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Evening Standard
Evening Standard
David Ellis and Joanna Taylor

Welcome to Otto's: Is this London's maddest restaurant — or its most magical?

David’s meal

The first time I went to Otto’s, the lunch ran to five hours. The reason? Variously: scallops, caviar, a truffle-studded chicken that emerged victoriously from a pig’s bladder, pints of white wine, the same of red, and a rambling conversation that covered everything from being a runaway in Paris to the birth of table dancing at Stringfellows (it was the customers; they’d get up and peel off on the promise of a bottle of Champagne). After this, owner Otto Tepasse — who, after a six-bottles-of-Champagne-a-day habit (though no table dancing), long ago decided to give up the drink — thought the only sensible move for me to make next would be to wade through a few hefty glasses of Armagnac from 1964. Well look, really, I hate to be rude.

When I arrived home, I was swiftly and sternly poured into the spare room for a 16-hour nap. You might not find stupors so seductive, but for me, it was love at first hangover.

(Matt Writtle)

Alarmingly, Google tells me I’ve returned a ludicrous 18 times since, so I’m assuming I’ve had at least one heart attack and simply haven’t realised it yet.

Astonishingly, it’s been different every time. I once watched sandwich king Max Halley face off against Russell Norman to see who could press duck harder. Halley took it, probably because he was wearing the restaurants’ in-house Viking helmet (donated by Nordic diners. Who needs service charge?). It was raucous. Another time, a diner — celebrated cellist Kenneth Kuo — got up mid-meal to give a recital. The room was a picture of peace.

I remember a Christmas lunch where downstairs and upstairs had a carol off, both seated and bellowing, but never meeting. And the lunch that prompted this message the morning after: “Lads. I just had this really weird dream. You guys were there and we were in a restaurant. I ordered soup, but someone put a load of booze in it and I started to feel a bit odd. The owner was bringing over loads of food but kept setting fire to it. Next thing, Neil Kinnock turns up (or might always have been there, I don’t know) and starts telling stories about Ronald Reagan.” All true; who could make it up?

Alarmingly, Google tells me I’ve been 19 times since, so I’m assuming I’ve had at least one heart attack and simply haven’t realised it

Mind you, half the meals I’ve had here I’d be convinced I’d hallucinated if it weren’t for blurry photographic evidence. I have seen lobsters get on the wrong side of a knife, but also influencers baffled, barristers nodding off.

I have a vegetarian friend who adores the place, despite the menu largely being made up of fois gras with everything. Another friend, an alcoholic a decade sober, doesn’t understand why anyone would drink here — “it’s mind-altering enough as it is,” he says, not wrong. It’s his favourite restaurant. Understandable: there is magic here. If they replaced the front door with a wardrobe, you wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see a lion and a witch clinking glasses of claret over plates of pigeon.

Challan duck liver with fois gras (Albert Evans)

Meals at Otto’s need not be enormous, but they can be, especially if having La Grande Bouffe, which is named ominously but not entirely incorrectly after a 1973 film in which the protagonists eat themselves to death. It is a menu of duck and lobsters, every part of them squeezed and crushed into extraordinary dishes, of sweetbreads, of livers, of scallops, of blood sauce, of caviar, of crêpes Suzette. A meal unfolds here as an astonishing conjuring trick, each course more improbable than the last. Gasps are a given. The encouraged gluttony makes the place sound faintly Tudor, but truthfully, this is more akin to dining as they would have had on the Titanic — with Rose, not Jack. This is fitting, as it happens that one of Otto’s presses sailed on an old White Star liner, a sister to the great sunken ship itself. No, really.

A meal unfolds here as an astonishing conjuring trick, each course more improbable than the last

I like this detail. It’s rather telling of Otto’s — because it’s the real deal. Otto’s is not a novelty, and no pretender. The cooking has only bettered over the years, and the kitchen’s skill is obvious not just in the pressing or the poaching. It’s there in the pommes soufflés — pillow-shaped pieces of twice-fried, puffed-up potato that are tricky little buggers to get right. The magic’s there, too, in the choice of ingredients — take the ducks, which are Challans, broadly considered the best in the world. Or the wine list, which is not trying to get away with passing off the bad stuff; it is one of headline years, superstar vineyards.

