I took a very good friend of mine to Ottolenghi Spitalfields to celebrate the evening of her birthday. In truth, it wasn’t her birthday at all. It was about three months previously and I being the essentially disorganised person that I am, hadn’t got around to planning anything earlier. I was pretty unconcerned by this. Time can be elastic after all, and I had vowed, despite her objections, to spend the entire evening pretending it was the actual day of birth, despite the fact that it quite obviously, was not.
The first time I came across Ottolenghi was a number of years ago, sitting in my room in my apartment in Golders Green. I was watching one of his many shows, and feeling depressed because I had no food in the house. I rememer that what he was cooking looking so amazing, that not being able to take it anymore, I threw on my shoes and ran as fast as my legs could take me to my local felafel joint. I was a bit of a regular there, and realising I was in a bit of a bad way, they proceeded to turn up the Israeli pop, start dancing, and pour large quantities of Ouzo down my throat. The rabbis that came in not long after weren’t to impressed. It certainly cheered me up though.
Since that night I had been wanting to eat at Ottoleghi. Much of the ingredients are culturally familiar to me, but utilised and reinvented so brilliantly, that to eat there feels, to me at least, like something of a revelation.
We were seated at the bar, which I hadn’t been too sure about when I had booked, but it was actually lovely. Vibrant and fun with cocktails being shaken, stirred and poured amongst all other manner of activity. The decor is lovely, it feels modern but with a hat tipped to tradition. Candelabras adorned the tables, and the room itself has a serenenity to it, that simultaneously effortlessly intermingles with an authentically lively atmosphere.
We start with cocktails. A Saffron Chase – Chase English gin, Chase elderflower, lemon, saffron syrup, Champagne and a Pineapple and Sage Martini – Tanqueray sage gin, roast pineapple, pineapple juice, lemon, clove syrup. They are both spectacular. The barman quickly throws down a couple of rammikins of bar snacks to go with them. The most delicious spiced mixed nuts that seemed almost caramelised (actually I have no idea what they did to make them so good) and some marinated mixed olives. The pace of ordering feels so relaxed. There are people on hand if we needed anything, and their awareness of where we are in the meal seems spot on, but at no point do I ever feel we are being rushed to order. This means we’re able to work through our drinks and snacks in our own leisurely time before we have even looked at the menu.
To eat we order the Roasted aubergine with black garlic yoghurt, spicy peanuts, spring onions and fried chilli and the Broccolini with dukkah, roasted red onion, tarragon and chilli from the counter. We also get the Leek and potato croquettes, goat’s cheese and hazelnuts with pickled walnut and apple salsa and the Baked pollock with parsley root purée, fermented beetroot and cranberry gremolata from the kitchen.
Four dishes between two people is the perfect amount, and the only thing that’s wrong with the menu was that I don’t have four stomachs to enable me to order every item. Even though what we order is nothing short of spectacular, I almost felt deprived that I can’t fit more in. I could talk in more detail about the food, but it was so good, I felt so happy eating it, I really didn’t want to ruin the experience with overanalysis.
Otto, the manager at Ottolengi Spitalfields is lovely. He makes a huge effort to come have a chat and make sure we are happy with everyhing. He even congratulates my friend on her birthday despite knowing that it isn’t actually the case. I love it when people humour my quirks and general lunacy.
The thing I particularly like about Ottolenghi, is that it really feels like a warm atmosphere. There is no pretention, though the calibur of the food might justify it, and the sharing style dining really lends itself to a general aura of togetherness. I haven’t had the privelege to meet Yotam Ottolenghi personally, but I always get an impression that he seems like a really lovely, genuine and down to earth person. I shouldn’t think it too surprising that those qualities might filter their way through the entire enterprise. I am so looking forward, to paying them another visit. I suspect it might feel something like coming home.