LONDON — My first meal at Nopi, eaten downstairs at a communal table with a kitchen view, felt surprisingly intimate. Not exactly what I expected from a restaurant reviewed as one of the best in London. But admittedly I didn’t know what to expect from my initial, tentative foray into destination dining.
Inspired by television shows that visit top restaurants around the world and intrigued by Yotam Ottolenghi, 43, the chef behind Nopi, I made reservations three weeks in advance. Shortly after landing at Heathrow, I hustled down store-lined Regent Street, rounded a corner, and spotted the restaurant tucked into a quiet spot on Warwick Street. The location just north of Piccadilly Circus explains the inspiration behind Nopi’s name.
“The idea was to create an environment where people can come and eat food that has very substantial flavor, food that is not shy at all,’’ said Ottolenghi. “It is a brasserie-like place where it’s not too formal, where it’s very comfortable. The idea was a nice place to sit in central London.’’
From the outside, glass-fronted Nopi appears sleek and sophisticated, yet unpretentious and inviting. It is an impressive balance echoed in the interior design and the food.
In the minimalist, slightly cavernous, downstairs dining area, shelves stocked with oils, vinegars, canned vegetables, and fresh fruits double as decoration. I shared a table with a group of lively Swiss bankers immersed in trilingual conversation. Awash in bright light at one end of the room, the kitchen operated with calm and efficiency, a revelation after watching too much made-for-television cooking.
Overall, the look, atmosphere, and food at Nopi exude the kind of unique flair worthy of destination dining. Brass replicas of antique lamps from old Jaffa, gold “O’’-shaped napkin rings, and blond wood furniture provide warm accents in the street-level, main dining area, which is overwhelmingly white - from the tile and brick walls to the paper-covered tables. An off-white marble with gold streaks covers the floor. Still, the room feels surprisingly cozy, not cold, all that whiteness keeping the focus on the food where color and creativity abound.
“Of course, it’s a very bold design and it’s very bold food, but it doesn’t look like someone tried too hard to finish it,’’ said Ottolenghi. “It looks very natural. Although there is a lot of effort that goes into it, the final result is a sense of effortlessness that the design and the food have in common.’’
With the food, simple techniques yield complex results, bringing innovative, artistic, and playful dishes to the table. Surprising combinations - roasted eggplant, spiced yogurt, dukkah, and coriander or ox tongue, pickled sour cherries, and horseradish cream, anyone? - intrigue, then delight diners with intense flavors. Everything about Nopi speaks to a clear, consistent, and common vision, even the whimsical, mirrored bathrooms with their funhouse chic.
I had admired Ottolenghi and his Middle Eastern-influenced food from afar, from the pages of his vegetable-focused cookbook “Plenty.’’ Ottolenghi likes the idea of people sampling recipes in “Plenty,’’ and “when they come to London wanting to try the food where the book comes from.’’ He sees the book “as an ambassador for the business.’’ And recipes and photographs of his food make quite the ambassador.
The man works magic with squash, broccoli, eggplant, potatoes, parsnips, and much more. I wanted that magic on my plate.
Owing much to today’s celebrity chef and cooking show culture, destination dining is about experiencing a food fantasy, about bringing to life the flavors and textures featured on screen and in books, about truly using all five senses on a trip.
“I don’t travel strictly for food, but I travel mainly for food,’’ said Ottolenghi. “When I plan my holiday, the first thing I look into is where I’m going to eat. It’s my profession, but also that’s where my passion lies. I completely understand why people would want to travel especially for the food or mostly for the food. It’s one of the things most exciting about foreign travel. You open your eyes, but you also open your nose and you’ve got different smells and different sensations of the place you’re in.’’
Naturally, I had built up great, perhaps impossibly high, expectations for Nopi. But I figured that was all part of the bargain, being either amazed or disappointed.
I walked away from Nopi full of amazement and with a new perspective on London, one that stretched beyond its history and royalty to a sense of the city as multicultural and modern. Nopi was as far away as I could get from some touristy high tea.
The Nopi lunch and dinner menus feature four categories - Veg, Fish, Meat, and Sweets - of small plates meant for sharing. The restaurant recommends three savory dishes per person. Since I found it hard to limit myself, I went for dinner one night, returned for lunch the next day, and even ate breakfast there shortly before I left the city.
From savory to sweet, Nopi showcases Ottolenghi’s talents for blending the foods and flavors of his native Israel with influences that stretch from the Middle East to the Mediterranean to Asia. The inspirations and food origins blend naturally on plates and, as Ottolenghi said, the dishes often “break expectations.’’ Think cardamom paired with tofu.
Every menu item I tried brought together some exotic element - manouri cheese, smoked labneh, mahlab - and some familiar element - fritters, roasted vegetables, fish. Being well-versed in Middle Eastern flavors and spices, each dish tasted like comfort food with an intriguing twist. And the small plates all exhibited a pleasingly light touch with nothing too fussy.
My dinner started with cauliflower, manouri, and chili fritters accompanied by lime yogurt ($15). The fritter was soft, but not mushy, with each element holding its own. It was perfectly spiced with a subtle heat cooled by creamy yogurt. One bite brought together a pleasing complement of textures and flavors, the parts layered in a way that turned a seemingly simple dish into something surprisingly complex. The same could be said for all the other small plates and desserts I tried.
There was the bowl of porridge-like black rice topped with bananas, mangoes, and coconut milk ($10) that I enjoyed for breakfast. The ball of burrata perched on slices of blood orange and drizzled with coriander seeds ($19) stood out at lunch for the way the creamy cheese, citrus, and exotic spice played off each other visually and flavorfully. For dessert, my favorite was the guava compote with streusel and cardamom yogurt ($12), a perfect layering of sweet fruit, spicy creaminess, and crunch.
“The food is generous in the way that we use our ingredients generously,’’ said Ottolenghi, who is also the chef behind four smaller eponymous eateries largely devoted to take-out. “With the herbs, it’s not just a sprinkle here and a sprinkle there. It’s a big handful of herbs when it needs it.’’
With its generousness, Nopi offered an authentic slice of London life that made my trip more textured. It was an eye-opening and palate-broadening departure from the meat pie clichés about eating in England. “You have this idea of what something is, then it surprises you,’’ said Ottolenghi. He was talking about his food, but he could have been describing my fresher take on London after Nopi.
NOPI 21-22 Warwick St., 011-44-20-7494-9585, www.nopi-restaurant.com.