Address: 182 Grays Inn Rd, Camden Town, London WC1X 8EW
I first became aware of Otto’s during the balmy summer of 2015. The introduction was a lucky one. Reclining peacefully in an armchair in my flat, I noticed an annoying sound floating through the open window.
After ten minutes during which the racket refused to go away, I donned a pair of shoes and went in search of it. Out on Theobald’s Road, I was confronted by a strange sight: a scruffy little mob of malcontents was gathered outside a non-descript restaurant, sandwiched between a dry-cleaners and a Japanese takeaway. Facing them down was a suited figure, the top-button of his jacket done-up, a claret tie suffocating his throat, almost military in his stiff formality, part gentleman’s butler, part Mr Burns from the Simpsons. This was Otto Albert Tepassé, the German owner of the eponymous French restaurant over which he now stood guard.
The protestors were part of the London Vegan Activism Society, their anger stoked by Otto’s serving of foie gras, the delicate and delicious dish created by force feeding a duck or goose until its liver takes on a rich, buttery and absolutely delicious flavour. Over the next several months, the protestors turned up every night of the week, rain or shine, between the hours of 6 and 9pm. They sang, they chanted, they harangued, screaming variants of “shame on Otto’s!”, or “meat is murder”, all amplified by the use of a number of megaphones.
Through it all, Otto faced them stoically and inscrutably, at most despatching an underling to film proceedings when the weather was particularly bad. The foie gras remained on the menu, and as the months passed and the weather turned colder, the protestors began to trickle away. One day, they were no more, leaving in search of a less stout-hearted foe. The battle of bulging liver had been won, the siege lifted.
That’s ancient history, and I’m now a regular diner at Otto’s, one of the best French restaurants in London, and in fact one of the Capital’s best kept secrets (although the cat is increasingly out of the bag).
It is a weird looking place. It is hard to describe the décor. Crimson banquettes line the walls; paintings of Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe adorn the cushions. A little statue of David perches high on the wall, whilst on the tables stand wizened, emaciated figures wrapped in cloth that look like little voodoo dolls. It looks as if someone raided a car boot sale, or the gift shop at the British Museum.
Then the food, arrives, and you forget everything else. On our last trip, my partner in culinary crime ordered the steak tartare, which is created at the table with excellent commentary from a waiter clearly in love with his job. Patting the rich, raw beef, he then made mayonnaise from egg, olive oil and mustard, mixed in onions, capers, some pepper, Worcestershire sauce, a dash of tabasco, and a delightful dab of ketchup.
As this captivating culinary performance unfolded, someone in the kitchens was labouring over my steak. It came with a slab of pan-seared foie gras lain across the top of it, which was absurdly nice, impossibly rich, as succulent and fatty as an item of food can be. The steak was excellent too, smothered in a rich truffle and madeira sauce, but even as I ate it I could feel my eyes drawn irresistibly to the thick, red disk of meat that sat on my companion’s plate.
Fearing rejection, in one swift and fluid motion I blurted “can I try some of that?”, whilst plunging my fork into the finely chopped cubes of beef. The theft was worth any potential punishment: the sharp undertones of onion and Dijon, a frisson of fire from the tabasco, sweetened by ketchup, cooled and moistened by the beef itself, the flavours toying perfectly with each other. On the side, a kind of potato pancake, fried in oil and butter, provided respite from pure carnivorism.
By the time we were finished, dessert was out of the question. We practically crawled home.
For a while, Otto’s was our semi-secret, a place we could walk into on a Friday with no reservation and receive world-class food. Alas, those days appear to be no more. Having recently been listed as one of the Evening Standard’s 50 top restaurants in London and featuring prominently in the upcoming London Food Month, Otto’s is emerging from the shadows. I wandered in a few weeks ago with the proprietary air of a country squire and almost had my jacket over the back of one of the chairs before I was politely informed that the restaurant was: “fully booked.” An empty stomach knows no crueller words.
Jilted, I stepped back out into the night, a little resentful, but also grateful; grateful to Otto and his obstinacy, grateful for geese and their liver, but also grateful to the London Vegan Activism Society, for inadvertently alerting me to a culinary gem on my doorstep, back in that balmy summer of 2015.