"One hundred pounds?"
"One HUNDRED pounds?"
"ONE HUNDRED pounds?!"
This was the refrain, said with increasing disbelief and at ascending pitch, which for a good few hours after we had spent just shy of that amount on a meagre dinner and one bottle of wine at NOPI, was all my best friend Andrew could say. Nor can I blame him for such vocal incredulity; in (too) many years of eating out I don't think I've ever left a restaurant feeling as thoroughly fleeced as on this occasion, which is a shame as I genuinely believe that NOPI's intentions are far more noble than its approach to pricing.
NOPI - it's a silly neologism denoting 'North Of PIccadilly' - is the first restaurant proper from Yotam Ottolenghi, the deservedly-respected food writer and owner of an eponymous chain of high-end deli-cafés in some of London's chi-chiest postcodes. To date my only experience of Ottolenghi's food had been a dinner party catered entirely from his vegetarian opus Plenty, and very nice it was too; excitingly vibrant flavours and colours, unusual ingredients (although increasingly less so, such has been Plenty's influence on many home cooks; Ottolenghi has done for pomegranate molasses what Delia did a few years ago for cranberries) and a palpable sense that love and thought had gone into every recipe. My expectations for NOPI then were along the lines of 'Plenty: The Restaurant'; similarly thrilling food served in fabulous surroundings.
The latter expectation was at least met; there's no denying that NOPI is a pretty gorgeous space. Occupying the completely-gutted-and-expensively-refurbished site of what was The Club Bar & Dining on Warwick Street, the design makes clever use of materials, texture and light to create a room that's bracingly modern, welcoming and warm. One long wall is covered with white tiles while the wall facing it is exposed white-painted brick; beautiful brass lamps hang low, diffusing a gentle glow throughout the room and furniture is of a warm, honeyed hue. Downstairs a smaller, more casual dining room accommodates two huge communal tables with a view of the open kitchen, source of the no-more-than-OK food which lets the rest of the experience down.
Divided into 'Veg', 'Fish', 'Meat' and 'Sweets' with between six and eight choices for each, the menu consists entirely of sharing dishes and diners are informed that 'We recommend three savoury dishes per person'. With £10 being the typical dish price and several at £12 I wondered if the 'We' in question was the management of NOPI or of their bank, but obediently we chose six dishes spanning the three savoury sections nonetheless. While we waited, bread was served with olive oil and a whipped beetroot and goats cheese dip, the nice-but-blandness of which was a precursor for everything that followed.
The first couple of dishes to come to the the table were between them the most and least interesting of the six we sampled. 'Beef brisket croquettes, Asian slaw' was three Babybel-sized parcels of yieldingly tender, star anise-spiced meat in a salty, crunchy crumb which we both enjoyed, even though we agreed that the slaw - basically just ribbons of veg - added nothing. 'Green beans, roasted hazelnuts, orange' on the other hand was just plain dull; fridge-cold and with indistinct flavours it might have worked as a side, but as a dish in its own right felt rather pointless.
Our two fish dishes, 'Pan-fried sea bass, turmeric potatoes, rasam' and 'Grilled mackerel, fresh coconut, mint and peanut salad' were good but uninspiring. The sea bass, combined with the potatoes and soupy rasam, was essentially a very mild fish curry, which had I not been spoiled with the mind-bendingly gorgeous fish tikka at Trishna recently I might have found more impressive. I enjoyed the zingy salad with the mackerel because it reminded me of the beautiful lotus stem salad I'd liked so much at Viet Grill, but the mackerel with it was, to be honest, just a nice - and small - bit of mackerel.
'Twice-cooked baby chicken, kaffir lime salt, chilli sauce' was tasty enough but only in the way that a poussin, seasoned generously and whacked under a hot grill, always is. The presentation was poor, the lime salt served in a plastic pot and the chilli sauce no more than a squeeze of Blue Dragon's finest in a glass saucer. This would have been fine if we were paying a fiver in a takeaway rotisserie joint but we weren't - this was a tenner in W1.
The real stinker of the night however was our last dish, 'Baked blu di bufala cheesecake, pickled mushrooms'. It sounded so promising, this savoury cheesecake; I was expecting a clever marriage of salty and sweet, a play on flavours like Nigel Slater's awesome Ploughman's Pie perhaps. What we actually got was a wedge - not a generous one either - of New York-style baked cheesecake which had the taste and texture of a decent blue cheese quiche. And for this - reader, take a moment to absorb this please - we paid twelve pounds. TWELVE pounds! TWELVE POUNDS! Of everything we ate this was the most overwhelmingly disappointing and egregiously over-priced dish of the lot.
We simply didn't have any enthusiasm for dessert, figuring that if the rest of the menu was this humdrum then puds weren't going to redeem it, so we called for that astonishing bill. In fairness, £25 of the £94 total was a very decent bottle of Mar d'Avall Garnatxa 2009 from the eclectic and interestingly curated list, and we certainly didn't resent the 12.5% service charge as staff had all been efficient and friendly enough. But that still meant that, factoring in service, we paid about £65 for food that really should have cost at least 25% less.
There are some truly lovely things about NOPI in addition to the decor; huge attention has been paid to detail - a gold 'O' motif is repeated across menus and staff uniforms as well as being used for napkin rings and to weight down bills (already heavy enough, surely) - and the ultra-opulent mirrored loos would satisfy a modern-day Marie Antoinette. It's just a shame that the food being served and the prices being charged for it don't do the rest of the venture justice.
Even if the prices dropped - and for NOPI to survive I really think they must - the food isn't good enough to make me recommend the place when within a few minutes walk in either direction Polpetto and Bocca di Lupo are doing the sharing plates thing so much better. Also nearby is Mark's Bar at Hix to where, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, we adjourned for dessert; for much, much less than one hundred pounds, a piece of fantastic Amedei chocolate tart and a killer cocktail each, served by a hulking Slovak waiter, proved a very effective antidote to our disillusionment.
NOPI, 21-22 Warwick Street, London W1B 5NE Tel: 020 7494 9584 http://www.nopi-restaurant.com