced gastronomic imaginativeness. Just don’t wear a suit

Islington branch of Ottolenghi

Perhaps, like the amateur foodie contingent of which I am part, you too are the type of aspiring saucepan mixologist who occasionally dusts their pears with, oh, say, a little cumin – just to see! – while Masterchef’s Greg Wallace narrates your every move inside your head.

In which case, the legend of Ottolenghi is old news to you. You have no doubt already shuffled your Nigel and Nigellas along the bookshelf to accommodate one of chef Yotam Ottolenghi’s two new cult culinary tomes.

If not, it won’t be long before you’re served up something featuring za’tar at a dinner party, courtesy of the writings of Mr Ottolenghi and his co-chef Sami Tamimi.

And even if by some freak quirk of space-time you’ve missed all the other symptoms of the new food-fad pandemic, you might just have spotted Ottolenghi’s ‘New Vegetarian’ column in The Guardian’s Weekend magazine.

Not that the food at Ottolenghi restaurant in Islington – one of four Ottolenghi deli-restaurant hybrids in London – is remotely vegetarian. The dear little quail that nobly sacrificed itself to a thoroughly decent coconut jerk marinade for me is testament to that.

Before we come to the nosh, I might as well tell you right away that Ottolenghi in Islington is not overly formal. It’s certainly not scruffy, but if you like to wear morning suit in the evening, this is not going to be your bag.

The style that threads itself seamlessly through atmosphere, interior and menu says: chic but casual, contemporary but unpretentious, warm and wholesome but with a slightly spunky edge.

The restaurant is a bit of a Narnian wardrobe of a premises. Rows of to-go deli and bakery goods at the shop-front - cumulous clouds of meringues bigger than my head, at least one thousand different types of seeded bap - belie dining rooms behind the counter area.

An otherwise minimalistic, Scandinavian aesthetic - heightened by stripped wooden floorboards and plain white formica tables - is softened by good old-fashioned silver candleholders. Usually clinical stark white walls (plus rather bizarre chicken-wire wall sculpture) are counterbalanced by a touch of humour and brightness thanks to multi-coloured moulded plastic chairs (the iconic 1967 Verner Panton design, if you care).

I have come with NB, who is just as kiddie-with-candy-excitable junior foodie as me. A few weeks ago we tried crafting Ottolenghi’s home-made pasta of feta, pink peppercorns and lemon. Incidentally, it’s true what they say – non-professional home-made pasta really is the trompe-l’oeil of cookery book photography. It is a human and physical impossibility.

NB and I have both come with foolishly high expectations, excitable culinary twitchers that we are. Yet, rather incredibly, this restaurant lives up to our hopes. Food-wise, we’re talking a more imaginative River Café, with added tamarind, za’tar and pink peppercorns for good measure. A bit like a more complex, higher-end Café Leon.

“Our favourite ingredients are of this ‘noisy’ type: lemonpomegranate, garlic, chilli,” the Ottolenghi website explains. “Drawing on an abundance of culinary traditions – with a focus on the Mediterranean – we strive to surprise and stir. And we do this using bold flavours and daring colours, no apologies.”

Come on then. Let’s see what you’re made of. Dishes are served tapas style, which means you get to try five rather than one at a time. Big gold star. NB and I decided this was the best format for dining long ago. (Glad to see the restaurateurs of London are finally catching up with the avante garde path we forge.)

The wine list is varied and unintimidating, ranging from £20 to £57.40. It might not satisfy a true connoisseur, but, luckily for me and my tastebuds, I’m not a true connoisseur. NB selects something that’s easily gluggable from the southern hemisphere. (Like I said, I’m not a true connoisseur.)

The menu is split in two halves. You can choose a mix of dishes from the counter, which are very marginally less inventive, a bit more vegetable-y, and slightly cheaper at £8 - £9.50. Hot dishes, at £10 - £12, are where the exciting stuff comes in to play.

The aforementioned coconut-jerked quail must have been a fat little b*gger when it was alive, because it is fleshier than the usual scrawny annoyingness of those puny birds.

The selection of dishes changes daily, we are told. Gold star number two. Today, NB and I share the lamb chops with a mush of smoked aubergine and an almost fluorescent pea sauce to jazz up the plate.

NB looks at me with the kind of gravity he ordinarily reserves for funerals and rugby finals. “That is the best lamb chop. I. Have. Ever. Tasted.” NB likes lamb. A lot.

The aforementioned coconut-jerked quail must have been a fat little b*gger when it was alive, because it is fleshier than the usual scrawny annoyingness of those puny birds.

It is treacly-spicy-juicy: almost a more sophisticated version of BBQ ribs, demanding the same game of pick-up-and-nibble-unashamedly joy. My inner 11-year-old is tickled by eating with my fingers in a restaurant.

A seared scallop omelette with tamarind sauce is bouncingly fruity, light on the tongue and, well, scallop-y. You know what I mean by scallop-y. I mean not that overcooked insipid demi-rubber that too many gastro pubs offend society with. Rather, the scallop tastes sea-rich and sweet.

Miso-blackened tuna steak with wasabi cream is familiar, but still good. And that’s our lot, actually. NB and I have to make a hard call to stop here. Four dishes is plenty, and though we probably could work through the other two dozen, you sometimes have to be sensible in such situations.

What else? Oh, service is fairly relaxed – at times you have to look around for a few minutes to seek someone out, but they’re always so smiley and chirpy you forgive them instantly.

Half the waiting staff wear those faux-librarian black-rimmed glasses that you will spot on approximately 78 per cent of the population of East London. But the crowd at Ottolenghi Islington represents a decent cross-section of London’s societal strata, neither overly-trendy nor un-trendy. Which is nice.

So Ottolenghi is not the type of place to go if you want all-out silver service and fresh-from-the-iron Egyptian cotton tablecloths. But if you fancy trying food that is retains a sort of unpretentious integrity without jeopardising epicurean quirk and originality, in a friendly atmosphere, it really doesn’t get much better than this.

The Suitometer: LondonlovesBusiness.com’s quick guide to sleeping and dining in the capital

  • Inspire a productive business meeting? More for Molly from the marketing department than Frederique in Forex.
  • Impress the boss when everything else has failed? No - it might have panache, but it’s not flash.
  • Break the ice with those awkward clients? Yes: the interestingness of the menu and “let’s share” feel will step in to save your ailing forced chatter.
  • Sufficiently blow your bonus and make you feel like a king? It’s a few oysters short of a real blow-out - save it for casual lunches and dinners.
  • Provide the right setting for an all-important first date? Yes, as long as they’re not expecting Mayfair. It’s cosy, fun, softly-lit, and the perfect excuse to reference your own exemplerary culinary skills.

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