Everyone who’s visited us over the past 7 years (and many who haven’t) all know my favourite restaurant in London is Nopi. Nopi is a creation of chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, two creative and brilliant additions to London cuisine, combining Middle Eastern and Mediterranean foods in their now famous delis and restaurants dotted across the city.
When I first arrived here in 2010, there was a buzz about Ottolenghi. Everyone told me I must get the new cookbook of the same name. Combining roasted aubergine (eggplant) with saffron yoghurt, basil leaves and pomegranate seeds introduced a burst of flavours I would never have put together. Or cauliflower and cumin fritters with a lime yoghurt. Manuri cheese grilled and served with courgettes (zucchini) and chargrilled asparagus. These new taste sensations excited the palate with exotic foods and flavours.
I heard about the deli in Notting Hill/Westbourne Grove first but when someone told me about Nopi, my friend Shannon and I started meeting there at 5:30 for a pre-ballet dinner at the ROH.
It’s tucked away in Mayfair but close to Piccadilly Circus so easy to get to. For me, there’s so much to like about a restaurant but to be really good, it needs to tick all the boxes. Great atmosphere and vibe. Tick. Excellent service and professional and polite staff. Tick. Not too far away and convenient. Tick. Doesn’t break the bank. Tick. And of course, the food. Big big tick. Added bonus: healthy. Another tick.
They do small plates or “tapas” of multiple mouth-watering creations: a variety garden vegetables and fruits, figs with cheese and honey, cheese with apricots, various meats, poultry and fish, and those delicious courgette fritters with lime yoghurt are divine. Recently, they’ve added a starter of burnt spring onion dip with seeded dukkah and every time I’ve gone, we are practically licking the bowl. The fish like sea bass or plaice is perfectly cooked and combined with flavours of burnt butter, nori and ginger or calabrese peppers. My dinner companion recently had smoked beef with pickled Jerusalem artichokes and it’s far more appetising than it sounds. And an absolute must is the truffled polenta chips with parmesan and aioli — we order them every time and they melt in your mouth with a unique combination of subtle and strong flavours.
Desserts are something to look forward to, and I hate dessert. But the creativity they pour into them can’t be missed. The coffee and pecan financiers with maple cream are sublime, as is the apple and gingerbread trifle with Calvados and celery sorbet.
But beyond the food, the look and feel of the restaurant is cool, nice, sophisticated, fun, and cozy. Doesn’t take itself too seriously, doesn’t need to be pretentious, just relies on the good food and professional staff. The white-washed brick walls, warm lighting, blond wood, sparse decorations and clean lines combine modern with traditional in a welcoming way.
But what really sets Nopi apart is the seemingly two restaurants in one. Upstairs is booked tables of 2, 4 and 6 with a lovely bar at the back. For Friday and Saturday nights, you often have to book several weeks — sometimes months — in advance. A little more formal and fancy, feeling special as others line up at the bar or door waiting for a table.
However, the downstairs has a completely different feel with it’s two large communal tables, seating 14 at each table, right next to the open plan kitchen. It’s down here that I’ve found myself – on nights fully booked upstairs – with an out of town friend, eating and drinking and catching up, while listening into or joining into conversations around the table. Everyone has their space and respects privacy, but there’s a camaraderie amongst the diners who know they’ve dropped in on a little secret that others don’t know about. We’ve met some businessmen from Australia at that table, a few American women for a pre-theatre meal, a young couple on a date, and more.
One time I was there with a State-side friend, staying quite a long time while she would order one or two dishes, as this was her first visit, and then order one or two more. At one point, chef Ramael Scully just started bringing over different small dishes for us to try as he could tell she was not sure how to navigate so many choices. That personal touch has made the downstairs difficult to find seats in now, and you must book in advance.
They love to put different and new wines on their list and for a long time they had a wonderful Sancerre which I’m disappointed is no longer there, but they continue to surprise with off-the-beaten path choices, and the staff are all very knowledgeable with the menu. For a long time, the manager Fergus set the tone for his “regulars” – recently I was meeting out-of-towners there, arrived early and sat at the bar where he sent over glasses of prosecco and some nibbles. I am sorry to find he has gone back to his beloved Ireland, and although he is irreplaceable, I hope they find someone with his same combination of friendliness, professionalism, high-standards and attention to detail.
So when in London, do yourself a favour and head over to Nopi. It will be well worth the trip. Lastly, don’t forget to check out the bathrooms. I can’t say why, but needless to say, they are very fun and somewhat trippy. On my very first time to Nopi, I had a bit too much to drink and when I got in loo, I couldn’t find my way out! But, can’t give it away, you’ll just have to go and see for yourself.