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Sunday, 20 February 2011


I am not a lucky person.  My numbers have yet to come up on the lottery.  I have never had a win on the premium bonds.  I seem to recall once winning a bottle of Blossom Hill in the tombola at the annual fete held in the village where my parents live, but I think of that as Fortune raising a wry eyebrow rather than smiling beneficently down upon me.

This is why I was really rather shocked to be lucky enough to secure a booking at Nopi, Yotam Ottolenghi's latest venture, on a Saturday night and at a reasonable time. 

I have Twitter, in addition to Fortune, to thank.  As a result of following @ottolenghi I was aware of the fact that a new restaurant on Warwick Street in Soho was in the offing; the attendant highs and lows of such an endeavour had also been well-documented on the Ottolenghi blog.  One morning my eye happened upon a tweet proclaiming that Nopi would be having its soft opening between 17 and 23 February, and that diners fortunate enough to secure a booking during that period would receive 50% off their bills.  I clicked through to the Nopi website and booked, half expecting to receive a phone call a bit later from an apologetic PR person informing me that something had gone wrong with the online reservations procedure.

But no.  I was called yesterday to confirm the booking, and when Mr. F and I arrived this evening all was well.    We were shown to our table in the shiny white dining room, which is warm and inviting rather than clinical as a result of the opulent lighting, pale wood tables and chairs, and richly-veined marble floor.

I'd been perusing the menu online for a number of days, and had been looking forward to trying a couple of dishes that were, sadly, not on offer tonight.  Our charming waiter informed us that the vongole with basil spatzle had been taken off the menu as a result of its being too difficult a dish for the kitchen to prepare in the requisite quantities (this accords with my own personal experience of trying to prepare enough spatzle for two people, the conclusion of which saw me standing defeated and tearful in the middle of the kitchen whilst Mr. F dutifully rang our local Indian restaurant for take-out). 

But no matter, the menu was still replete with a host of dishes that sounded intriguing and delicious.  Following the suggestion that we order three per person I opted for the grilled lamb cutlets with aubergine and moutain ash goat's cheese, grilled hake kebabs with lemon pickle and yoghurt, and green beans with roasted hazelnuts and orange.  Mr. F ordered prawn toasts, poached sea bass with tomato essence, a salad of raw brussel sprouts with mushrooms and quail egg, and winter greens with a tahini-yoghurt sauce.  We were informed by the aforementioned charming waiter that the dishes would be served to us as and when they were prepared by the kitchen.  I happen to like being left to the mercy of the kitchen in this way, though I can see that it might not be to everyone's taste, and on one occasion it misfired when a strongly-flavoured and hearty dish was served with one that was a little too subtle to hold its own.

We started with the beans, the brussel sprouts and the prawn toasts, all of which were commendable in their own way.  The brussel sprouts deserve a special mention for being the dish which seemed to promise least and yet which delivered most.  Finely shredded sprouts came dressed in a sharp, lemony vinaigrette.  Oyster mushroom gave the dish earthiness and texture, whilst soft poached quail's eggs lent richness.  Slices of Manchego provided the all-important umami savour. 

The fish dishes came next.  The hake kebabs were, for me, the stand-out dish of the evening.  They were juicy, almost meaty, whilst the lemon pickle and herb salad were zesty and refreshing: a perfect balance.  The sea bass and tomato essence couldn't quite compete in the circumstances.  It was an elegant little bowlful - the tomato essence was flavoured with anise (or fennel) and was light and sweet.  The sea bass was delicate and cooked as it should be.  But overall the dish failed to deliver in comparison to the hake.

My lamb, the greens, and the addition of a plate of burrata served with coriander seeds and orange came next.  The lamb was juicy and expertly seasoned, the goat's cheese grassy, and the aubergines silky in their tomato sauce.  The greens were fine, albeit a touch gritty and slightly watery.  The burrata was, however, another knock-out dish up there with the brussel sprouts and the hake.  The unexpected pairing with coriander seeds and slices of orange provided earthy fragrance and acid tang which counterbalanced perfectly the luxurious creaminess of the cheese.

Despite feeling stuffed to the gills our gluttony was such that we were unable to resist pudding.  My sultana financier were dense and moist, although sadly lacking in sultanas.  Mr. F's rice pudding with rose syrup and pistachios was pleasant if unremarkable.  We drank a bottle of red from Basilicata which saw us right through the meal with aplomb, and which went particularly well with the burrata. 

Mr. F and I passed an extremely enjoyable evening at Nopi, which seems to be sailing through its opening week.  My sense is that you'll need a prodigious amount of luck on your side to secure a booking there in due course.

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