287 Upper Street
London N1 2TZ
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.