The Fresser

Low carb chocolate cake, Middle Eastern mac ‘n cheese and kosher smokehouse specials

Tasting the menus at Ottolenghi Bicester, Caldesi in Belsize and Habiba’s Smokehouse


Oven fresh: Caldesi's rosemary flatbreads

First up — Caldesi in Belsize, a third restaurant for Giancarlo and Katie Caldesi.

The couple’s first restaurant, Caldesi in Marylebone has been doing business since 2002. Five years later, they opened a cookery school next door — La Cucina Caldesi. (Fun fact I’ve taught cookery there.)
In 2007 they opened Caldesi in Campagna — in Bray, which keen foodies will recognise as home to Heston’s Fat Duck and Alain Roux’s three Michelin-starred Waterside Inn. The pair also offer cookery lessons from their home in Gerrard’s Cross and have published a slew of cookbooks.

The restaurant is in Belsize village, on a site that was previously Italian restaurant Calici. Those with longer memories will remember it as XO — the shiny black surfaced homage to 20th century-style Asian fusion.

The refurbished restaurant is divided into a front bar area and large light dining room. Vintage furniture (personally curated by Katie) gives it an almost homely feel. Photos from their many Italian cookery books line the walls. In the dining room, the vibe is more brasserie luxe.

On a weekday lunchtime soon after they opened, the dining room was quiet. Perfect for a quiet catch up. Our menu highlights include the perfectly puffed, oven fresh rosemary and olive oil flatbreads on a rustic board that we made light work of with a glass of fizz; chunky slabs of honey and thyme roasted beetroot and goats’ cheese arrived under a mane of lemon-dressed curly kale and La Parmigiana — the ristorante baked aubergine classic — was upscaled by smoked mozzarella for a hefty savoury punch.

Stefano’s squidgy chocolate cake is (almost) guilt-free. With a low carb (LC) label it was a shoe-in for this ladies’ lunch. There are LC dishes dotted throughout the menu which is down to Giancarlo’s battle vs Type 2 Diabetes. He is currently winning the war, having reinvented his diet with plenty of those low carb options and a lot of healthy eating. (More on that on their website.) It also meant a reduced-guilt pud that tasted great.

If I still lived locally, I’d be in for a regular evening aperitivo plus few bits from their bar snack menu.

Further afield — I made the trek to Ottolenghi’s first out of town venue. It may seem a schlep, but, at the right time of day, my journey time to Bicester Village (from Hertfordshire) took less than it would be to Kensington’s designer store-clad streets. Plus we’d have spent the next hour meter-hunting rather than gliding into a space in the Oxfordshire designer retail park.

This is the growing chain’s largest site, adding up to 85 — closely packed — covers inside and a further 60 seats on the al fresco terrace.

The large, light and bright feel and well-stocked merch gives slightly Ottolenghi theme park vibes. Not that I had a problem with the display of books, cooking and serving utensils and deli food. As you’d exepct, there’s also the standard showstopper cake selection making it hard to tear myself away from the retail and squeeze into my banquette seat.

The menu — a swift canter through many of the Israeli uber chef’s greatest hits — covers all the proteins plus plenty of plant-based salads and sides.

Favourite foods included the squidgy focaccia, chewy sourdough and slightly sweet (almost cakey) cornbread that occupied us while I negotiated with my mother and daughter over who was going to taste what.

We ordered a main course each — which came with a choice of salads. The prices are on the high side for lunch, but portions were generous enough to warrant a doggy bag on departure. Too late, we clocked our neighbouring table, who more wisely than us (or on a second visit) had picked just one main between them and a couple of extra sides.

Not surprisingly, there’s a plenty of pomegranate, za’atar and tahini going on. Mac and cheese was topped with za’atar pesto — an unexpected hit with my daughter, who’d been introduced to the Middle Eastern mix on our last trip to Israel. She was less keen on the carpet crunchy onion shards on top.
More za’atar coated the perfectly grilled salmon — which was covered with chopped olives and perched on a schmear of tahini.

It was a recipe I’ve cooked at home. Not the only one — my mother and I spotted several from our complete collection of Ottolenghi cookbooks. Also making an appearance were aubergines with saffron yoghurt, and al dente beans and sugar snaps topped with toasted hazelnuts — both ones we’ve cooked for ourselves. (Not that my renditions are by any means a carbon copy.) Spinach and yoghurt dip with za’atar pita chips was even popular with my green veg-averse offspring.

Having massively over-ordered we really did have to push ourselves to eat dessert – but who could pass up the chance to try some of the Ottolenghi-baked eye-candy? An orange and almond cake was delicious, as was my daughter’s perfect pink meringue.

There’s a choice of cafes and restaurants at Bicester Village but if you fancy making the day out a treat, it’s definitely the place to rest your shopping bags. And bag a few foodie treats to take home

Finally, a closer look at kosher meat restaurant — Habiba’s Smokehouse.

The recent addition to Temple Fortune is the second site for the lovely Zev and Yasmin Ibgi. I first met them at their deli — pre-pandemic — where they were supplying kosher food and groceries to Swiss Cottage and surrounding ‘burbs. Their sausage rolls were off-the-scale.

The deli is no more, but Zev — who has kosher restaurant heritage — has perfected a range of NY-style smoked meats that has locals and not-so-locals lining up.

We were invited in for a caveman-style nosh up of a range of smoked meats and sides arranged on a slate board. Chunky short rib, meltingly soft duck and lamb sausage were topped with garlic bread, chips, sweetcorn, mini dishes of coleslaw, punchy pickled vegetables and crunchy, pink pickled onions plus (one of my favourites) smoked tomatoes, which had gorgeous herby notes. He also sent over some mini pulled beef burgers and chicken nuggets. Carnivorous kashrut at its finest — although I’d be even more delighted if they added those sausage rolls to the menu...

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