A Pignata Corsica
Ottolenghi's flavour complexOpen for nearly a year now Nopi is the west end, all day restaurant opened by acclaimed flavour master Yotam Ottolenghi. A bright white space upstairs with a vast kitchen table and a view in to said kitchen in the basement, Nopi's decor is perhaps best enjoyed when the light is low. However the food offers fascinating and complex flavours at any time of day. Take the Roasted Pumpkin Tart with Rainbow Chard, it sounds dull but the blend of flavours, sharp then sweet and drizzled with truffle oil to add a little buzz of complexity was quite stunning.
The dishes are small designed for sharing, as is the modern way, but it gives you an excuse to try multiple plates where a regular meal wouldn't allow you. There are lots of names on the menu you won't find in so the Chargrilled Octopus with Salmorejo sauce and Morcilla is a plate of tenderly cooked seafood in a light tomato and garlic sauce with a delicate black pudding, not a combination you'd expect but a beautiful whole.
Theres a lot on the menu that deserves tasting including Barramundi with Salsify, Rabbit Pastilla and a delightful selection of puddings, plus a well priced and carefully chosen wine and cocktail list. If it's seasonal, imaginative breakfast, brunch, lunch or dinner that you're after in 2012, then Nopi has to be high on the list.
In search of Pernod and BlackBack in the late 1970's it was part of unwritten pub lore that if you were underage you'd be served provided you kept quiet with your little gang of mates in the corner and didn't cause any trouble. This is when I first went to the Hand & Flowers in Marlow, between the ages of 16 and 18, a couple of pints of Hofmeister (whatever happened to that?), a packet of scampi fries, a pernod & black and a couple of No6 fags to round the night off, before wobbling home on my bike. An excellent teenage night out.
Since then the Hand & Flowers has gone up market and while I'm sure they would have provided a pernod & black if asked I think they may have frowned on the scampi fries! Now the possessor of two Michelin stars and the AA restaurant of the year 2011/12 it packs a big reputation embodied in chef patron Tom Kerridge, who's profile is rising all the time (hence he's hardly ever in the kitchen which is now run by Aaron Mulliss).
Still possessing the feel of a converted pub rather than purpose built restaurant and serving cask ales, it is the well priced seasonal menu that keeps a loyal customer base returning and booking well in advance essential. Crispy pigs head with artichokes, crackling and pancetta is a wonderful little starter. A crumbed "fish finger" of rich, deeply satisfying meat that lingers in the mouth, shows remarkable skill and patience. Simple things are done well too such as salty whitebait served in a paper cone with homemade tartar sauce.
Described by knowledgable and friendly waiting staff as an upside down toffee apple, the Essex Lamb Bun oozes slow cooked lamb shank and sweetbreads wrapped in a pastry bun, placed on the plate with the bone pointing upwards, it's novel, attractive and most importantly bursting with rich flavours. Duck breast comes slow cooked, which renders away the fat but is still moist and matched by some crisp, fat chips cooked in duck fat. A serving of salt baked potatoes for two arrives in its own bread container which you have to knock the top off to get at the steaming potatoes within. An excellent cheese board with homemade grape chutney complements the rustic simplicity of the meal.
What surprises me is that the Hand & Flowers has 2 stars. It is lovely, the food and staff are excellent, even exceptional, however it doesn't have the fancy flourishes that you normally associate with Michelin dining. I think that's probably a good thing but I would love to know how the judges make their decisions.
The Pre-Theatre MenuUs provincials don't get up to the big city that much, so when we do it's good to have something nice to eat. However with theatres starting their shows just at the time you should be tucking into a mighty fine dinner, and what with us having to catch a train so we can't eat later, the Pre-theatre menu comes into its own. It works for the restaurant too filling in that dead space after lunch so that when dinner clientele arrive there's already a buzz in the restaurant.
Of course the menu is limited but if you try somewhere like a Arbutus in Soho, they make a proper effort and don't treat you like a second class citizen. Try the exquisite warm porchetta, thinly sliced, infused with sage, it's a generous portion of melt in the mouth pork. Pheasant pappardelle and a rich bitter chocolate mouse arrive swiftly but there is no rush to turn the table, and at £18.95 for three simple but well put together courses it's a great option.