Lunch at Yotam's

Naintara Maya Oberoi | Updated on June 15, 2018 Published on June 15, 2018

Wide spread: Snapshot of an Ottolenghi meal at his café-deli at London’s Spitalfields area   -  NAINTARA MAYA OBEROI

For an Ottolenghi fan, finally making it to the British-Israeli chef's restaurant didn't disappoint

Yotam Ottolenghi, the Israeli-born British chef credited with the renaissance of veggies in Britain, is a legend in London. The Ottolenghi empire in the country comprises books, TV shows, newspaper columns, restaurants and delis. Though he is best known for making boring vegetables exciting to British diners, Ottolenghi and his partners cook all kinds of meat too — quails, rabbit, duck, seafood, beef, lamb, and goat.

I own his cookbooks, I read his recipes in The Guardian, I watched him on Masterchef Australia, I follow TV programmes featuring the personable chef chopping vegetables, giggling with Sami Tamimi, his Palestinian-origin business partner, or barrelling a jeep through Crete in search of feta. Yet, somehow, I hadn’t been to an Ottolenghi restaurant.

My Ottolenghi cookbooks are like works of art, drawing on multiple culinary traditions from the Middle East and the Mediterranean. Jerusalem — an aesthetic tour de force authored with Tamimi, who grew up on the Palestinian side of Jerusalem — explores the food of the city and its surrounds. Despite the slip-ups — the authors differentiate between “Arab” and “Jewish” recipes, which isn’t a strictly accurate distinction — the book is a treat, a feast of recipes, stories, explanations of traditions and techniques, portraits of Jerusalem life, and photos of gleaming salads, burnished hens and baked bread.

Cooking an Ottolenghi recipe, though, is quite another matter. The list of things you are likely to need — barberries, labneh, pomegranate molasses, Dolcelatte cheese, handy access to Google — is such that once you’ve finished shopping and begun prepping, you invariably discover you’ve forgotten to buy an essential ingredient. Even if you do, by some miracle, manage to get home with your spoils, persimmons and quinces falling from your arms like a short, grumpy harvest deity, chances are that you will turn to page two of the beautiful, seed-and-nut-flecked recipe to discover that you need a food processor (which you don’t own) to blitz this or that into a paste, a marinade, or a spice mix. You start to feel that getting the ingredients out of the bags has taken longer than the actual cooking, and you fall into a deep decline and order Chinese instead.

So what’s the answer? Have someone else make your Ottolenghi lunch. My opportunity arose two weeks ago, when I persuaded not one, but four fellow visitors to London to come to lunch at Ottolenghi’s Spitalfields café-deli. Just off the Spitalfields market, this is similar to all the other Ottolenghi delis, bright and white and light, with all the colour concentrated in the food.

And what colour it is. The front of the restaurant is a mountain of desserts — persimmon cakes, passion fruit meringues, apple tarts — and the back of the room is platters of salads, potatoes, breads. The counter is half-hidden behind cookbooks, olive oils, spice mixes, jams and chutneys. Behind, people sit at a long white bar or at spare-white tables with mysterious loops of cord hanging above them (these turn out to be hold plugs for charging phones, a curiously ugly idea for such a spare, beautiful place).

But even sluggish staff and electrical fittings in lieu of décor cannot detract from how good the food and drink at Ottolenghi is. Our cocktails were delightful, delicate and spice-tinged — a gin punch with a coriander and juniper syrup, a super-luxe champagne-and-saffron-laced elderflower gin drink, a sumac pomegranate martini with a velvet falernum syrup (if, like me, you Googled “velvet falernum” expecting photos of flowery sofa fabric, you would instead be confronted by a description of a low-alcohol rum from Barbados, tasting of lemon, cloves, and ginger). Caribbean cocktail ingredients are matched by the varied influences in the food — beef-and-liver koftas are fatty indulgences in a green lovage sauce with garlic yoghurt. But the chicken meatball I jealously swapped a kofta for is equally good, served with preserved lemon and olive tagine. Octopus in chraimeh sauce (a spicy Sephardic sauce of tomato, garlic, cinnamon, caraway and other things) was perfectly cooked, buttery as most octopi can only dream of being, and studded with large, bright purple Peruvian olives.

The butternut squash quiche was a dud, and the roasted sweet potatoes were stodgy, but everything else was lovely. Roasted aubergine wedges with feta yoghurt, topped with roasted almonds, pomegranate and mint was another revelation, as were green beans leavened with roasted grapes, pickled shallots, and spears of samphire, the crisp, saline marsh succulent. There was still more: Broccoli chargrilled with garlic and chilli, roasted baby potatoes with wild garlic pesto and pine nuts, Romano peppers with fried manouri cheese, more pine nuts, the whole slathered in “green goddess” dressing — that retro California mayonnaise-chervil-sour-cream-chives-anchovy concoction. We mopped up the last of our salads, trying vainly to fit in another meatball, another roasted pepper, another curl of octopus. Just as pretty as the cookbooks, and infinitely easier than trying to cook it yourself.

Naintara Maya Oberoi


Naintara Maya Oberoi is a food writer based in New Delhi

Twitter: @naintaramaya

Published on June 15, 2018
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