Fresh and never refrigerated
LONDON - It is Sunday afternoon in Notting Hill, well past brunch, yet a line has formed outside Ottolenghi, a deli-patisserie. My teenager, eager to visit the nearby Portobello Road flea market, wants to give the shop a pass until her eyes fix on the window display.
Meringues, the sizes of grapefruits and swirled with chocolate, are stacked precariously on a tall stand. Underneath, on a white table, are platters of strawberry and white chocolate ganache tarts, blackberry and vanilla cupcakes, cherry cheesecake, almond Florence teacakes, and more. The food display inside Ottolenghi is only moderately less sumptuous. A long white table is adorned with quiches, salads, and vegetable and meat platters garnished with spicy pecans, pickled lemons, feta, and saffron or pumpkin seeds. The menu is on a blackboard. There is no refrigerator in sight.
Therein lies an Ottolenghi axiom: Food tastes best when freshly made on the premises and immediately served. Refrigeration destroys flavor. Other rules suggest that food must be unfussy, unadulterated, unadorned, and fun.
“Fresh food tends to taste better,’’ writes Yotam Ottolenghi in an e-mail after my visit. “However, what really matters is that with simple food you get to taste the individual ingredients and appreciate them. Complicated dishes tend to mask the ingredients and often aren’t well-balanced.’’
Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, both 41, co-own the popular Ottolenghi business in four London neighborhoods. There is a restaurant in Islington, and three shops: in Belgravia, Kensington, and Notting Hill, the flagship that opened in 2002. The decor at each is minimal with whitewashed walls and white furniture.
Tamimi, a Palestinian, and Ottolenghi, an Israeli, were raised in Jerusalem in families who valued cooking. The men met in 1997, when they were employed at Baker & Spice, a food retail shop in London. These entrepreneurs have been fussed over in the press as representatives of conflicted cultures working together successfully. “It is remarkable to outsiders,’’ Ottolenghi acknowledges, “but we are just ourselves and our backgrounds aren’t very relevant to us.’’
Which is partly true. The shops are heavily tinged with Middle Eastern sensibilities. Like the food displays. “This is something that has evolved over time but that I now realize has a lot to do with food displays in the Arab souq [market],’’ Ottolenghi writes. As such, dishes at Ottolenghi suggest an exotic flair, yet appear to have been relatively easily prepared. “Simple doesn’t mean ‘not exciting,’ ’’ he says. “You can create wonderful things - pungent, delicious, and vibrant - in a short time and with very few stages.’’
Last year, “Ottolenghi: The Cookbook’’ (Ebudy Press) was published, offering some of the popular recipes sold in the shops, including a sweet potato salad with maple-ginger dressing. Menus at Ottolenghi are drafted daily and prices are considered reasonable in London for the quality of the food, but may not favor the US currency exchange. A salad plate with a generous selection of three or four salads costs $15 to $20. Adding a main course of meat, fish, or quiche with two or three salads costs $20 to $23. The Notting Hill location has a communal table in the back of the shop that seats 10, where we settled in on our visit. My favorite dish was a grilled peach salad with prosciutto and watercress topped with an orange blossom dressing. My daughter had her eye on a piece of carrot cake in the window display. It was several inches thick, slathered with cream cheese frosting and dotted with walnuts. We looked and it was gone.
As if on cue, someone placed a new carrot cake in the empty spot. Sated and ready for Portobello Road, we bought it to go.
Ottolenghi, 63 Ledbury Road, London W11, and other locations, www.ottolenghi.co.uk.