Ottolenghi

287 Upper Street

London N1 2TZ

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I’ve been meaning to visit Ottolenghi’s for such a long time – there’s been many a time that I’ve admired those pretty rose-hued meringue stacks and luscious looking salads; the red and white exterior sleekly defined next to the plethora of cafes and restaurants on Upper Street. I usually glance briefly and longingly over from the other side of the road before rushing along, late for yet another appointment, only to be met by an impatient beautician instead of one of those friendly (yet frazzled) white pinafore-clad waiters. I’ve been reading Ottolenghi’s recipes in the Guardian for years now, have made his gorgeous  macadamia and caramel cheesecake recipe at home and read endless glowing reviews of his food – so yes, my visit was well overdue. An impromptu visit from my future in-laws provided the perfect excuse to finally make the pilgrimage to Angel on what was an absolute scorcher of a Bank Holiday Monday.

Yotam Ottolenghi’s trajectory to becoming baker, cook and deli-owner extraordinaire has been anything but a straightforward one. After finishing his Masters degree in philosophy and literature (whilst working on the news desk of an Israeli daily no less), he surprised his family by making a radical career shift and pitching up London in 1997. (Being a complete and utter snob, I do find it vaguely reassuring to know that my salad has been dreamt up by someone with an MA in Philosophy and Literature). He started as an assistant pastry chef at the Capital and then worked at Kensington Place and Launceston Place, where he ran the pastry section.

Of this period he says ‘I came here from Israel in 1997 determined to become a chef although I was almost 30. Very foolishly I thought that working in the kitchen of a Michelin starred restaurant was the way to do this. I was very much mistaken as I, and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one, was made to work very long hours and any creativity was squashed. Rowley (Leigh) took me on, initially to make ice-creams and then in the pastry section. But for him, I think I may have abandoned my dream.’ Inspirational stuff indeed.

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Yotam subsequently worked for Maison Blanc and then Baker and Spice, before going on to launch his own group of restaurants/food shops – there are now 4 branches of Ottolenghi across the capital, (in Notting Hill, Belgravia, Islington and Kensington). While each of his outposts share a united food philosophy, they are quite varied in scope. For example while Notting Hill and Belgravia branches both have large, communal café tables, the branch just off High Street Kensington is exclusively a deli. Islington is the biggest of the four.

Sami Tamimi is his business partner. Apparently Sami grew up watching his mother prepare Palestinian delicacies at their home in Arab East Jerusalem. After an initial job as a commis at the Mount Zion hotel, he moved from Tel Aviv to London in 1997 to work at Baker and Spice, where he invented a unique traiteur section which boasted strong Middle Eastern influences. In 2002 he teamed up with Yotam to open Ottolenghi and they haven’t looked back since.  Despite this meteoric rise, Ottolenghi adamantly refuses to open any more establishments as he views this as a compromise of his very high standards – he likes to personally travel between each branch every day to ensure the quality is spot on. This might be bad news for fans of his food living in Cumbria, but again I find this reassuring.

After squeezing in (I could barely get past the door) through the drooling crowds by the counter and waiters attempting to manoeuvre between them; each ferrying huge trays of fresh salads and cakes from the kitchen – I was impressed to learn that almost everything on display is made fresh in the kitchens.  The only exceptions to this rule are their croissants and breads, which they produce in a central bakery (but even these are proved and baked in each location). This means that hardly anything needs to be refrigerated because, as he writes in his introduction to his cook book, ‘it is a chilling experience to eat a cold sandwich’. Despite the sweltering temperatures, I can confirm that this obsession to detail resounds gleefully on the plate and indeed in the mouth.

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The queues could be down to the fact that they don’t take reservations, I don’t know if it was because it was a Bank Holiday, but the place was rammed. In fact it was virtually impossible to see the food on offer as there were so many people jostling around the counter. I managed to catch glimpses of luscious trays of fresh edamame and tomato salads, pastries, home-made seed and nut brittle and bottles of home made ketchup, as well as boxes of alphonso mangos and cucumbers, all  beautifully laid out. The chalk board proclaimed delights like ginger beer battered monkfish with chorizo, mango and chilli relish and courgette flowers stuffed with ricotta and basil.

The long tapering tables within the glamorous white interior were absolutely heaving. My eye was immediately drawn to the food and the locals exuding a sense of relaxed conviviality. Even the Antipodean manageress was laid back and helpful despite the obvious chaos going on around her.

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Luckily we managed to nab one of the two much coveted outside tables – perfect for the sweltering heat. The screeching police vans and rude boys blasting impossibly loud grime from their beemas didn’t manage to put us off.  Our waiters remained jovial and good humoured despite the scorching heat and evident duress they were under. We’re such simple creatures really us Brits, just give us a bit of sunshine and everyone’s happy.

We ordered corn bread that was crumbly and the most perfect buttercup yellow. It was flecked with cumin, chilli and poppy seeds and reminded me a great deal of the dhokla you can buy in waxed paper bags from snack shops in Southall.  My main of nori and panko seared tuna with wasabi mayo was rare and tender, with a perfectly dressed tomato and tarragon salad (I spotted at least 3 varieties of tomato in there). I also wanted the purple artichoke salad but they had just sold out so I went for the butternut squash which was also very good. My fiance’s kofta kebabs were exquisitely seasoned. Our plates were saturated with vitality and although the portions looked small they felt filling without leaving us feeling bloated,  it was all ideal outdoor summer eating.

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My father-in-law-to-be and I were served our dishes at the same time but there was at least a five minute wait before the other two arrived, however when they eventually did they were so apologetic it was impossible not to forgive them.

