14 Aug 2012

Obikà: the restaurant built on mozzarella

There's chicken and steak at Tramshed, hot dogs at soon-to-be-opened Bubbledogs and burgers and lobsters at, erm, Burger & Lobster. But the trend for restaurants focused on just one or two dishes has surely reached a pinnacle with Obikà – a new buffalo mozzarella bar and restaurant in South Kensington.

As much as I love the soft milky cheese, which is made by stretching and kneeding the curd in warm water, opening a restaurant devoted entirely to a single type of formaggio sounds like the kind of business plan that would send Nick off the The Apprentice into one of his trademark scowls.

It turns out that the new flagship branch on Draycott Avenue is actually Obikà's second in the UK (there's a smaller outlet in the City) and the 19th opened by founder Silvio Ursini with restaurants in New York, Rome, Istanbul and Tokyo. So much for my business nous.

So how do you build an international restaurant chain on cheese? The answer is that Mozzarella di Bufala Campana is not the only thing on the menu. Yes, you can sit at the sushi-style bar and order three different types: 'classica', 'affumicata' (smoked) and burrata (mozzarella and cream), but you can also order tapas-like sides of grilled aubergine, anchovies and tomatoes, and even smoked salmon from Forman & Field. 

Then there are antipasti boards of mortadella, salami and Parma ham, pizzas, pasta dishes, such as ravioli stuffed with pumpkin and Grana Padano, and 'carne' and 'pesce' mains from the grill.

In other words, it's not that different to a lot of other Italian restaurants, but with added mozzarella, which is no bad thing in my book. Prices are pretty reasonable for this part of town (pizzas start at £10.50, pastas at £8 and the mains are all under £20), staff are friendly and they've done a good job with the interior, which is a cross between a smart neighbourhood Italian and a sushi bar. Definitely a step up from Carluccio's.

The food is also in a different league to the big chains. We were invited on the launch night and got to try different options from the menu. I liked a lot of the little side dishes, such as spicy nduja, homemade focaccia and a smoky Sicilian aubergine stew that accompanied a plate of charcuterie. The grilled veg and mozzarella (naturally) pizza had a proper thin and crispy base, although the 'pasta gentile' wasn't for me. Mint and egg don't normally hang out together for a reason. They just don't get on.

But what about the mozzarella? The key to good buffalo mozzarella is that it has to be super fresh, preferably eaten within a day of being made. If cheese is milk's leap towards immortality, mozzarella is more of a tentative step. You should still be able to taste the delicate sweetness and yoghurty tang of the milk, and it should ooze when you cut into it.

I got a bit of that with Obikà's 'classica', which is flown in three times a week from Italy, but I have had better. It was good, but it didn't leave me glassy eyed and drooling like some Mozzarella di Bufala has in the past.

Still, Obikà is definitely worth a visit if you've only ever tried those rubbery balls of mozzarella in plastic bags that the supermarkets sell.

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