As far as I can tell, no matter what time you turn up outside Ottolenghi there’ll be a long queue. I know, I know, he’s now Britain’s favourite food darling – at least according to the Sunday papers and Channel 4 – but it still feels like there’s something undiscovered about Yotam and his work. In fact, I still find that when, in a half self-deprecating (half aren’t-you-impressed-I-can-make-something-so-complicated-with-such-a-long-list-of-ingredients) way, I mention that a dish isn’t mine but “it’s Ottolenghi” I still generally get totally blank looks. I’ve made it to his Upper Street restaurant for take-away cakes before (yes, worth it just for that), and to Nopi – still a very different affair with much more formality – but this is my first time dining there. An initial conviction that I’d just have a small salad immediately gave way when I saw the proteins on offer.
“[M]elanzane alla cioccolata – a dessert speciality on the Amalfi Coast – was (in my narrow-mind) just wrong”
I went for a plate of chicken with the required aubergine salad plus green bean salad plus simple tomato salad. Far more food than I needed, but I couldn’t choose between them. And no, I wouldn’t usually be unable to turn down grilled chicken: sure, I like it, but it’s usually okay to say no in favour of something a bit more exotic. But this time it looked so perfect and succulent, crisp and appetising that I couldn’t refuse. Same general ability to not eat green beans and/or tomatoes; same impossibility of leaving these uneaten in this special case. And I was right – the chicken was perfectly spiced, exactly the right juicy-but-crispy-on-the-outside texture and probably some of the best I’ve ever eaten. Ditto the tomatoes and the beans.
Okay, so it’s ridiculous to say this, but let’s forget the rest for a second: it’s the aubergine we were here for. Full disclosure: I love aubergine. However it is cooked – fried, grilled, baked, smoked, puréed, layered, chopped or sliced – I love it. Okay, one exception: melanzane alla cioccolata – a dessert speciality on the Amalfi Coast – was (in my narrow-mind) just wrong. But, to be fair, not quite as wrong as it sounds. But, generally, feed me aubergine and I’ll be in heaven.
In fact my favourite Ottolenghi dish is the one he says his mum makes when she wants to impress guests – aubergine with mango and soba noodles, a delicious spicy, sweet, tangy, refreshing, nutty salad. The most notable feature is that it starts by frying the aubergine in 300ml of oil. ‘No problem!’, you think, ‘It’s being deep fried and most of the oil will be left in the pan…’. But not so: every bit of oil is soaked up by the aubergine and you’re left with a dry pan. And some really delicious aubergine.
This salad, however, is different. By roasting the aubergine, presumably for quite a while, it is tender and succulent without being at all greasy. In fact, the generous dollop of fragrantly-spiced yoghurt, whispering of saffron, seems vital to add creaminess to the dish. The pomegranate seeds offers bursts of fresh, juicy sweetness, though a little greater generosity in their sprinkling would certainly have gained my approval. The bulk of this ‘salad’ (in a loose sense of the word) is the meaty, pungent, faintly acid aubergine, silky in texture and luscious in the mouth. I could eat this all day.
Rachael, who has a phobia of yoghurt, didn’t get on well with this dish. Which meant more for me. Lucky me!