Our meal for four people, comprising of a “main” and two salads each, plus bread and drinks came to £65 (thanks again Mike and Hilary!!). I have heard people gripe about the slow service, the small portions and the lack of hygiene that comes with having big open trays of food. However, I don’t know if it was because I was high on vitamin D but this felt like one of the best places I had eaten in quite a while. There aren’t that many places that manage to take fresh ingredients and imaginatively intertwine such differing cuisines and flavours to such delicious effect. I’ll definitely be coming back and only wish I’d discovered this place earlier.

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23 comments

  1. Sounds like a great experience. Ever since his Christmas article in the Observer/Guardian I’ve been dying to go to give it a try. I just wish there was one on Baker Street!

    • Dan

      Great Post. I’ve got the recipe book, but also have never eaten there – I keep meaning to. I will get round to it one day when the planets align and I’m
      A) Hungry
      B) It’s Lunchtime
      C) I am in the vicinity of an Ottolenghi.

      it’ll happen, as surely as eggs is eggs.

      • gastrogeek

        hahahaha! (I hope you don’t mean Duck Eggs. Please don’t talk about eggs to me. The word “egg” has now become an actual swear-word to me).

    • gastrogeek

      I would definitely recommend it, that Christmas article was great wasn’t it? Let me know what you think if you do go, just make sure you leave enough room for dessert – I wish I had!

  2. Dan

    Duck eggs – hmmm no – I didn’t have Duck eggs in mind when I wrote that phrase…..but that’s not important now….what is important is the discovery that “Egg” is an actual swearword to you.

    So – how does that work?
    Someone treads on your toe – and you shout “EGG”!!! pointing at them menacingly?

    Or perhaps you launch into a tirade of swearing “You motherf*cker, utter fuc*ing tw*t….but just stop short of the word that’s beyond the pail, dare I say it….taboo…..”Egg”.

    I have the same relationship with the word ‘balloon’.

    • gastrogeek

      Hmmm balloons eh? Dare I venture as to why?? As for the ahem, “E” word, well I won’t even repeat what happens when I hear the word “mayonnaise”. Let’s just say that EXTREMELY BAD THINGS HAPPEN. Have you ever seen Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace? There’s an episode called “Hell Hath Fury” when Dr Liz Asher doesn’t get her chicken dinner on time and begins to attack everyone around her using the power of telekinesis. It’s a little bit like that….

  3. Dan

    Hmmmm balloons. I can’t say.

    Oh yeah – it all makes sense now, it’s coming back – mayonnaise, duck eggs, abject failure.

    I have seen Garth Marenghi’s darkplace, but can’t say I’ve seen that episode and am even more amazed that I’m being told about it by a ‘girl’, not in a sexist way of course….the only people I’ve ever heard discuss it were slightly nerdy blokes at work who discuss things like Star Trek far too much to be good for anyone.

    I’m starting to realise why your called GastroGeek.

  4. Joe

    egg the lot of you

  5. I like duck eggs and I like Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace.

    But which is better?

    • gastrogeek

      That’s too easy – Garth M wins it hands down. I mean, come on – Dr Lucien Sanchez is such a hot-shot!

  6. True, “One Track Lover” rocks.

  7. Mother-in-law-to-be

    Love the post Q, and kind of you not to mention that the food travels well to lap and back !!! Really enjoyed our lunch, the salads were superb, lots of flavours so cleverly entwined, and the beef was absolutely delicious! Am going to make a tabbouleh salad this evening so hope it tastes as good ! Must mention the waiters again – they were lovely, very cheerful and helful, not something you tend to expect on a hot and busy Sunday in London !

    • gastrogeek

      Ooh Tabbouleh! Sounds yummy. I too was inspired to make a few inspired salad-type things the next day. I roasted that asparagus you gave us (thanks for the brilliant idea) we had it dipped in wasabi mayo – t’was most lush. Thanks again for such a lovely lunch!! (It definitely felt like a Sunday didn’t it?!) P.S. I hope Mike’s shirt has recovered…..(!)

  8. Mother-in-law-to-be

    oops I mean Monday !!!!

  9. jane

    This has been one of my favourite favourite places in London for some time. Although I did go into mourning when they changed the lemon polenta cake from a full cake to small individual cakes… Not The Same. But still the best cake in London. I also love the aesthetic, I feel like I’m in a storybook when I’m in there. Sigh. Heaven. Glad you had such a good time!

    • gastrogeek

      Hi Jane – Lemon polenta cake? Surely this is manna from above. Do you have the recipe? I might try making it for my “charidee” cake stall at the Truman Brewery next weekend…

  10. Really must go there…thanks for this post.

  11. Dan

    Lemon Polenta cake – there’s a recipe for it in the River Cafe Cook Book. I’ve made it a few times, it’s fantastic.

  12. gastrogeek

    Ms Marmite – I’d definitely rate it, just maybe not at “peak” times if you know what I mean!

    Dan – will give it a go, I love the idea of using polenta in something sweet, how clever.

  13. Sounds divine. I have wanted to go there for the longest time but never seem to get round to it (and now I’m broke forever, what with the mortgage and enforced 4-day week :(). Anyhoo… at least I can still cook from the Ottolenghi cookbook and everything I’ve ever made from there has been fabulous.

  14. Lou

    I am utterly in love with Ottolenghi! It is my Church. I’m also a bit fan of his cookbooks- its so easy to make his recipes and they always turn out stunning. The Orange polenta cake is one of the best things about being alive, I couldnt recommend making it enough.
    I was actually oggling the Notting Hill AND Angel branch only yesterday- I’m incredibly envious you’ve made the macadamia cheesecake!
    x

  15. I’m truly enjoying the design and layout of your blog. It’s a very easy on the eyes which makes it much more enjoyable for me to come here and visit more often.
    Did you hire out a designer to create your theme? Outstanding work!

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