Fusion with merit
Like those unfortunate celebrity babies, restaurants sometimes have the kind of names that illicit contempt and ridicule. Such is the case with NOPI, whose name is a clumsy acronym of its location North Of Piccadilly. As loathsome as this is, the prettiness of the interior goes some way to make up for the misguided name.
NOPI is what you might imagine the light at the end of the tunnel to lead to, a heavenly waiting room of sorts. Pure white walls are diffused in a golden glow, such that the overall feeling is of a floating space unencumbered by hard lines and corners. Bars are marble topped, fittings are brass, and tables are neatly laid with white paper covers – the stage is set.
A blank canvas is the ideal backdrop for owners/chefs Ottolenghi and Tamimi to showcase their hybrid cuisine. Both chefs grew up on opposite sides of Jerusalem, one on the Jewish west side, and the other on the Palestinian east. It is in London that they discovered their common ground, joining sides to create food rich with the myriad flavours of the Middle East, Mediterranean and Asia.
The menu is designed to share small plates, with interesting options for both meat and non-meat. From the non-meat section, a ball of achingly soft burrata comes quivering over to our table. Its squeaky clean texture is partnered with white balsamic and clementine. The citrus overtones combine with toasted coriander seeds and burrata in an obscenely gratifying way.
Twice cooked poultry sees a baby chicken undergoing a mysterious double prep. On further enquiry, it is revealed that the chicken is brined overnight in a mixture of soy sauce, lemongrass, lime, ginger and garlic and then poached. The next day, it is deep fried to order during service. It tastes as pleasant as a lemony chicken is bound to under the circumstances, and yet there is no deeper satisfaction to be had.
My favourite protein, loin of venison, proves a lowlight of the evening. Although it has a still-alive pinkness, in the mouth it is all gristle and rubber. The meat is served with a yoghurt which has been steamed over 12 hours with date molasses. This caramelizes the yoghurt, which is then scattered with tossed blackberries and peanut crumble. None of the accompaniments, as appealing as they are, make the venison go down easier. Matters are greatly improved by a fish tapas of Dover sole. The sole is seared in burnt butter and has good flake factor, speckled with folds of paper-thin nori.
All of the tapas could do with being larger, and side dishes are necessary to pad out the affair. Tenderstem broccoli is charred on a hot grill to get it smoking, then served with mustard vinaigrette and almonds, resulting in a average-good plate. Truffled polenta ‘chips’ are a great deal more thrilling. Polenta is moulded into broad rectangular shapes, and then fried to create a thin crust. The resulting logs are saturated with truffle, tasting sinfully good.
To end on a sweet note, a chocolate creation is formed of cocoa mousse layered with biscuit. The biscuit is macaron-like, made from hazelnuts, almonds and flour, and gives much needed texture to the mousse. This is lubricated with ‘mahlab’ cream, which has ground cherry pips folded in. To heighten the fruitiness, cherries are boiled until soft and scattered across the cream. Apart from the obvious cherry-chocolate smack of taste, there are also notes of aromatic cinnamon and cardamom, with a hazelnut brittle adding bite. The last offering of rice pudding is so much more than it first suggests, cooked with fragrant cardamom and orange blossom water, with drizzles of honey, rose and thyme confetti.
For fusion of a good quality, NOPI offers something that others in the category miss entirely. Not all the dishes are exceptional, but most will put a smile on your face and have you wondering what it is you just ate, and how to recreate the experience. Service is friendly but could be more attentive, average price per person is £45.
Tube: Piccadilly Circus