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By Alex Martin | February 6 2020
There was a time, not too long ago, when London’s Charlotte Street appeared to be suffocating under the weight of its own success. Once the go-to destination for gourmands, excessive rents threatened to suck the life out of it. But it has recently been the site of several exciting openings, the latest of which is Ampéli, a stylish eatery offering elevated Greek and Eastern Mediterranean cuisine.
Ampéli, meaning vineyard in Greek, is the vision of Athens-born Jenny Pagoni. There is a large emphasis on wine, which becomes obvious with a prominent bar at the front of the restaurant. Beyond it is a three-tiered dining room complete with a charming mezzanine. Sitting on the edge of this upper floor, overlooking the ground floor, is the best seat in the house. One can only imagine it to be vastly more enjoyable than the lower level, which is empty at the time of our midweek visit.
The wine list has been curated by Greek Master of Wine Yiannis Karakasis. ‘The Indigenous List’ offers a large selection of Greek wines. For the uneducated (myself), it offers a guide to little-known Greek varieties. Without a sommelier on hand, we take a shot on a carafe of Chatzivariti, formed from a variety of the Xinomavro and Negkoska grapes. It runs true to the suggestion that it is like a Nebbiolo and is perfect for the meal that is to come.
The menu has been developed by head chef Oren Goldfeld, who has previously worked at Nopi, Brother Marcus and Tel Aviv’s acclaimed Toto restaurant. It is split into four sections (snacks, cold and hot sharing plates, and main dishes). Everything is designed to be shared, however, and dishes arrive whenever they are ready.
We start with tomato and goats cheese fritters, pickled okra tempura and Greek yogurt. It is an interpretation of a Pagoni family recipe and certainly has a homely feel to it. Our one and only dish from the cold social plates was the Josper-smoked aubergine with tahini and walnuts. The aubergine is smoked the perfection and works brilliantly well with the classic addition of walnuts. It would have provided an excellent accompaniment to our large plate (grilled lamb chops) but the aubergine was finished off well before they arrived.
From the hot social plates, we sample the salt cod croquettes with samphire and yogurt tartar. The samphire seems little more than a garnish, but the croquettes themselves are well balanced with the yogurt offsetting the saltiness. The only real disappointment of the night comes in the form of kohlrabi, which is supposedly cooked over charcoal but provides no indication of that. Other accompaniments such as the Galomyzithra cheese and chili oil also fail to make much of an appearance.
That minor hiccup is long-forgotten, however, upon the arrival of the lamb chops, which is certainly the dish of the night. Three grilled lamb chops arrive on top of a generous serving of skordalia. Lamb is a staple of the Greek diet and they have certainly done it justice here, arriving straight from the grill with the fat rendered and crispy. They are stupendous and the skordalia – a thick purée made with potatoes, nuts and heaps of garlic – is intensely flavorsome.
And then there is dessert, where the traditional loukoumades (mini Greek donuts) lie in wait. Freshly deep-fried and served with a delicious tea and poppy seed custard, they are a must for every diner. The chocolate Mahlab mousse is a more indulgent offering, although I find the glacé pomelo on the top far too sharp for the dish. They sit ostentatiously on the empty plate as it is taken back to the kitchen.
There is clear passion behind Ampéli. Through its interior design, the wine list and the menu, it feels like the result of a lifelong vision. There is enough on the menu and the wine list to justify repeat visits, which is what it will need from its customers if it is to survive and thrive in Charlotte Street. It will no doubt take inspiration from Norma, which opened a few doors down last year and is full every night of the week. Norma’s Italian cuisine may be an easier sell, but there is no less talent behind Ampéli and no reason why it cannot emulate it.