Rovi has been on my radar ever since I caught a glimpse of its luscious lobster crumpets back in 2018. Fast forward two years, and the arrival of a global pandemic, and finally here I am, ready to rave about Ottolenghi’s latest venture (even if the crumpets are sadly no more).
For a central London location, the restaurant is hidden away from the Oxford Circus hubbub in Fitzrovia, a refreshing respite from Soho’s bubble of gastronomy that can sometimes feel a bit overwhelming – both in terms of endless choice and the need to dodge stumbling revellers on the cobbled streets after one too many pre-10pm drinks.
While Soho’s streets are as lively as its interiors, the buzz is reserved for indoors in Fitzrovia. As you cross the threshold, leaving the dimly-lit silent footpath behind, you’re hit with a gust of noise – not the cacophonous kind, but a burst of warm chatter and clinking glasses that signal the joy of eating out. At a time when travel is an uncertain prospect, such experiences are particularly uplifting, offering a rare source of escapism.
Interiors are modern and minimalist, revolving around a red and black colour scheme, with latticed chairs facing banquettes and bright back-lit panels, while pale oak wood tables allow the colourful dishes to shine. At the heart of the symmetrical space lies a sleek circular bar, a territory for eagle-eyed people-watchers who feast their eyes on arriving food, and critique fellow diners’ outfit choices.
The cuisine somewhat departs from Ottolenghi’s other ventures. You’ll still spot Middle Eastern favourites like tahini and preserved lemon, but the kitchen has turned its focus to fermentation and cooking over fire, with a few Japanese hints here and there – note the presence of tempura, congee and miso. Vegetarian dishes dominate the menu, more so than at his other restaurants, with a few fish and meat plates to satisfy any persisting cravings. The bar specialises in cocktails crafted from seasonal spices and house shrubs, while the wine menu champions small producers.
The menu is a collection of nibbles (£7-10), small plates (£10-20) and larger mains (£19-29), though we ignored the distinction between these and instead just shared a few of each to avoid either of us becoming consumed with jealousy. We spent just as much time deliberating our order as eating, struggling to narrow down our selection. Admittedly, there was some googling – mouli? bkeila? malawach? – but the rumbling of stomachs was silenced by the arrival of an amuse-bouche “on the house” of butter beans with aioli; a sign of a posh restaurant if there ever was one.
First up was a bowl of barely perceptible burrata, covered in blistered muscat grapes with matching plum-coloured radicchio and a honey verjus. While summer normally springs to mind when choosing burrata, this version was fitting for early autumn – a creamy dish of sweet and bitter elements, with a smokey after-taste from the chargrilled grapes. I would normally feel sorry for the neighbouring plate in such great company but the celeriac shawarma more than held its own – we were later told that it’s the most popular dish on the menu, and one of the only long-standing options due to demand.
The celeriac is slow-cooked for six hours before meeting its sticky companions: the aforementioned bkeila – a Tunisian Jewish paste formed from spinach (thanks Google) – crispy onions and chilli, all bursting out of a chunky grilled pitta with a pot of fermented tomato on the side. It’s melt-in-your mouth goodness, a sumptuous vegan take on a greasy kebab.
Impressed from the get-go, we moved on to the larger of the small plates: grilled mackerel topped with a pistachio and orange chermoula, and a risotto-like shiitake and brown mushroom congee with gooseberries and sour onions. The mackerel was delicious, its iridescent oily skin hidden by a spiced marinade, while the inventive congee resembled a risotto with an Asian twist. There was a great bite to the rice, with firm and earthy chestnut mushrooms cushioned on top, though our only qualm was that the sour onions, pickled in white wine vinegar, were a tad overpowering. That said, the dill and mint salad served on the side of the mackerel was a nice palate cleanser.
We couldn’t resist sharing a dessert and thank the food gods that we did. Breaking with French tradition, Rovi’s perfectly crisp apple millefeuille doesn’t have several layers of pastry sandwiched throughout, instead just a lid and base, giving room for the beautiful patchwork filling of cream, stewed apple and some crunchy raw chunks, all seasoned with the appropriately-dubbed grains of paradise.
Within a few hours, we had become part of the restaurant’s furniture, the acoustics of our tipsy giggles and groans of enjoyment welcoming the next customers as they stepped through the door. We will certainly be back, just as soon as we’ve filled our wallet again.
59 Wells Street London W1A 3AE; ottolenghi.co.uk