I wrote about Yotam Ottolenghi’s Nopi a while ago when I visited for lunch but I mostly went there for breakfast. A cool, calm, sophisticated place that usually had a table by virtue of being in a slightly crappy dead zone in between Regent Street and Soho. I’d never been to Ottolenghi’s Islington restaurant apart from occasionally stopping by to buy a ruinously-expensive salad, full of pomegranate, sumac and regret, and having now paid a visit for breakfast I can’t imagine ever going back.
I’ve never been so instantly sure that things weren’t going to work out. It began badly when I stepped into the restaurant part of the building and the temperature dropped so sharply it was as if I’d walked into Mr. Freeze’s lab. Unseen fans were blasting the place with so much cold air I felt like I should tell someone I was just going for a walk and that I may be some time; it was so hilariously cold I looked around to see if anyone was giving me an apologetic grimace. When my food arrived — Welsh rarebit with a fried egg and an inexplicable side salad — I wolfed it down, not through hunger or because it was particularly amazing, but just because I wanted to get all the residual heat from it while I could. My coffee was lukewarm before I could finish it and I declined a second; the extra warmth would have been welcome but my extremities had begun to go numb and I was worried I’d have fumbled the cup.
I’m not even exaggerating for comic effect; desperate to keep warm I’d wrapped my shirt around me so tightly I looked like a botched attempt at mummification. Perhaps this is what the regulars expect: a howling arctic gale to help prepare them for their charity trek up a mountain or something. It’s Islington after all, and not only that it’s a weekday morning so there are plenty of children who look like they’ve been taken out of school during term time to prepare for their Tuscany holiday.
I was the only adult there that didn’t look like a worn-out husk, 47 years old and wearing pastel shorts, the light long gone from my eyes, wearily trying to corral hyperactive seven year olds and quietly regretting having waited so late in life to have children. The children in turn were shrieking obnoxiously while their parents ineffectually shushed them. Shush. Please shush. Oh God just please let me have some peace. The adults brandished copies of The Guardian as papery shields but I don’t think anyone was really reading them.
There were toasters on some of the tables so customers can toast their own bread, an affectation I’ve heard of but never seen. It’s a thing that bothers me on a fundamental level, people going out to cook for themselves; it’s about as classy as going out for a cheese fondue. Perhaps it’s aimed more at the people who have staff at home who normally do the toasting for them, and coming out to toast their own makes it a bit of a thrilling adventure, something to boast about when Tony and Flora mention that time they went to the restaurant that’s totally in the dark.
Even the furniture rubbed me up the wrong way. The chairs are all bendy chunks of white, red and yellow plastic that look like they were designed to be child-proof first and comfortable second, and caused me to bounce slightly up and down as I ate.
The food is good. It’s as good as it is at Nopi, but the restaurant was cold, and there were loud children, and drippy adults, and the chairs made me cross, so I was off after just 25 minutes, staggering out into the light like a recently-thawed Steve Rogers, faintly bewildered as to what had just happened.