And really, it’s in the staff: it’s in Otto, in Elin too, in right-hand man Reuben. They attend but do not interrupt. They know the answers to any questions but won’t bore on uninvited. And, fundamentally, they know guests come for a good time, and to be in a place unlike anywhere else. Is it mad? Not entirely. The word is spellbinding. You come for last meal-on-earth territory. I’m just getting an awful lot of practice in.

Otto Tepasse with one of his presses (Albert Evans)

Joanna’s meal

If you’re over 30, you’ll know that prior to the proliferation of jazzy small plates, natty wine and even Jamie’s Italian, French food ruled the roost. Before the late, great Russell Norman had his way, legends such as Pierre Koffmann, Raymond Blanc and the Roux gang made glossy sauces and dainty bird’s legs the height of delectable sophistication — and to a certain extent, it still is. The problem? These days, so many of us feel we know the cuisine inside out, which can, at times, lack a dash of je ne sais quoi.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with the predictability of tradition. Done right, it’s wholly soothing and comforting. But Otto’s? Well, Otto’s is a French restaurant which is anything but predictable, as I found out when my colleague David decided it was high time he carted me to the Bermuda Triangle that lies between Holborn, Farringdon and King’s Cross to experience (drumroll, please) La Grande Bouffe.

Elin Hansen (Nic Crilly-Hargrave)

And let’s just say, at first, I was slightly concerned it was all a ploy to pop me off for crimes against grammar, because from the outside, Otto’s could be just about anything. Situated between a branch of You Me Sushi and something else I can’t remember, because my life was flashing before my eyes, the restaurant is simply marked by a black awning featuring the forename of its star and co-proprietor in bold white letters.

Is it chic? Yes, but for all I knew, 182 Gray’s Inn Road could be a funeral director’s, where I’m told to choose a coffin (leopard print faux fur, if you must know) and get in. Through the front door, however, is an entirely different story.

There’s pyrotechnics, enough alcohol to scare Keith Floyd and what, to the untrained eye, can only be described as a medieval torture device

All fears of imminent demise quickly dissolved once over the threshold and into a cosseting, eclectic space akin to the drawing room of an eccentric family member — one who, crucially, offers you Champagne upon arrival. And as cliché as it sounds, very quickly, owners Otto Tepasse and Elin Hansen do feel like relatives, lovingly welcoming you into their home before regaling you with the stories of collected treasures, be it an imitation Andy Warhol or a piece of the Elgin marbles (also imitation, obviously) splattered with spearmint paint. Even without so much as a whiff of food, it’s clear why David returns here again and again.

Carved duck in blood sauce (Nic Crilly-Hargrave)

But of course, there is food. And not just food; there’s pyrotechnics, enough alcohol to scare the late Keith Floyd and what, to the untrained eye, can only be described as a medieval torture device. Actually, make that torture devices, plural. La Grande Bouffe, it turns out, is based around not one, but two antique sterling silver contraptions devised to press the living daylights out of duck and lobster carcasses, allowing Otto to concoct an array of rich, indulgent sauces from the innermost juices, destined to furnish eight courses of sheer, incomparable indulgence. Sound mad? That’s because it is.

Nevertheless, it all begins very civilised... honest. While Otto dances around the table wielding fire and bottles of high-proof, caramel-coloured liquid, we say a brief hello to our lively pincered friends, sip lobster consommé from teacups and nibble delicate strips of toasted brioche topped with a whipped trout caviar and crème fraîche. Soon, we listen to them hiss in the distance, as duck liver arrives with veal sweetbreads and morels in a glossy truffle sauce. Then come the Viking helmets, wheeled out to be worn while we take turns crushing both duck and lobster carcasses, naturally.

We’re sent for a waddle around the block, where outside the cold reality of normality jars with the bewildering, bewitching theatre of the restaurant

The blood which trickles from the poultry’s pressing is drizzled over tender slivers of flambéed duck, followed by plates of gargantuan lobster claws and seared foie gras served with a mound of crisp, featherweight potato clouds named pommes soufflé, which are nothing short of a miracle.

Lobster tail is served before we’re sent for a waddle around the block, where outside the cold reality of normality jars with the bewildering, bewitching theatre of the restaurant, delicious in every way. Anywhere else, paying £500 to be banished for a walk mid-meal would seem absurd. But at Otto’s? I figure that’s what you’re paying for: the unexpected. That, plus the duck leg and foie gras pie, crêpes Suzette and gout, which has never tasted so good.

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