Wormwood is fast becoming one of the most popular restaurants in Notting Hill, and its head chef Rabah Ourrad is every bit as intriguing as the food, finds Alexander Larman
Notting Hill’s All Saints Road is still one of the few parts of the neighbourhood to feel authentically bohemian. The restaurants still have the air of serving a cross-section of people, rather than just tourists or the mega-wealthy. It is this spirit of individuality and innovation that the new restaurant Wormwood, and its pioneering Algerian chef-patron Rabah Ourrad, has tapped into, offering a pan-Mediterranean menu that has seen Wormwood celebrated by such hard-to-please doyens of criticism as Fay Maschler and AA Gill as one of the most exciting openings in London this year.
When I head to Wormwood to meet Rabah one Thursday afternoon, I’m struck, as soon as I walk in, by how unlike most similar establishments the atmosphere is. There’s a dense and delicious smell of mint, and the feel of the place is relaxed and friendly, rather than the faintly manic ‘hospitality’ of several nearby restaurants. I sit and wait to meet Wormwood’s chef-patron Rabah, who is busy talking to customers at the end of their meals.
The first thing that I notice about him is that not only is he good-looking and charismatic but he’s also hugely engaging company, taking every question extremely seriously and giving thoughtful and intelligent answers, often backtracking to clarify earlier points. His reason for opening Wormwood in All Saints Road is simple – ‘I fell in love with the neighbourhood, but especially the street, when I worked at The Ledbury; I used to live in Little Venice, so I could walk to work. But what I love about it round here is that I’ve always lived in multicultural neighbourhoods, whether in Paris, Barcelona or now here, and it’s much more exciting than in East London. I think that the centre of gravity for restaurants is coming back west. It’s got such potential for good places to eat – The Ledbury and Ottolenghi on their own aren’t enough.’
For Rabah, responding to both the neighbourhood and his own interests is crucial. ‘The restaurant is ‘fine dining’, but I wanted to do somewhere that isn’t just for the one per cent, it’s for the 90 per cent as well. And then I want to wow people, but also be able to deal with them and their comments – I feed people, and then I wait for their feedback. No pun intended.’ Getting to know the regulars is crucial for him – during our interview, several of Wormwood’s departing diners make a point of thanking him for ‘another excellent meal’ – and he claims to have incorporated several of their suggestions and ideas into his menu.
Anyone coming to dine at Wormwood will be confronted by a beautiful range of dishes, which use Algerian and French influences, but also a range of Mediterranean and British ingredients. Rabah is proud of the innovation behind the food, and this extends to the desserts, which include the brilliantly-named ‘rice and curry’ – ‘I hate leaving a restaurant without having something sweet, I don’t feel like I’ve finished the meal’ – and claims it’s all influenced by his early years in Algeria. ‘I grew up under, rather than above, the Mediterranean, and I went to swim in it every day. My first feeling when I see it is to drink it all up. It’s because of this that I’ve developed a love for olive oil, for figs, for cumin – for light, natural food that can be cooked simply and well.’
He’s had a fascinating life that has encompassed everything from studying literature and working at some of London’s best restaurants (including Sketch and Momo’s) to being a hip hop star; the latter career met with a great deal of success, which saw him being signed by Universal in France and touring internationally. However, it didn’t prove satisfying. ‘I’d go on stage and I’d get very worked up and passionate, but it would all be one way – I didn’t have a chance to respond to anyone or enter into a dialogue, which is why I wanted to become a chef instead.’
Along with Wormwood’s restaurant manager and sommelier Christophe Cavaille, Rabah is looking forward to the future, planning to open a Mexican restaurant in 2015, hopefully on the same street – ‘my wife’s Mexican and I’d love to do for that what I’ve done for Algerian cooking’ – and then talks in wistful terms about perhaps moving into acting or filmmaking at some point way in the future. But, for the time being, he’s firmly placed in All Saints Road, and serving some of the city’s most interesting food at far from bank-breaking prices. And the name Wormwood? He grins. ‘I wanted to name it after a herb, and make it something unusual; after all, nobody wants to go somewhere called ‘Parsley’ or ‘Coriander’. And so one night I was thinking about it for hours, and then it just came to me. It’s bitter, but it’s also delicious, and it’s used in a lot of the cocktails we have here, whether in Absinthe or vermouth, so it seemed a really good name!’
Unusual, uncompromising and potentially very addictive indeed – the name, it would appear, sums up Wormwood very aptly, and also acts as a good summary of its chef. The talented Monsieur Ourrad will go far – although it appears that his heart will always belong to the All Saints Road.
16 All Saints Road Notting Hill W11 1HH