I’ve been reading Jes Gearing’s blog, Eating Appalachia, for a few years now, and I’ve always found in Jes a kindred spirit, a person living a life extraordinarily (at times eerily) similar to mine.
Jes’s blog first caught my eye because we both share a similar interest and approach to vegetarian and vegan cooking. But the more I got to know Jes through reading her stories, the more I noticed other remarkable parallels:
- We’ve both felt the call to go live in the country
- We both used to be vegetarian, and now we’re not (I now eat fish, and Jes now eats everything), with sustainability and locality at the heart of our decision-making
- We’re both seeking ways to make food a central part of our careers
- We both like to ride bikes, hike, camp and play outdoors
- We are both kale addicts
Jes emailed me a couple months ago to say that she was going to be in London for a couple days with her boyfriend, George, and would I like to meet up for a foodie day out? Uh, hell yeah. After a couple emails and chats back and forth we’d set a date and made lunch and dinner bookings at Moro and Nopi, two London restaurants that have been on both of our “hit lists”.
After I meeting Jes in person, I discovered a few more interesting parallels:
- We both have the same camera
- With both carry around a moleskin notebook
- We both have tattoos
- We are both slow eaters
- We both plan vacations around food and where we’re going to eat at
- We have similar tastes in music (with Jess and George being quite a bit more pro-active in their musical pursuits – they’re trip was planned around the ATP music festival in Minehead last weekend)
- We both have a strong streak of computer nerdiness (George, too)
As I sorta suspected, meeting up with Jes and George were like meeting up with old friends, people I felt comfortable with almost immediately. Which was good because we had a long day ahead of us.
Lunch at Moro
It’s always nice to go out to lunch with a fellow food photographer, if only for the mutual support of not being the only nerd pointing a big giant camera at everything. But what was extra nice was that Jes and George, like me, are fans of sharing and eat their food at a snail’s pace.
These are all good things at a restaurant like Moro, a well-known (and very trendy) Spanish restaurant in the heart of hipsterville’s Exmouth Market. Moro’s food more than justified our lingering over a 3-hour lunch and a bottle of red (La Multa Old Vine Garnacha 2009 to be precise).
- Charcoal grilled sardine fillets with gum mastic, harissa and fried artichokes
- Charcoal grilled sea bass with six grains, sweet herbs and turnip salad
- Mixed vegetable mezze
- Some kind of lamb thing for Jes and George (no, I wasn’t curious about this, at all)
We ordered the sardines because Jes had never had this fish before and I wanted to see what sardines were like when cooked well (I haven’t been very impressed with my own efforts lately). Moro’s sardines were good – very moist, perhaps marinated either before or after cooking, and the harissa made them sparkle. But like my sardines at home, these were very bony and I’m not sure Jes was a fan. I’m also left questioning – what on earth is gum mastic and where did it factor in the dish?
After the humble sardines, the rest of the meal seemed out of control by comparison: heaping plates of huge flavours, bright colours and lots of potency from hefty use of lemon, vinegar and fresh herbs. The plates were so full that the various dishes seemed to seep into each other’s spaces – it was hard to tell where one flavour end and another began. Not always a bad thing. I liked how the grilled sea bass picked up some of the vinegar dressing on the radish salad. And like a good mezze, everything in the veggie plate worked well together, thanks largely to the grilled flatbread. George said the lamb was some of the best he’s ever had.
One very simple dish that caught our attention was the hummus – it had a very distinctive flavour, almost floral. We asked the waitress what this was, but she insisted that the hummus was your usual blend of chickpeas, tahini, garlic, and olive oil – she even brought over the Moro cookbook to prove it, and a small plate of hummus to taste on its own. But no, the flavour was still there, and then it dawned on all of us (waitress included): olive oil! She brought out their big ol’ jug of Spanish olive oil, the source of all things fruity, smoky and good. I’m pretty sure this has set the stage for my becoming a total olive oil snob. Wallet, please forgive me.
I like Moro because it’s fairly unpretentious and the staff are great, volunteering information and clearly very proud of the food they serve and the ingredients they use. It’s nice eating in a restaurant that doesn’t make a big fuss over presentation, but just presents the food as it is (it works because the food itself is actually very good).
We also really liked that their wine list had a rating system (6. Soft, fruity, 7. Medium weight, etc) – very useful if you’re like me and know very little about wine beyond the types of flavours you like when you drink it. I will definitely be returning to Moro, though perhaps erring against a starter as the main dishes are so ample.
