Marylebone Greek shows how it’s done
You wait ages for a new Greek restaurant to open in London and then two arrive at the same time – first 21 Bateman Street, and now Opso. That isn’t strictly speaking true – ho-hum chain The Real Greek has been opening new branches at a fairly fast clip. In fact Opso sits across the street from the Marylebone branch of The Real Greek. But while the menu at the latter consists of mundane mezze and souvlaki, Opso couldn’t be more different. Although its menu is also dominated by sharing plates, its kitchen uses Greek ingredients (with the occasional British twist) in imaginative ways to great effect.
At the risk of perpetuating a tired ethnic stereotype, almost the entirety of Opso’s staff are tall, dark and handsome. The exceptions are those that are pale, tall and handsome instead. Split over two floors, the ground floor has the feel of a posh kitchen and is dominated by a bar and a large semi-communal table with smaller two- and four-person tables dotted around the edges. There are a few al fresco tables while the basement has a slightly more industrial feel due to the exposed ceiling ducts. It’s a very casual place and surprisingly quiet at lunchtimes.
First things first
Feta is one of the best known Greek staples and here an aged version of the cheese crops up frequently. Having never encountered it before, I was surprised by its smooth, slightly elastic texture as well as its creaminess. It’s very different from the more familiar hard and crumbly version, but still hugely enjoyable – especially as a starter mixed with lightly sweet and grassy olive oil and then spooned on top of herb-crusted toast.
Taramasalata is the best-known fish roe-based Greek meze, but for my money bottarga is far tastier. The smooth, cured slices of roe are mildly reminiscent of smoked salmon, but the creamy saltiness is subtly different and enhanced by the dill-flecked butter and crusty sea salt served on the side.
Snails served in their shells is one of the few things that I’m squeamish about eating, but I managed to put my repulsion aside to enjoy the snails and chips – and I’m glad I did. The mildly chewy, earthy snails were bathed in a rich sticky sauce thickened with smoky pancetta cubes. The crisp potato cubes were there to add bulk. Still, whether with or without them, the gloriously messy, finger-licking snails were surprisingly enjoyable.
Loukoumades could be described as deep-fried doughnut balls, although that wouldn’t do them justice. The pastry balls had crisp shells, but surprisingly wispy, almost inconsequential interiors. The walnut pieces scattered on top didn’t provide the contrast in texture that I expected them to, but that was forgotten when faced with the flavours of the sweet, grassy honey and smooth, light, herby ice cream.
Going back for seconds
Almost all of my meals at Opso coincided with one of London’s stifling heatwaves, but there are plenty of light, refreshing dishes on the menu. The dakos is one of them and is not only refreshing, but addictive too. The punchy, salty capers and olives were a good match for the sweet, umami tomatoes and creamy, soft feta, while sharp red onions and a scattering of oregano formed the crust of a glorious meld of strong, bold flavours.
Greek pies are almost like quiches, which may explain the failure of the Little Greek Pie Company’s now-closed Fitzrovia cafe. If you can put aside any irrational feelings you may have towards quiche, then you’ll enjoy the light, flaky pastry of Opso’s pie slice and the filling of tangy, lightly bitter spinach and creamy feta bits. It’s more substantial with far stronger flavours than the equivalent pie from the Little Greek Pie Company.
Beef and dill are unusual bedfellows, but that hardly matters when it’s done this well. Tender and unctuous, yet surprisingly lean beef cheeks were fricasseed in a moderately thick sauce with a strong taste of dill. The meat and herb came together beautifully, but there’s no subtlety or complexity to this dish so it’s a good thing that the portion is relatively small – any larger and it would’ve outstayed its welcome.
The nuttiness of the walnut cake was muted, but the teared chunks of cake were surprisingly light and dotted with slightly sweet and syrupy raisin-like cherry pieces. The potentially heavy and overpowering fruit was balanced out by the daubing of clotted cream. The overall effect was flavoursome yet light – apt for a summer dessert.
Opso’s savoury dishes aren’t all just meat and feta. There’s seafood too, such as the grouper tartare. The light chunks of moist, meaty fish had a crisp, zesty, refreshing charm.
The grouper tartare paled in comparison to the smoked eel though. The fava bean puree was smooth and deliciously nutty with occasional zesty hints, akin to a lightly sweetened hummus if that helps you. Dotted alongside the eel slices were sharp, tangy capers and crisp spring onions which added another layer of flavour and texture to the puree. The eel itself was deliciously smoky and was strong enough to shine through and contrast with the puree, even though its texture was lost amidst the other parts of this dish. Divine.
Much like the walnut cake, the vanilla cream feels more British than Greek but was no less enjoyable for it. The slightly elastic cream had the unmistakable taste of vanilla, which can’t always be said for vanilla desserts, and was complimented nicely by a choice selection of exceedingly fresh summer berries and crisp flakes of filo pastry stood upright.
Go Fourth and Multiply
The service at new restaurants tends to get better upon successive visits, but that wasn’t the case here. The service, up until this point, was polite and efficient. This time around, it was comically slow and haphazard with my requests barely understood by the confused-looking staff. It was at least still friendly. This was hopefully just a one-off glitch, but it doesn’t fill me with confidence.
The plate of wild boar sausage is small enough to have as starter. The sausage slices were mildly coarse, dotted with fat and had a gentle smokiness. It won’t set the world of sausages alight, but it’s pleasing enough – especially when taken with the noodle-like strands of lightly creamy and tender celeriac.
The lamb shank might seem like the least interesting dish on the menu, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. The earthy meat was so tender that it fell of the bone with hardly any effort and had a subtle taste of lemongrass to it – an unexpected element in a Greek dish. As good as the lamb was, it was overshadowed by the accompanying orzo. The small rice-like pasta had a mild creaminess and a bold, delicious tomato-derived umaminess that bowled me over. Superlative comfort food.
The listless service meant I sadly had to skip dessert, but I did have time for a ‘pink’ smoothie which isn’t actually pink, which will doubtless disappoint pedants. Served in an obligatory mini milk bottle, the light and wispy drink had a faint whiff of strawberries to it but tasted mostly of herby, grassy honey which is frankly a little odd and off-putting in a drink.
Other reviewers haven’t been impressed with Opso but, with all due respect, they are wrong. Opso’s modern Greek cooking is delightful, playful, inventive, satisfying and quite unlike anything I’ve had in London before. Service issues and annoying opening hours aside, Opso is one of my favourite new restaurants of the year so far and I can almost guarantee it will be one of yours too.
What to order: Feta cheese; smoked eel; lamb shank; dakos; beef cheek
What to skip: The pink smoothie
Address: 10 Paddington Street, Marylebone, London W1U 5QL
Phone: 020 7935 0551
Opening Hours: Breakfast Monday-Friday 08.00-noon; Lunch Monday-Friday noon-16.00; Dinner Thursday-Saturday 18.00-22.30 and Weekend Brunch 10.00-16.00.
Reservations: if you want on weekdays; probably a good idea on and around weekends
Average cost for one person including soft drinks: £40-50 approx.