Thursday, 12 January 2012
London is a vibrant mix of people and cultures so it stands to reason that the food here is varied and colourful. When you look past the indenti-kit Starbucks and dig a little deeper than the usual high street dining suspects, there are some truly amazing places to eat in the capital.
I moved here over two months ago but haven't had a chance to properly immerse myself in the sights and sounds of London food until now. I've been out of the city every weekend and there's only so far you can go in a lunch hour but last weekend, The Boy came to me so there was double the reason to get out and about.
We hopped on a train on Saturday morning (starting our culinary adventure with toast and newspapers) and made our way to Highbury & Islington in the search of Ottolenghi. A previous employer got me hooked on the Guardian's website for which Yotam Ottolenghi often writes. His weekly recipes on the Guardian’s website always inspire but – shame on me - I’ve yet to try any out. Originally from Israel, Ottolenghi trained as a journalist but came to London to study at Le Cordon Bleu. After gaining experience elsewhere, he opened his own establishments including four branches of the delicatessens (only the Islington branch houses a restaurant as well) that bear his name and Nopi, a separate restaurant in Soho.
With glowing reviews, I was keen to get The Boy to sample Ottolenghi's delights with me. The restaurant and deli is easy to find from Highbury & Islington station - take a right out of the station and it’s an easy ten to fifteen minute stroll along Upper Street with Ottolenghi on the right.
The simple white and red shop frontage doesn't do justice to the produce within (though the Windows are filled with delectable cakes and pastries that are cooked on the premises). Once inside, we were faced with a large queue of people (for the café) and a table stacked high and groaning with colourful platters of salads and other goodies. I was completely in my element and awash with food-related adrenaline, much to the amusement of The Boy. We couldn’t help but dither a little before deciding that it all looked good (so we simply couldn’t fail to choose well!) and making our selection. One of the chatty shop assistants helped us to fill a small salad box with four different salads from the selection on show, one (savoury) pastry and some meat. The delectable cakes on show were calling to me – particularly the passion fruit meringue tarts - but I managed to resist (seriously regretting that now!). Our goodies were packed into a neat paper bag, complete with cutlery and napkins, and we were soon headed out the door to share our feast.
No sooner than we were out the door and The Boy was already unwrapping the intriguing savoury Danish that we had peaked our curiosity. Like the common sweet variety, it had a base of crunchy puff pastry but, instead of the usual fruit or custard filling, it was topped with roasted tomatoes and peppers and sprinkled with crumbly goats’ cheese. It was delicious though I think we left a conspicuous fairy tale trail of pastry flakes along the pavement while we scoffed it en route. The Boy was in his element as, despite being a savoury person, he loves Danishes.
Having settled ourselves on a bench in front of the town hall, we opened up our small box of salad. There are two options for salad – the ‘small’ box that we went for and a ‘large’ which was huge. A small would easily have fed me generously for a lunch on its own but in the interests of trying as much as possible (all in the name of research, naturally!), we shared a small between two which worked very well. It had been expertly layered with strata of broccoli, cauliflower, creamy yoghurt and tomato. Each mouthful was different. My first was full of chargrilled broccoli with chilli and onions which was a revelation as the humble broccoli lends itself very well to grilling – something that I’d never have thought of. My next bite featured roasted cauliflower with celery and fat blanched almonds which equally as delish. I’ve been reading a lot about roasting cauliflower lately so I must try it for myself soon. The baked Jerusalem artichokes with radishes, chilli yogurt and pomegranate seeds appealed to me as I’m always on the lookout for new recipes with the nutty beauties. The musky creamy flavour of the chokes went well with the initial creamy taste of the yoghurt but the mouthful was lifted by a sharp zing of chilli and pop of pomegranate. Amazing! The only salad that wasn’t mind-blowing was the roasted aubergine with cheese, tomato and pine nuts. It was nice enough but it lacked the bold flavours that the others had in fistfuls.
Next, we moved onto the meaty treats that we’d chosen. I would recommend the lamb kofte with sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts; it was tender and well spiced, balanced with the yoghurt sauce that came with it. The honey roasted chicken with almonds was nice – juicy and well cooked – but didn’t blow my mind. It was perfectly nice but, again, it lacked flavour. I imagine that the strong flavours in the rest of our meal made this all the more noticeable.
We were left with pleasantly full bellies and happy spirits. Everything that we’d eaten was fantastically fresh and a joy to eat. The Boy liked the fact that the food was inspiring yet achievable – he could imagine putting together similar combinations at home. Strangely, this didn’t make us feel short changed but encouraged – to try new recipes and cooking methods with familiar ingredients. The food isn’t cheap – a small salad box will set you back £9 – so, for us, it was a treat but I wouldn’t hesitate in recommending Ottolenghi’s to stoic Londoners and enthusiastic tourists alike.
Our trip definitely gave us food for thought and I already have plans to try out some Ottolenghi-inspired recipes (watch this space!) I hope to return to sample the cakes and maybe try a sit down meal in the not-too-distant future! Hint hint…
Ottolenghi has three take-away branches – Kensington, Nottinghill and Belgravia – while the Islington branch also includes a small café.