Since I don’t happen to live there, it’s a bit inconvenient that my favorite restaurant is in London. The restaurant is called Ottolenghi, and there are four branches. I’ve only been to the original location, in Notting Hill, but word is that the other three sites are just as good as the first.
Although it’s possible to eat there — there is seating for only about 10 people — the Notting Hill branch of Ottolenghi is mainly a take-out place. That said: banish any preconceived notions that you may have about take-out. Ottolenghi is altogether something else. This place redefines the concept and serves the most incredible take-out that you can imagine: fresh, simple salads; delicious soups; innovative main dishes; lush desserts.
If I were to open a restaurant here in Opelika, which is fairly unlikely, I’d borrow heavily from the Ottolenghi model: bare white walls, shiny, reflective surfaces, heaping platters of gorgeous food as the only decoration. In such a place, everything is oriented toward the food, which means, of course, that the food has to be arrestingly beautiful and delicious. This true of Ottolenghi. Whether eating a meal there or just having a look at the astounding window display, a trip to Ottolenghi is a real treat and ranks high on my must-do list whenever I can manage the trip to London.
Unfortunately, that isn’t very often, which is why I was delighted when Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, the geniuses behind the restaurant, came out with a cookbook last year. (Recently,an article in Gourmet profiled both the restaurant and the book.) Happily, the book is every bit as good as the restaurant. In fact, even though I ordered it as a pricey import and got taken on the exchange rate, purchasing it might wind up saving me a bit of money in the long run, since, for a time, I can use it here in Alabama to stave off those powerful longings to visit Ottolenghi (but only for a time…).
I own a lot of cookbooks, but I have only a tiny bit space available for book storage. That means that I must store a significant number of my cookbooks creatively, a practice that may oneday drive my husband insane. Far too many of my cookbooks are kept underneath my bed, but a small space on my cramped kitchen counter is reserved for a few oft-used tomes. Ottolenghi is prominent among them.
Ottolenghi, the Cookbook is gorgeous; quirky photographs capture the energetic spirit of the restaurant. The authors write about food in clear, precise, but engaging prose. The introduction of the book explains the ideological underpinnings of the restaurant:
Unfussiness and simplicity in food preparation are … the only ways to maintain the freshness of a dish. Each individual ingredient has a clear voice, plain characteristics that are lucid and powerful — images, tastes, aromas you remember and yearn for.
Indeed! The recipes reflect this admirable philosophy; the ingredients are prepared in ways that render them truly “lucid and powerful.” Ottolenghi and Tamami favor simple methods and assertive spices, but nothing aggressive or fatuous, nothing exotic for the sake of being exotic. They admit to being obsessed with lemon and garlic, surely worthy objects of obsession. The pair also use a lot of yogurt, saffron, pomegranate molasses, as well as a variety of peppers and rustic cheeses. The recipes often feature roasted vegetables. Roasted eggplant with Saffron Yogurt is one of my favorites, but the famous Chargrilled Broccoli with chili and garlic is simple and satisfying. The recipe for cauliflower with tomato, dill, and capers elevates an ordinary vegetable to poetry.
These guys understand the culinary potential of simple foods, especially legumes and pulses. Recipes for Puy Lentils with Sour Cherries, Bacon, and Gorgonzola; Kosheri, the popular Egyptian dish of lentils and rice; and Red Lentil and Chard Soup are impressive enough to serve for company but simple enough to eat weekly.
A number of the recipes feature unexpected cuts of meat or flavor combinations. For instance, the Turkey and Sweetcorn Meatballs with Roasted Pepper Sauce fabulously showcase a meat that no one associates with stellar meatballs, while the recipe for Sweet Potato Galettes — made with puff pastry, goat cheese, and chili — is off-beat but logical. The perfect meeting point of the sweet and the savory and oh, so delicious.
Their baked goods are stunning. To give you some idea of what the restaurant looks like, imagine a display window full of white trays that are filled with huge piles of giant multicolored, multiflavored meringues. Surrounding these are platters heaped with nearly black chocolate brownies, oversized fruit-filled muffins, lacy almond and orange florentines, baskets of wheaten breads, and jars of seeded- crackers. Human beings simply cannot ignore such abundance. You can easily identify the restaurant when you come to it: it’s the place with a constant rotation of 5-6 people, all standing outside the window display with hungry and astonished looks on their faces.
The recipes for these treasures are, however, straightforward and relatively uncomplicated. This is food can be prepared by anyone who has an inclination to make it. I’m dying to try the Apple and Olive Oil Cake with Maple Icing; Pear and Amaretto Crumble Cake; Plum, Marzipan, and Cinnamon Muffins; Khalid’s Chocolate and Chesnut Bars; and the restaurant’s justifiably famous Orange Polenta Cake (a version of which, with converted weights and measures, is available on the link to the Gourmet profile). All of these recipes use simple enough ingredients and call for straight-forward cooking methods.
Ottolenghi, the Cookbook deserves its spot on my kitchen counter. I plan to revist this kitchen essential in the coming weeks by cooking recipes from it regularly. Some will be recipes that I’ve made before, others will be new to me. I’ll post descriptions of my experiences and evaluate the recipes after I cook them. Think of it as a kind of extended cookbook review.
By the way, Yotom Ottolenghi writes a regular column for the Guardian called “The New Vegetarian.” I should point out, however, that Ottolenghi is not a vegetarian restaurant.