Monday, July 18, 2011

Ottolenghi at animal

What do you call it when you know everything about a person and that person has no idea you exist?  Oh, stalking.  I don't remember where I first read about Yotam Ottolenghi, but that name pulled me in immediately.  I tried to make sense of it:  last name is definitely Italian, first name sounds Hebrew.  I want more info.  (I was similarly intrigued when I first of Adriano Goldschmied.  What can I say?  I love a pizza bagel.)

Needless to say, I got a little stalky.  I started scouring the internet for information.  I learned that Chef Ottolenghi is an Israeli of Italian and German descent, with a grandma who recreates her own little Tuscany there, down to the imported espresso she drinks every morning (though I am partial to the Elite brand instant coffee served in yellow mugs ubiquitous in Israeli households, I can't begrudge Ottolenghi's Italian grandmother her real-deal coffee).  I also learned that with head chef Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian who, like Ottolenghi himself, is a handsome young gay man in stylish nerd glasses, he owns a series of vegetarian restaurants in London, with huge spreads of irresistible baked goods and menus based on fresh seasonal vegetables, prepared simply to bring out their best.

There was so much to love here, and in the sunny vegetarian recipes that Ottolenghi posts on the Guardian, with their constant nods to Italian and Middle Eastern Mediterranean cuisines, that in my head I entertained ideas of going to London just so I could try his restaurant (and take pictures, and blog about it, obvs).  The food, and the stories, resonated with me in a very personal way.  So, when I found out Chef Ottolenghi was hosting a dinner right here in Los Angeles, at beloved animal, I jumped on it.  Five courses, all vegetarian fare, eached paired with wine.  (Note: four of those five were rosés, two of which where sparkling.  Wine for a summer night after my own heart.

goat cheese ravioli with turmeric and pink peppercorns
The preparations were simple -- not unlike the kind of food I like making for myself on a weeknight -- but were executed really well, with perfectly fresh ingredients.  Plates were easy to deconstruct.  Nothing was trying to be meat.  Really, nothing was trying to be anything other than what it was.  All of the dishes came from Ottolenghi's new vegetarian cookbook, Plenty, and for each dish, the focus was a vegetable: eggplant was cooked over open fire until it was totally soft and smokey, zucchini grilled, and tomatoes roasted to bring out their sweetness (the latter for a dish called 'tomato party'.  Who doesn't love a tomato party?), or left raw -- after all, in some cases it's best not to mess with natural beauty.  Flavor was heightened with a variety of cheeses, lemon zest, toasted nuts, and torn fresh herbs.  Everything tasted bright and alive.

tomato party!
Having said that, I have to admit: the food left me wanting a little.  Somehow the dinner's presentation -- small, sparse plates -- didn't meet up to the festive abundance you see in images of the restaurants.  Though a salad of watercress, orange blossoms, and toasted pistachios seemed to bounce off the plate with flavor, this kind of fare is a little too delicate overall to satisfy on its own.  (Fortunately, we knew a place across the street.  Please don't tell Chef Ottolenghi that we topped off his meal with a big bowl of fries at Golden State.)

milk pudding with toasted coconut and almonds
But maybe the real prize here is the chef himself: he's totally charming in person, and as you see in the notes above every recipe in his book, he's also chatty and generous with stories and tips.  We discovered that his sister lives in the same suburb of Tel Aviv as my uncle, and he mentioned to us that he went to Joan's on Third that day for lunch, and Joan wouldn't stop feeding him (she must have been thrilled at the chance to indulge in her motherly overfeeding instinct).  This latter fact makes perfect sense:  she probably sensed a kindred spirit in this Italian by way of Israel who came from London all the way to Los Angeles to teach us a thing or two about vegetables. 


  1. Sounds great, down to the golden state fries! I am sorry i missed such a delicious night.

  2. the golden state fries were seriously a highlight. peggy, next time we're working around *your* schedule. missed you both!