Dinner at Ottolenghi Was an Unforgettable Experience

©. C Napper

Having read and used the cookbooks published by this famous London restaurant, I was delighted to be able to eat there in person.

Food dreams come true! Last week, I had the privilege of dining at Ottolenghi, a restaurant in London, England, whose cookbooks I’ve loved for years. Jerusalem is probably the most famous, follow by vegetarian Plenty, its sequel Plenty More, NOPI, and the eponymous original book, Ottolenghi.

The restaurant was founded in 2002 by two chefs, Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, both of whom hail from Jerusalem, but were raised on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide. They never knew each other in their home city, but found common ground in their love for vegetable-centric Mediterranean food upon meeting in the UK.

Their restaurant business started out as a small take-out space in the upscale neighborhood of London’s Notting Hill, but has grown into an empire. With five locations throughout the city, not to mention the bestselling cookbooks, the name has become well known and synonymous, always, with excellent food. (Fun fact: Ottolenghi’s takeout appears in the latest Bridget Jones movie.)

I could scarcely contain my delight once the reservation was made. My friends and I, all attendees of the Lush Summit, were booked for 4:30 p.m., which meant that we fell into the “late lunch” period. All the food was displayed at room temperature, a practice that sets Ottolenghi apart from other restaurants. As explained in the introduction to the first cookbook,

“It is a chilling experience to eat a cold sandwich, yet so many of us routinely do and are almost oblivious to it because it is considered a necessary evil. With most things prepared fresh, really fresh, there is no need to chill. Every customer who comes to Ottolenghi and doesn’t hear the soul-destroying hum of a brigade of stainless-steel fridges is another convert to minimal refrigeration.”

Upon entering, the space was clean and white, almost Scandinavian in its sparseness. There were few decorations on the walls, which drew attention to the elegant tapers burning on each table. The waiters were attentive, providing a high level of service that I had not yet encountered during my visit to London.

salad buffet

Mike -- The salad buffet at Ottolenghi's Spitalfields location, where I ate/CC BY 2.0

We each ordered one main with two salads from the selection at the front of the restaurant, which cost £15.70 (US $19.50) for any combination. Mains included two quiches (butternut squash or bacon), crispy carrot croquettes, and two meats (grilled salmon or beef filet). The array of vegetarian salads was dazzling. It included roasted cauliflower with saffron, currants, and capers; roasted eggplant with cumin-scented yogurt and curry leaves; black barley and orzo salad; hummus with crispy chickpeas and roasted peppers; and an incredibly tasty squash with pistachios and ginger cream. We opted for non-alcoholic cocktails – kumquat with passionfruit juice and ginger-lime-orange zingers.

desserts at Ottolenghi

© K Martinko -- It was nearly impossible to choose from such an impressive selection!

Dessert was heavenly. The selection was vast, and despite our group’s decision to choose and share four separate items, we barely made a dent in the options. A blood orange-almond cake, a large raspberry meringue with whipped cream on the side, carrot-walnut cake with mascarpone icing, and a white chocolate cheesecake arrived on our table.

I tasted the carrot cake nervously, for I’ve made the same recipe several times from the Ottolenghi cookbook. Much to my delight, it was nearly identical to my homemade version. I suppose I should attribute it to a very accurate recipe, but I like to think it’s because of excellent baking skills.

As we ate, chefs would occasionally come out of the kitchen bearing trays with their latest concoctions. This, too, is a hallmark of the restaurant:

“It is a source of pride for [the chefs] to see a customer smile, look closely, and then gasp and give them a huge compliment. So many chefs miss out on this kind of immediate response from the diner – the reaction that leads to a leisurely chat about food. So at Ottolenghi we are simulating a domestic food conversation in a public, urban surrounding.”

I am often frustrated by the ongoing rhetoric surrounding dietary choices, restrictions, and calories, which is why it felt so good to enter a space that clearly celebrates food for being just what it is – amazing, delicious, fulfilling, and fresh. It was an experience I’ll never forget, and hope to repeat again someday.

TreeHugger was a guest of Lush at the Lush Summit in February 2017. This meal was paid for by Lush. There was no obligation to write about it or any other topic explored during the summit.