Another day, another exciting London restaurant launch. Nopi (short, in the manner of Soma, the district of San Francisco that is situated south of Market, for north of Piccadily) is Yotam Ottolenghi’s new creation, his first not to bear his name and, apparently, his first excursion into fine dining. Not very fine dining, mind: Yotam can’t or won’t compete with the likes of Heston on the refinement stakes, and offers a considerably more relaxed experience than anything you’ll get at the Mandarin Oriental – even if it is not, as a result, considerably cheaper.
One thing you pretty much never get in traditional fine dining establishments is salad, but Ottolenghi has made his name with them and continues to work in the unshakeable belief that vegetables can be delicious even when they are raw. And he puts up a pretty convincing case. So beef brisket croquets come with an excellent “asian” coleslaw, while fairly ordinary mackerel is made memorable by a salad of coconut, mint and peanut. There’s no need here for omnivores to order token vegetables, because they’re getting some anyway.
In two visits, in which I tried a good two-thirds of the menu, the only things I didn’t like were guilty of an identical crime, namely an excess of dairy-ness: a small portion of braised winter greens that had a fat blob of yoghurt oozing all over it; a dish of braised carrots and mung beans that came with just two tiny little baby carrots, but quite a lot of very strong smoked labneh, and a desert of vanilla rocotta with blackcurrants and rhubarb that had its cream-to-fruit ratio a bit wrong. Highlights: veal carpaccio; that mackerel; rice pudding studded with pistachios and sprinkled with rose petals; most other stuff.
Both my visits came during the soft opening, with everything (including wine) at half-price, and the menu clearly a work in progress – in the 48 hours between visits several things disappeared entirely and others changed remarkably, so an ossobuco that had an intense, preserved lemon tang on my first visit, for example, had almost no citrus left on my second. The first version might not have been good enough for Ottolenghi, but it was good enough for me to order it again.
Other positives: a good, bright space with comfortable seats; extremely friendly service; a kitchen that seemed impressively in control even with a packed restaurant on opening night; a good, interesting wine list (put together by Israeli blogger and former Bibendum staffer Gal Zohar) devoid of ego-bottles and spread between £19 and £70. Negatives: bewildering toilets that – and I’m guessing, but I can’t think of any other explanation – were bought on the cheap when a tacky 70s-themed strip club closed down, and fairly ambitious pricing. Most of the dishes pick up on the recession-era trend for cheap ingredients – lamb belly, pig cheek, beef brisket, mackerel, clams, brussels ruddy sprouts – but ignore the recession-era trend for cheap actual prices – £9 to £12 for meat and fish dishes, of which you’ll need at least three. Even given the West End location, the pricing seems a little bit optimistic.
But dammit if it isn’t a lot of fun. At half price, an incredible bargain. At full price, costly enough to make me feel a little bit guilty when I – inevitably – go back.