Review of NOPI 15 February 2012
Some people are very territorial about their food. They shudder at the very thought of sharing a plate of food with another person. Perhaps it’s just part of our British reserve to create an invisible force field around our food. God forbid any brave soul should cross this imaginary line and take anything from another’s plate. You may get away with a snarl and rap across the knuckles. I’m sure there are a few people who would gladly turn their cutlery into an arsenal of lethal weapons to protect their dinner from an interloper. If you are this type of person then NOPI is most definitely not the place for you.
NOPI describes itself as a “brasserie with a twist”. Open all day, the concept behind Yottam Ottolenghi’s latest venture is to provide a variety of dishes for your table to share (three savoury dishes per person are recommended). In keeping with this casual notion of dining the restaurant décor is simple bordering on sterile. White dominates from the walls, tiles and marble tables. Warmth is added through the use of brass on the bar and the striking pendant lights. In contrast to the pale surroundings the waiters wear the standard black livery of the typical brasserie. A great deal of thought has gone into the detailing of the restaurant. A signature golden ring crops up everywhere from the corner of the menu to the collars of the waiters shirts. Even the napkin holders are weighty brass rings (which were hastily removed from our table possibly to deter any light fingered diners taking home a souvenir). Things get even more informal downstairs with two large communal tables where guests are bunched together and can view the chefs at work in the open kitchen.
There were four of us in our party and 12 dishes seemed like an awful lot of food (I had visions of us having to balance some plates on our heads in order to accommodate them all). Our amiable waiter reassured us our selection would be staggered so that at no point would our table become swamped. Our next issue was whether or not we would be able to find 12 dishes from a menu of 16 items. We needn’t have worried. Just reading this adventurous menu makes you salivate. There was not one thing on the menu that I would not have eagerly devoured. Fortunately, my dining companions had eyes to match the size of their bellies so we sensibly ordered eight dishes with the option to add more if we wanted.
The flavours of the menu are nestled in the Middle East with dishes such as smoky roasted aubergine with black garlic, harissa and pine nuts or baby octopus with skordalia and ras al hanout spices. There are also oriental inspired dishes such as seared scallops with pig’s ears and black bean and ginger sauce. Everything we ordered was sublime particularly the tender ox tongue with pickled sour cherries and horseradish cream. If I had to pick a fault (and this is tricky) I would say the seared lamb cannon was light on the lamb and heavy on the celeriac salad containing sour barberries (which can be an acquired taste for some). Although each plate was quite petite, twelve dishes had been just about enough for us. However, we did manage to share three desserts including some delightfully light miniature coffee and pecan financiers with maple cream. As promised our selection of dishes was seamlessly supplied with clockwork precision and our carafe of tap water was regularly replenished without us having to ask for it to be done. Be aware that this tempting pick and mix approach to dining can easily lead to a hefty bill (each item costs between £8 and £12.50) so although your experience will be cheerful it is unlikely to be cheap.
The one downside to sharing food is that inevitably you make a mess which is possibly why some people are so against it. With bellies full we surveyed the remnants of our meal on our table. In a snobbier establishment we may have felt embarrassed to have created such carnage. Not so at NOPI. What you get here is excellent food and impeccable service in a chilled, convivial environment. The ensuing detritus is just part of the NOPI experience. And besides, marble is so easy to keep clean even if it is white…