Dinner at Nopi
We passed the time between lunch and dinner with coffee and a long walk via St. Paul’s Cathedral, Millennium Bridge and the Tate Modern, finally working up an appetite for dinner, and somewhat grateful that Nopi is known for its small portion sizes.
Nopi is Yotam Ottolenghi’s buzzy new restaurant (or maybe I only think it’s buzzy because I hang around the type of people who, like me, think Ottolenghi’s way with vegetables is pretty damn special). The food is a mix of Middle Eastern and Asian. I’ve heard mixed reviews of the place, from both veggies and omnivores, so went in with an open mind, very eager to decide for myself whether Nopi lived up to the standards I’ve set for Mr. O.
We sat in the basement at the communal tables next to the kitchen, in a sort-of pantry, with shelf-lined walls stocked with ingredients (including a large tub of Philadelphia cream cheese which I hope was only meant for storage of quinoa or farro or some other Ottolenghi-style ingredient).
The dishes at Ottolenghi are meant for sharing (perfect for us) and so we ordered:
- Roasted aubergine, black garlic, harissa, pine nuts
- French beans, smoked wheat, tahini lemon dressing
- Courgette and manouri fritters, lime yoghurt
- Five spice tofu, tomato and cardamom passata, braised aubergine
- Seared organic prawns, sumac feta, fennel, Pernod
- Seared scallops, pig’s ears, black bean and ginger sauce
Followed by dessert:
- Chocolate hazelnut slice, mahlab, cherries
Where to begin? Everything was so dramatically different, and generally very very good. I’m always partial to foods that I can imagine myself trying to cook at home, or that open my eyes to a new way of cooking my favourite vegetables. For both of these reasons, I loved the agadashi-style tofu, with aubergine serving as a rich sauce. In fact, aubergine seems to be Nopi’s strong point, because the roasted aubergine was another favourite, served with crispy fried broad beans – again, a way to add texture to an otherwise mushy dish, something I’d never thought of before.
George’s standout favourite was the courgette fritters. Jess put the green beans towards the top of her list – “a hint of spring in my mouth” – which was totally true: everything but the green beans was very rich and full flavoured. We needed the beans to lighten the load.
The veg dishes caught our fancy more than the fish dishes. Don’t get me wrong, the scallops were perfectly cooked, and the prawns where lovely, but I think the veggie dishes were most outstanding, perhaps because they were most creative.
The verdict: I do like Nopi, though I can’t say I like the name – something about it grates on my ears, and I feel like it’s a name that’s designed to be “hip” – what does the name mean, anyway? But that’s just me being cranky about London’s hipster scene. The food is really good. I’ve been eating veggie for a long time and it’s refreshing when someone is able to surprise me with a style of cooking veg. I mean, I don’t want to be all Ottolenghi fan-girl about Nopi, but the food IS really good. A little pricy, maybe, but that’s London for you. And to that event, I the next time I go to Nopi, I may be hitting up their Pre-Theatre meal deal – £25.50 for three courses. I can go for that.
One of the things I love about where I live is that I have easy access to London, one of the best cities in the world for food as far as I’m concerned. I don’t take advantage of this as much as I should and it was fantastic to have the chance to sample some of its food with people who have such similar tastes and attitudes to my own.
I finished the day with a very happy feeling, a sort of fullness, not only in my stomach, but an all-over satisfaction after having a great day out with some very like-minded people who I feel like I’ve known for years.
As I told Jes and George over dinner, it’s really nice hanging out with Americans. Nothing against my fellow British citizens, there’s just something different about being with people from the home country, something a bit more intrinsically shared. I know Britain isn’t a drastically different culture from America, but still, I often find myself not knowing how to “act” around British people. I know it’s silly and totally unnecessary and I should just be myself but I’m only human, and I think it’s only natural to feel a little out-of-place in any country that’s different from your own.
Jes and George are off to Paris tomorrow. I’m not sure when we’ll meet again but I’m sure when we do it will be awesome. Definitely check out Jes’s blog, Eating Appalachia – her writing is lovely and her posts are full of amazing stories about food, recipes, life and travel in Virginia and beyond. Highly recommended, both the person and the blog.
You can see more pics from our day out on Flickr.
UPDATE: Read Jes’ account of of the day on her blog: Foodie Adventure Day (FAD) in London