Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Review: Nopi

Impressive cooking with a big price tag

Grilled trout with labneh, yuzu kosho and a colourful radish.
A simple but delicious small plate at Nopi

I discovered Nopi the cookbook before Nopi the restaurant. The book, a birthday present, was my first of complex restaurant recipes. I've spent multiple weekends putting it to use, embarking on culinary adventures of exciting flavours. I learned how to retrofit familiar ingredients in service of the venue's cooking style, which combines the Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian, to create new-to-me flavours. Having enjoyed the recipes so much, I’ve now made multiple trips to eat at the actual establishment. I'm surprised to say that the hype (in my own mind of course!), was indeed worth it. 

Strawberry and rose mess with pomegranate and sumac

I will be honest at the outset – the flavours at a Nopi table appeal directly to my upbringing, and therefore my assessment of their food will be somewhat biased. However, what I can say objectively is that the cooking here is quite accomplished. The plated results are visually appealing, but as food made interesting rather than as food made into art. (There is a place for the food-as-art approach too, of course, but that place is a very small box). Nopi runs a breakfast menu in the morning, and a combined dinner/lunch menu for the rest of the day. Service times are complicated, so I would recommend checking their website for the latest set. The lunch/dinner menu can be a little confusing, but essentially Nopi serve their starters as small sharing plates if you want a tapa-style meal. 

The ground floor interior at Nopi

The venue, mostly gold, white and wood, is a good lesson in glamorous but minimalist décor. There is a brightly lit ground floor laid out like a traditional restaurant, and a darker, cosier basement laid out like a canteen. The latter enjoys views of the kitchen, and I would consider booking it out for private events. But I prefer the ground floor with its spaced out tables - such a rarity in London. No tinned sardine vibes, and private conversations galore. The restaurant in its entirety is lively but not loud. Crucially, it's easy enough to reserve at short notice, though perhaps this is a function of the pricing.

Sticky black rice with coconut milk, mango and banana
Generous portions of coconut milk and syrup on the side
Yet only three slices of banana for some reason

On the left,  savoury Valdeon cheesecake. Richness cut through with pickled beetroot
On the right, scallops with a moreish wild garlic and celeriac puree - ugly grey but delicious 

My personal food highlights at Nopi run through all their menus. My favourite from breakfast is the sticky black rice with coconut milk, mango and banana. Rice, milk and mango is a Bangladeshi staple, and for me this is the dish made new by the addition of coconut. From the lunch/dinner menu, favourites are harder to pick as offerings change over time. I love one of the longstanding dishes, a savoury cheesecake made with rich Valdeón cheese, offset by tangy pickled beetroot. Scallops are also a weakness of mine: my most recent serving with pureed wild garlic and celeriac was delicious and moreish. The current quail iteration with sweet miso is also commendable. From the dessert menu, past loves have included a strawberry and rose mess; and a chocolate ganache served with orange oil, sour cream and halva soil. Both are common flavour combinations, but were executed perfectly. The chocolate ganache was especially memorable for it's gloopy richness, offset by the crunchy texture of the halva.

Clockwise from the top: miso quail, twice-cooked baby chicken
and cardamom-ified courgette & manouri fritters

Yet there are criticisms to be made as well. The black rice from breakfast is served with a miserly portion of banana - Nopi can certainly afford more given their asking price. My last plate of quail was served with poached grapes, an unnecessarily sweet addition for a miso-led dish. More seriously, a few dishes have disappointed. A twice-cooked baby-chicken with meat dropping off the bone was sadly under-seasoned, and the accompanying chilli sauce lacked any discernible kick. Conversely, I have also been served courgette and manouri fritters laced far too strongly with cardamom. Things can go wrong at Nopi, and unfortunately when they do, it is not just a question of unfamiliar ingredients running counter to your personal preferences.

Coffee financiers. They're nice but I think most people order
them for the heavily alcoholic maple cream on the side! 

The service, in some ways, mirrors the cooking. It's super-slick, with the staff friendly yet unobtrusive, but somehow always to hand when you need them. They are also quite knowledgeable about the dishes being served, if asked. Yet sometimes, things fall apart a little. Some of the staff can be cold, such as the host on my last visit. And on one odd occasion, a waitress tried to convince my friend not to order financiers, as they would take the kitchen time to prepare

A very rich, gloopy dark chocolate ganache
Served with orange oil, sour cream, and crumbled halva

Blips like the above register, especially given the price asked of us as customers. Breakfast dishes cost around £10, but some are a little small. You can bulk them out with sides, but this is where they get you, charging £3 for a sliced tomato. A full dinner or lunch will set you back around £60, including non-alcholic drinks. You can probably reduce that a little if you order carefully -  do check the latest sample menus on their website. But the fact remains: this is a very expensive restaurant, one to file away for special occasions unless you are wealthy. Alternatively, maybe you're like me - someone with screwed up priorities when it comes to food and money. As such, while this place is a favourite of mine, for the food and decor especially, I cannot recommend Nopi without a cautionary note about the price. 

Food: 8/10
Service: 7/10
Atmosphere: 9/10
Value: 5/10

Final Score: 7.5/10

Contact Information
A: 21-22 Warwick Street, London W1B 5NE
T: +44 (0) 20 7494 9584 
W: www.ottolenghi.co.uk/nopi

NB. The final score, while influenced by the sub-scores, is a qualitative reflection of my overall impression the establishment.

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