Food is no longer food. Obviously it still encompasses all the basic principles of food – its edible & you eat it when you’re hungry. But you’d have to have had your head in the sand or living in Assange’s lair for the last 10 years not to notice that food has changed.
It has become jelly sculptures of Buckingham Palace, lickable wallpaper, frozen foie gras, exploding rabbit ears, deconstructed and reconstructed more times than Pamela Anderson’s chest. The menus in the world’s top restaurants read like a paragraph by Roald Dahl – 35 courses of weird, wonderful, bizarre, peculiar, eccentric dishes.
But while the line between chef and scientist gets increasingly blurred there are some who are staying firmly on the side of food and giving two fingers to liquid nitrogen.
One in particular is Yottam Ottolenghi the man behind the critically lauded eponymous café-meets-deli style restaurant chain.
Ottolenghi shot to the scene in 2002 with the opening of his first branch in Notting Hill, followed two years later by its flagship in Islington – the setting for my tale.
The philosophy behind the menu is fresh no nonsense food, which comes straight from the source to your table, homemade. Since opening nine years ago Ottolenghi has gained the reputation of being the man responsible for sexing up vegetables. And it’s not just the veggies that he’s sexed up. Its glossy interiors on Upper Street aren’t bad looking either. Bright-white and shiny tables mix with modern red chandeliers to give the impression of walking into a tube of toothpaste.
We pull up a pew at the room’s centrepiece , a vast communal table, and get stuck into the task at hand – food. Split into two sections, ‘From the Counter’ and ‘From the Kitchen’ the menu is made up of small sharing plates – not that you’ll want to. The former is cold and readily prepared and served as a starter while the latter is hot and comes later.
Our charming Polish waitress recommended we order 15 plates between the six of us. Following orders we piled our table high with fillets of tender beef with coriander and mustard sauce, yellow-fin tuna with wasabi cream and pan-fried sea bass with green mango salad and spicy peanuts. Obviously meat and fish do feature on the menu but more as the supporting act to the vegetables’ starring role. It was the lentil, sweet potato and okra with mini cumin puris and roasted aubergines that had me reaching in for seconds.
But I was soon to learn that wasn’t even the best of it.
At the front of the room glowing like a halo was the windowsill of heaven, groaning under the weight of cakes, pies, mousses, biscuits and brownies. Ottolenghi’s desserts are worth a visit alone. But, let me warn you seeing it all in the flesh rather than on a menu is a dangerous thing and we might have got slightly over zealous when choosing. Key lime pie, orange and chocolate flourless cake, passion fruit cheesecake and several other sugary delights may have some how found their way to our table and been devoured.
Ottolenghi is not your average café or deli and at £10 a dish it is more expensive than one but you most definitely get what you pay for – there’s not a greasy spoon in sight. And for any south Londoners out there it is definitely worth crossing the river for.
Best for: quick bites, big groups and sweet teeth.
287 Upper Street, Islington, N1, 2TZ tel: 020 7288 1454
by Jemima Johnson-Gilbert