It’s been so many years since I last went to Ottolenghi that it was pre-blog days – and the blog turned 6 last month! So when Annie suggested we ate there last night before going to the Almeida Theatre, I was really pleased. I’m not sure quite why it’s taken me so long … I’ve been to the Almeida quite a few times; I fairly regularly meet up with north London friends in Islington. And certainly I’ve walked past Ottolenghi (the first and flagship ‘Ottolenghi’ store) many times and the food on display in its windows is so enticing, I’m not sure how I’ve resisted going in (well, actually I did once but just for coffee and cake). I know it’s partly because I always think of it as very expensive but last night I realised that while not cheap, actually it isn’t outrageous at all and given how amazingly special every dish was, it’s certainly worth what you pay. There were 3 of us as Jerry came too and the waiter suggested 6 to 8 dishes to share – all plates of food are for sharing; some cold from the counters at the front and some hot from the kitchen. On average they’re about £10 each and as we chose 2 each (to then share) that’s a base of £20 a head.
The food in the window entices you in and then you go through the door and have to look some more. The restaurant is a deli too so you can buy takeaway and there are some other deli foods – oils, herbs, etc. – to buy.
There are counters at the front if you’re just popping in for a snack; the restaurant area is to the back with a few small tables down the side but mainly the seating is around long communal tables down the middle. It’s all white and minimalist. The only thing I didn’t like about the place were the modern sculptured white plastic chairs that rocked back slightly making me conscious of having to be careful and my body didn’t quite fit neatly into the curved shape. But hell! I was there for the food – and the food was sublime!
There was a choice of 7 cold and 7 hot dishes on the menu, but you can always choose something from the front counters (and indeed when it came to dessert, our waiter suggested we might like to take a look as there were more choices there). We could have happily eaten everything but stuck to our two choices each – which were more a joint discussion about what to share. The waiter also left one menu which turned out to be useful as Ottolenghi’s dishes are always complex and we were pleased to be able to go back and check on the ingredients – but purely for fun and interest as they were so incredibly good.
A selection of bread came straight away. Now if you read my recent post about Panzanella you will know about my love of bread and so when I say this was one of the best selection of breads I’ve had you’ll realise they were seriously good. The accompanying olive oil was exceptionally good too. We also ordered a bottle of delicious Austrian white wine.
Then our plates started coming … we were warned about an order, that the cold plates from the counter would come first, the hot kitchen ones take a little longer. First came this ‘Roasted aubergine with feta, yoghurt, pistachios, fried mint and Aleppo chilli’.
It was a delightful ‘mess’ (think Eton Mess, not something bad!) of flavours: gorgeous soft aubergine, salty feta, a lovely tangy dressing of yoghurt. The chilli wasn’t very obvious – though when you found some it was suitably hot!
This ‘Grilled peaches with Roquefort, spicy walnuts, mixed leaves and orange blossom dressing’ was one of our favourites – though that’s a relative term and in all honestly it was difficult to choose a favourite from such glorious food. Next came ‘Cornish beetroots with buffalo ricotta, greengage and loganberry syrup’. This was on the ‘hot’ menu but we were told it was being served cold, which I think was probably nicest. It was a lovely fresh dish. The next (hot) dish – ‘Slow roasted celeriac with pickled apple, hazelnut, celeriac puree, and dill seed crumb’ really was my favourite. It was I suppose more autumnal with its with rich, warming flavours but absolutely sensational. I love celeriac but the slow roasting really deepened the flavour and the pickled apple and crunchy hazelnuts worked brilliantly with it.
I surprised myself by choosing a rabbit dish; I used to cook rabbit quite a bit when first married back in the late 70s but once my daughter’s pet rabbit, Benjy, came into our lives (who lived a remarkable 11 years!), I found I couldn’t eat it. Since his demise, I have occasionally eaten it but rarely through choice. But I couldn’t resist pastilla: ‘Slow cooked rabbit and barberry pastilla with fennel and bergamot salad’. Well, could you! ‘Pastilla’ is a Moroccan meat pie, a filling of meat, usually pigeon, and often fruit, encased in filo pastry. It was gorgeous, the crispy pastry layers folded round a soft and delicious filling. The fennel and bergamot salad was a revelation – the aniseed fennel with the sweet-sour bergamot orange.
Our final choice had been ‘Roasted hake with coconut broth, samphire, pickled radish and crispy ginger’. This was delicious too, the flavours working harmoniously together but not overpowering the perfectly cooked fish.
It was all wonderful and we were actually quite full but it didn’t take a lot of persuasion amongst the three of us to decide there was just enough time for dessert and coffee before heading to the theatre. We went up to the counter at the front to make our choices.
I thought I’d have one of the little almond tarts with fig on top that you can just see in the bottom left-hand corner of the photo but made a last minute change to an apple and sultana cake with maple topping on the menu. For some reason I judged this to be a modest dish – I didn’t want something rich and creamy – but then a huge slice of cake was put before me!
It was very good but a little too much and I would probably have preferred it at teatime with a cup of tea. Annie’s choice was an indulgent pistachio, raspberry and white chocolate roulade, which she said was delicious and not too sweet, as one might imagine it to be.
Jerry’s choice was a cheesecake topped with hazelnuts and caramel.
It was a fabulous meal and I’m so pleased to have returned to Ottolenghi – I really mustn’t leave it years until I go back again! What also impressed was the excellent service. Our waiter was friendly and incredibly efficient in a nice way; he was enthusiastic about the menu and had eaten most of the dishes so was able to answer our queries with knowledge; he was great at helping choose a bottle of wine. All in all, he just couldn’t have been better or nicer and it really does make all the difference to the enjoyment of a meal in a restaurant.
After some very good coffee, we did a quick dash across the road to the Almeida for the newly opened ‘Against’ starring Ben Whishaw, which I’d been looking forward to but was a disappointment. However, with a meal at Ottolenghi’s and meeting up with two of my dearest friends, all in all it was a really great evening.