Last December, I visited Vietnam, some of whose most renowned dishes – like pho – include seafood and pork. As I was with a vegetarian this was clearly not ideal, so our guide thoughtfully took us to a “vegetarian” restaurant. Its conception of vegetarianism, however, was a little warped; the fact that vegetarians eschew meat as they don’t want to eat it was lost on them. This restaurant had dedicated a lot of time and thought into hubristically imitating the textures, flavours and shapes of meat and seafood. Rubbery pieces of unnameable mottled gunge floated limply on a meaty tasting broth, and fleshy pink sponge had been moulded into the semblance of shrimps lined up proudly on the serving plate. It turned out to be one of the most grotesque meals of my life, and would not have been out of place at Trimalchio’s dinner table (along with the fish made out of a sow's belly, a woodpigeon out of bacon, a turtledove out of a ham, and a chicken out of a knuckle of pork…).
Although not perhaps to the same extent as that Vietnamese restaurant, vegetarian cuisine is all too often perceived as a restricted carnivorous diet: poor, disadvantaged vegetarians cannot enjoy the pinnacle of the carnivore’s diet - a steak/burger - so instead they often have to make do with a lesser equivalent: a sole Portobello mushroom - the vegetable perceived to be closest in taste to meat. The small-mindedness continues with meat being considered the focal point of the carnivore’s diet, so the apparently logical option for vegetarians is to substitute another food group, namely dairy. An example of this is at the famed Relais de Venise in Marylebone where vegetarians have to make do with a plate of fat-laden casein. Thank goodness for Yotam Ottolenghi. Since the first branch of the Ottolenghi delicatessen in Belgravia was created 12 years ago, he has been making waves on the food scene, and they are becoming tidal. His food is not solely vegetarian but he has revolutionised both carnivores’ and vegetarians’ appreciation of the potential of vegetables. His recipes create such strikingly brilliant flavour combinations that the vegetarian ones are enough to turn the heads of even the most carnivorous.
As a proud owner of all of his cookbooks, a huge fan of all three of Ottolenghi branches, as well as the restaurants that his protégé chefs have opened, it seemed only reasonable to try Nopi, Yotam’s restaurant in Soho. I had been told by numerous friends that Nopi was a disappointing experience but I thought I would risk disillusionment and try it out for myself.
The décor is similar to the Ottolenghi branches, with white-washed brick walls, and elegant copper lamps suspended from the ceiling creating a clean, chic environment. My dining companion and I were led to our table which was noticeably small, especially when the restaurant concept is based around small sharing plates. We hadn’t seen each other for months and it took a while to get round to deciding our order – a common occurrence, and one that I wouldn’t normally acknowledge in a review, except that our conversation was punctuated by our charmless waiter every two minutes brusquely demanding our order.
When we did order and our food arrived, the table, as I had predicted, inevitably became rather crowded. The first dish I tried was burrata, miyagawa, coriander seeds, and white balsamic:
The plating was modern and refined, and the burrata itself was as it should be: deliciously creamy with an almost molten centre. However, though the coriander may have worked flavour wise, it hindered the pleasure of eating the dish as the whole seeds became gritty and rather tiresome after a minute of chewing with the flavour long gone. The citrus addition worked well as an astringent, but more was needed particularly as the white balsamic proved elusive.
I moved on to the roasted aubergine, saffron yoghurt, mixed seeds, and pickled chilli. It was ok, but lacking some of the punch that the same dish in Ottolenghi has.
I had also chosen the Tenderstem broccoli, spiced buttermilk, and black fungus. This was another disappointment as the broccoli was slightly undercooked and the black fungus which had drawn me to the dish in the first place was lacking in flavour altogether.
Next were the courgette & feta fritters. Crisp and hot, with a delicious filling, these were the best dish by far but, regrettably, that’s not saying much…
To top off the mediocre food, our brusque waiter kicked us out of the restaurant two hours after we had arrived. At 9 o’clock there was no one queueing, nor was there a lack of available tables. This is understandable at a busy restaurant at a busy time, but the utter lack of charm tainted my opinion further. Take my advice: don’t bother going here, go to Ottolenghi instead.
The loos were rather exciting though…
(I walked into about 3 people)
Suitable for: casual dates, celebrations, business lunches, family, friends