Yotam Ottolenghi's London restaurant offers a menu combining the flavours of the Mediterranean, Middle East and Asia. Hilary Armstrong reports
There can't be many chefs who'd cite a tomato salad as their favourite dish on the menu but Sarit Packer, executive chef at Yotam Ottolenghi's London restaurant Nopi, is one. Her choice suggests a refreshing lack of ego and an unstinting belief in the ingredient as the star.
Admittedly, the Nopi tomato salad (£9) is no ordinary tomato salad: tiger, san marzano, datterini, yellow datterini and camone tomatoes (from supplier, Natoora) are seasoned with wasabi salt, dressed with sherry vinaigrette and served atop mascarpone lightly whipped with wasabi, tarragon, chives and spring onions then garnished with baby coriander, red amaranth, basil cress and toasted pine nuts - phew! The effect is summery and surprising - a riff on the ‘insalata tricolore' with a subtle Asian counterpoint.
As this role call of diverse ingredients suggests, Nopi's menus are what used to be called ‘fusion'. The mix of Asian and Mediterranean influences is pure Ottolenghi but is also a coming together of Israeli-born Packer's Mediterranean and European flavours (she worked at Orrery, J Sheekey and Oxo Tower prior to Ottolenghi) and head chef Ramael Scully's Malaysian-Australian ones.
Dishes are shared, in keeping with Asian family-style eating. Packer says: "The idea is for people to get interactive, to talk about what they're eating. Rather than it just being you with your own plate, you're having an evening out, an experience. The sharing element creates quite a buzzy restaurant and there's lots of talking to the waiters and managers."
Larger groups at the 100-seat restaurant often simply take one of everything - a chef's dream. The bestselling dishes (an even split between the scallops, burrata, beef and chicken) sell upwards of 250 a week.
The Asian-Mediterranean concept presents some challenges. Firstly, it means that Packer can't go too far to either extreme or else risk clashing flavours - Malaysian otak-otak (£12) is a rare example of a ‘classic'. Secondly, it means designing all dishes so they're easily divisible and every mouthful packs every flavour. "Our food is pretty robust. You don't eat part of a dish and not get the full experience," she says.
The kitchen, with its 20-strong brigade, has a "crazy system of marker pens" to highlight checks and send out dishes that will work harmoniously together. Thus the presa iberica carpaccio, manouri, pine nuts (£10) - sheets of raw pork shoulder, almost like fatty otoro sashimi, given a lift by ginger and Thai basil, and every bit as good as that sounds - arrive early with salads or ‘nibbly' dishes such as the chicken, while heavier fish dishes such as chargrilled octopus, salmorejo sauce, morcilla (£10) would come in the final wave with beef sirloin or pig's cheek. Descriptions are deliberately minimal to build excitement.
Menus are printed daily, once deliveries are in and Packer and Scully have signed off the quality. Packer's guess is that the menu will come full circle during the course of a year. Although it varies subtly from day to day, new dishes are not introduced very frequently.
Dishes are tried and tested, then tried and tested again but further adjustments are made in response to customer feedback. For instance a classic, icing sugar-dusted pigeon pastilla that didn't gel well with the British palate was dropped in favour of a rabbit version (£12).
"It's quite a process for us to put a dish on," explains Packer. "Scully and I might work on an idea then we'll change it, then we'll change it again, then we'll bring Yotam in and start tasting with him and start adjusting here and there. It actually takes us quite a while to get to a dish that we're completely happy with. When the three of us agree - which rarely happens - it goes on the menu."
SAMPLE DISHES FROM THE MENU
Spicy Aubergine Tart, Goat Cheese, Datterino Tomato, £9
Burrata, White Peach, Fennel Seeds, £12
Grilled Mackerel, Red Lentils, Smoked Labneh, Mint Sauce, £10
Softshell Crab, Nashi Pear, Peashoots, £12
Roasted Beef Sirloin, Baby Turnips, Pecorino di Fossa, £12
Twice-cooked Baby Chicken, Lemon Myrtle Salt, Chilli Sauce, £7
Doughnuts, Plum Wine Anglaise, Berry Compôte, £7
Kaffir Lime, Meringue, Tapioca, Honey Mango, £6.50
Nopi 21-22 Warwick Street, London W1B 5NE
Tel: 020 7494 9584