In shops for less than a week, Plenty – Yotam Ottolenghi's new cookbook – already has five stars on Amazon, and hoards of devotees. Ottolenghi's vibrant fare is manna to food-loving vegetarians, releasing them from the grip of the usual suspects: quinoa, sun-dried tomatoes, goats' cheese, pasta... unimaginative and lazy ingredient combinations that blight restaurant menus nationwide.
To get to the point, though I'm a fan of his New Vegetarian column in The Guardian, this was the first time I'd eaten at one of the four London establishments, and it certainly lived up to the hype. The Upper Street restaurant-bakery-deli branch was packed, the late lunchtime queue a confused gaggle of voyeurs, those patiently waiting for a table, and others fighting for attention at the deli.
The pan-Med menu offers their deli dishes at £3.50-£4.50 each, suggesting that you combine two or three to create small/large plates. It being 3:15pm, they had sadly run out of the famous chargrilled broccoli with chilli and garlic. Instead, we had: Gorgeous moist cornbread spiked with red chilli, Seared beef fillet with coriander dipping sauce, Marinated aubergine with tahini dressing, and French beans and mangetout with hazelnut and orange. Bold food, confidently composed and inspiring to the palate.
Seasonal, local produce is not their thing, and prices are rather cheeky, but it's not worth holding a grudge. Ottolenghi is stirring vegetarian food from its slumber, confronting healthy food prejudices and preconceptions (which I am all too guilty of), and offering a unique experience: virtuous salad fare alongside the most sinful sweets I have ever seen. New Yorkers are going mad for Yotam's two books, so no doubt he'll be hopping across the pond before long.
The Islington branch offers reservations for evening, daytime is free-for-all.
These are two of the sweet treats I took home and devoured in one sitting:
Raspberry meringue. Pass any of their outposts and these will be the first thing you notice in the window: mountains of the beasts, in assorted colours, tempting you in.
Passion fruit tart: soft pillowy meringue on top of a passion fruit curd filling. Positively achingly sweet.
A fat moist chunk of apple and vanilla cake didn't remain in the box long enough to be photographed, i'm afraid.