REVIEW: Obica, Poland Street

London is not short of Italian restaurants. It takes a little more creativity to stand out in this crowded category, so the novelty of a mozzarella bar seems a shrewd concept, not to mention the stuff of cheese-lovers dreams. But does Obica’s new Soho outpost in Poland Street live up to expectations?

Zucchine alla Scapece

The concept: Founded in 2004 Obica is a cheese-laden chain of casual Italian eateries, which counts sites across Italy, the US, UK and Japan, and claims to have been the first to offer a mozzarella bar concept. Chef Nancy Silverton recently credited the chain with providing the inspiration behind her LA restaurant Osteria Mozza in the latest Chef’s Table series on Netflix. Most recently, the chain has brought Italian chef Alessandro Borghese on board as its creative chef, developing a new menu, which has coincided with the opening of its latest London outpost in Poland Street, joining sites in Charlotte Street, South Kensington, St Pauls and Canary Wharf.

The décor: Located in the heart of Soho, Obica Poland Street is divided into a front bar area with stools facing the street, giving the option of a more casual setting, leading to a smaller, more intimate dining room at the back. Clean lines, wooden tables and candlelight combine to create a sophisticated, yet fast-casual vibe. Below decks, the restaurant boasts an even larger second dining room.

The food: The foundation of the chain’s cheesy menu is based on eight varieties of mozzarella di bufala campana DOP, which are infused throughout a wider menu of small plates, pizzas, pastas and salads. Dishes include Crochette di Patate e Cime di Rapa, croquettes stuffed with turnip greens, anchovies and smoked mozzarella, and zucchine alla scapece, a pretty plate of courgettes and mozzarella di bufala scattered with pine nuts.

We started our evening with a selection of small plates. A wooden board of bresaola della Valtellina IGP (£6) – aged air-dried beef – was a triumph, arriving piled high with thin slices packed with flavour. Likewise the burrata al tartufo (£10.50), the pinnacle of its mozzarella cheese selection at £10.50 a pop, was a truffle-lovers dream, generously garnished and suitably smelling of the prized fungi, oozy and gooey at its centre.

The baccala mantecato (£6.50) amounted to two mounds of whipped salt cod on corn chips with smoked mozzarella. They were devoured, a bit too quickly, with a hunk of oregano and sea salt focaccina (£5). Sadly the suppli al telefono (£4.50) – croquettes of breadcrumbed rice with mozzarella di bufala, tomato, pecorino romano and basil – failed to live up to expectations. The two croquettes that arrived to our table were disappointingly dry and lacked any real flavour.

Five small plates between two, including bread, proved sufficient and didn’t seem excessive.

Our mains proved to be more solid, with a nduja burrata pizza (£14), slathered with the spicy sausage and strewn with dollops of stracciatella di burrata, tomato and basil, was pizza perfection. Deeply favoured with a sweet spice, it had a memorable kick, without being overpowering, set off by a perfectly crisped base.

A portion of fresh taglioni (£15.50), a reassuringly eggy-yellow in colour, arrived in a neatly piled twist, topped with a generous helping of tiger prawns, courgettes, tomatoes and fresh thyme.

We capped off the meal with a “piccola” sbrisolona (£3) – a traditional crunchy almond ‘cake’ (in fact more like a biscuit) with passito and lemon mascarpone. A larger “grande” portion was available for £5.50.

The dessert trophy however was handed to the “grande” tirimisu (£5) – a comforting bowl of creamy, gooey indulgence to cap off an Italian feast.

Signature dishes: Mozzarella is the star of the show at Obica, with its mozzarella bar its signature act. Obica’s mozzarella Bar experience (£30), intended for 2-4 people to share, offers two portions of mozzarella (with its burrata with black truffle options an extra £4) with a platter consisting of cured meats, tomato and basil pesto, caponata, sundried tomatoes and a helping of focaccini.

The drinks: Obica’s exclusively Italian wine list is compact but well formed, offering a reasonable but rather generic selection. Bottles start from £24 for a bottle of Piemonte Barbera DOC, with the majority of wines on its list available by the glass. We quaffed a glass of the Sicilia Insolia Terre Siciliane IGT at £7 a glass, and a glass of the Sicilia Nero d’Avola IGT, also £7.

La Collezione Obica is reserved for its better offerings, and comprises two whites, including a £74 IGT white blend from Jermann in Friuli, and three reds, topped by a £105 bottle of Barbaresco DOCG from Sottimano in Piedmonte.

The cocktail menu is packed with reliable favourites, including the classically Italian Aperol/Campari Spritz (£8) and the Promesa (£9) – a twist on the whisky sour – a refreshingly light blend of whisky, Drambuie and lemon juice, walnut bitters and agave syrup.

Who to know: The man of the moment, Alessandro Borghese, recently brought on board as the chain’s creative chef. Born in San Francisco, the Neapolitan chef is the son of Italian actress Barbara Bouchet and entrepreneur Luigi Borghese.

A familiar face in Italy, Borghese is playfully referred to as the “rock’n social chef”. He judged the first Italian edition of Junior Masterchef on Sky TV, has hosted a number of his own TV shows; Alessandro Borghese 4 Ristoranti and Alessandro Borghese Kitchen Sound for Sky Italia, and published a number of cookery books.

Last word: To call Obica an upmarket Pizza Express seems unfair – it’s more of a high-end Strada – far more polished and imaginative in its menu choices, which Borghese should be given full credit for, and offering a genuine point of difference in its mozzarella bar concept that will appeal and deliver to cheese purists. But those that enjoy the casual conviviality that comes with a Pollo Ad Astra or Sloppy Giuseppe will likely be first to be wooed through the door of Obica, and so the comparison is relevant. Obica is sophisticated, charming and approachable, and offers far more pizazz than its ubiquitous Italian pizza chain brethren. If you are looking for a generous, welcoming slice of Italian comfort food in the heart of Soho, then Obica fits the bill. Service by staff was impeccable, the location convenient and the menu creative, just don’t expect pizza chain prices.

Three courses with wine costs around £50 per person.

Obica, Poland Street, 19-20, Poland Street, W1F 8QF, London, Tel: +44 (0) 20 3327 7070

First published by the drinks business

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