Summer, provided it isn’t a total washout, is one of my favourite times of year in London. It’s these long warm days that encourage us to explore the city: its various parks, terraces, rooftops and beer gardens.
Considering the unusually hot weather we’ve had this year (that’s us done for the foreseeable, I imagine), I wouldn’t blame you if you hadn’t felt the usual urge to escape for a week in the Mediterranean, as many of the inhabitants of our (often) cold Isles seem to. Though if you had, just for an evening, Omar’s Place certainly looks the part.
Once the doors of the former listed pub are closed, the streets of Victoria left behind, it’d be easy to forget that you are – indeed – still in London. Through a collaboration between design studio Sella Concept and architects Wilson Holloway, the interior of the 40-seater restaurant has been transformed with terracotta, emerald green and sky blues alongside marble table tops and brass-rimmed mirrors. The overall look is clean, chic and welcoming – completely in line with the menu: a selection of tapas and dishes from the grill, inspired by the coastal towns of the Med.
The concept, while by no means a revolutionary one, holds promise thanks to its three pillars: the proprietor Egyptian-born Omar (his family has been running some of Egypt’s most famous bars for over 60 years), Mallorca-born menu-designer Vincente Fortea (previously of three Michelin-Starred Arzak in San Sebastian) and Head Chef Rosanna Vitorria.
With high expectations, we take our seats in the corner of the near-empty restaurant. We are the only ones dining this particular evening, while the remaining handful of guests enjoy selections from the establishment’s wine list. Additionally, a gentleman who I believe to be Omar (later joined by a friend), sporadically helps behind the bar and pours himself pints – contrary to the press notes’ revelation that his drink of choice is a whisky from the restaurant’s extensive whisky menu.
That said, the service is quick and friendly. We order our drinks off menu – virgin mojitos – and I can honestly say they are some of the best cocktails I’ve had in some time. Mojitos can often be too much of one thing: too much mint, too much sugar and so on. This one is perfectly balanced.
To start, we opt for a selection of hot and cold tapas: squid tartare (£8), burrata (£12), sardine (£8) and gambas al ajillo (£12). The burrata, served with heritage tomatoes, pesto and pine nuts is a lovely take on the classic tricolore salad – nothing revolutionary, but a fresh, summer dish. The sardines are served with red pepper puree and ‘smoked oil snow’. The fresh fish are elevated by the deep smokiness of the accompaniments. Again, a simple dish well executed. The squid tartare is the interesting one. Served on lemon with coconut milk and ‘sea water foam’, it’s a light, fresh dish with roe-like texture and a hint of the sea. Admittedly, it does suffer from an abundance of other flavours, on the verge of muddying the crisp flavours of the squid itself.
Our hot tapas choice, Mediterranean prawns with garlic and chilli, is another classic well executed. If I were to highlight one flaw: the chilli is perhaps a little too hot for the delicate flavours of the dish. On the other hand, like a good steak, the prawns are served seared on the outside but still a tiny bit under in the middle. A garlic crisp adds smokiness and the whole dish transfers me to those coastal towns it was invented in. So far, Omar’s Place really shines with its treatment of seafood.
For mains, we choose octopus and lamb (£16 each) with sides of charcoal grilled asparagus (£6) and rosemary potatoes (£4). While we wait, we’re brought an amuse bouche of crispy pepper with garlic mayo. It’s light with a subtle garlic flavour but, while perfectly pleasant, it doesn’t add anything to our meal, nor indeed does it amuse our palettes. The mains, on the other hand, do. The slow cooked lamb (though I suspect it is mutton) simply falls apart. Its richness pairing perfectly with celeriac puree.
The star of the show though, is the octopus. Charcoal grilled and dressed with paprika oil, it is cooked to absolute perfection. It’s this cooking, specifically, that makes me think of the Mediterranean: the knowledge of seafood cookery that doesn’t require ‘foam’ or ‘snow’ to make it interesting. The produce, its freshness and its handling are what makes the dish worth eating.
For dessert, we share the strawberry and white chocolate route (£6). Described simply as white chocolate foam, strawberries and pistachios, it’s a light dessert ideal for sharing. The fresh sweetness of the strawberries cut through by the saltiness of the pistachios. Again, it’s well made, but in this case nothing to write home about.
Admittedly, all the dishes ordered were both presented and cooked well, but a handful were truly flawless. I’d recommend a visit to Omar’s Place just on the basis of the octopus dish. And – of course – the virgin mojito.
Omar’s Place can be found at 13 Cambridge Street, London, SW1V 4PR.