London’s fixation with middle eastern-style mezze dining has met the relaxed-lunch-at-the-local-deli – their lovechild is Yotam Ottolenghi’s eatery branch on Islington’s Upper Street.
It’s a windy, face-prickling October afternoon and I have to push my way around the crowd at the door to merely take a peek at the lunch spread. Not only is this the place to eat but – more importantly – the place to be seen. A table seems eons away.
But amid the hungry mob it’s the dessert table that catches our eye, with an array of cakes and pastries of such allure. It’s no wonder we ditch any idea of lunch after all.
There are top-hat-like cylinders of brownies, topped with pools of chocolate and hazelnut brittle. There’s a platter full of lemon polenta cakes, dripping with citrusy icing and toasted pistachio shards.
There are trays with dozens of marvellous, light as a cloud raspberry meringues the colour of candy floss and smart passion fruit tarts topped with glossy, caramelised peaks.
The lunch-lady-themed service girls at the counter are sporting a hint of an attitude to go with their black get-ups: dithering is fiercely frowned upon at a place this modish. We leave, inconspicuous package clutched in hand, labelled unobtrusively with the sleek Ottolenghi logo. Is it cake or the new iPhone I’m holding?
And then you take the first bite.
The lemon frangipane cake gives up easily under the teeth. It’s not as fragile as it looks – the moist, citrus-scented, almond-rich sponge is the star of the dessert and is just slightly caught with crunchiness at the edges. It looks like something that came out of Lipchitz’s studio rather than an oven, but fills our nostrils with aromas of toasted nuts, freshly-zested lemons and home baking.
I let it dissolve between the tongue and the top of my palate, while getting the slightest stroke of salted mascarpone cream. It’s a medley of textures, sights and smells. And that’s before you discover the surprise: plump shards of fresh blackberries; tiny bursts of sharpness against the richness of the cake.
But we’re only halfway through. The white chocolate cheesecake’s consistency is so light it feels almost like soft cream whipped into cloud-like moussiness. It melts on the tongue and I give in to a blanket of oozy balminess.
287 Upper Street, Islington, N1 2TZ
Lunch set menu: £11.50 – £16.70
Cakes: approx. £5 each
The Perfect Bite is one that combines it all: the tangy, creamy, vanilla-freckled cheese filling, the tooth-achingly sweet chew of salted caramel and the saline, toasted crunch of the peanut topping. Rich, sweet, salty. The Golden Mean in food form.
Curiously so, despite all the chic haughtiness of the place itself, the cakes feel genuine, albeit crafted to perfection: ones not to elegantly taste but to wolfishly devour. You just can’t help but make a crumbly, sticky mess.
With desserts like this, who’s going to notice they serve food?
Illustration by Weronika Kuc