Islington's trendiest eatery has spawned an unsuccessful imitator
Without question, the trendiest place to eat on Upper Street in Islington, north London - a street with more than its share of trendy eateries - is Ottolenghi. This restaurant-cum-deli opened its Islington branch about a year and a half ago, and it immediately became famous for looking more like a boutique than a restaurant, on account of the towering displays of meringues, cakes and salads in its window. However, this wasn't an example of style triumphing over substance: the food at Ottolenghi may look good, but it tastes delicious as well. I am particularly devoted to the remarkable, cake-like chilli bread, which, on its own, is worth the price of a meal there.
The trouble with brilliant originals is that they tend to spawn less successful imitators. A few days ago, I was walking along Upper Street with my girlfriend when she pointed out a new restaurant named Fig and Olive, which she identified as "an Ottolenghi rip-off". Sure enough, Fig and Olive (tel: 020 7354 2605), which is situated less than a hundred metres from Ottolenghi, also has displays of cakes and salads in its window. Its decor, like that of Ottolenghi, is inspired by 1970s futurism, and the eating space is partly communal (at Ottolenghi, diners face each other across two long rectangular tables).
Such superficial similarities aside, however, the two places could not be more different. The food at Fig and Olive is, with only a few exceptions, atrocious. On reflection, perhaps the name should have given the game away. What, exactly, do the words "fig" and "olive" conjure up? Something vaguely Mediterranean? Perhaps a little bit Turkish-influenced? It's desperately vague and uninspiring, and reflects a restaurant desperately unsure of what it is doing. It transpired that the defining feature of the cooking (which the waiter helpfully identified as "modern European", thus narrowing it down to a pool of about a thousand restaurants in London) was a tendency to mix sweet with savoury. Virtually all the main courses were adorned with miscellaneous berries or segments of fruit. "Blackened" salmon came with dried blackcurrants, cashew nuts and asparagus - a combination as unsuccessful as it sounds. Duck breast with orange segments and cherries was more tasty, but only marginally so. The salads in the window proved equally peculiar: what looked like a pleasant dish of lentils, for example, was ruined by hidden strips of smoked salmon.
At least the puddings were OK. Rice pudding topped with shredded wheat was a clever play on the Greek dessert baklava; roast pumpkin with walnuts was pronounced "delicious". The waiters were unfailingly polite and helpful, and clearly Fig and Olive means well. Unfortunately, the best will in the world does not a successful restaurant make.