One of London’s outstanding pandemic performing restaurants has announced it will build on its success by opening a new cafe, bakery, bar, and production kitchen in the late autumn. Chef-owner Mitshel Ibrahim’s Ombra has secured a railway arch just 50 metres away from its original restaurant on the corner of Hackney’s Vyner Street, and Ibrahim told Eater London this week that the plan is to open by November.
The space, tentatively called “Ombra Pastificio & Forno” (pasta ‘factory’ and bakery), will function as a pasta production site for the restaurant’s nascent wholesale and retail divisions, a weekday lunchtime cafe offering sandwiches, soups, pastries, and a Roman-style pizzeria serving natural wines by the glass in the evenings at the weekend. In order not to take custom away from its predecessor, Ibrahim says the new site will not serve pasta in the evenings; offering just one shape and two sauce choices at lunchtime, which was piloted last winter.
The project will be part-financed by a crowdfunder, scheduled to launch within the next month and is seeking to raise at least £60,000 in return for down payments on future meals, alongside merchandise for smaller contributions.
Ombra 2.0 will, Ibrahim says, be “a bit like E5 [Bakehouse], with tables at the front, pasta-makers and bakers at the back.” It will have a terrace at the front and, in time, out the back, meaning the overall site has the scope to be much larger than the original. Eventually, the plan is to open the space up in the evenings on Friday and Saturday and to offer communal dining on top of bench used to prep fresh pasta during the day. “A bit like at Hill & Szrok,” Ibrahim said, referencing the Broadway Market wine bar and butcher announced the opening of a new butcher’s shop in Newington Green.
It was during the most recent (winter) coronavirus lockdown that Ibrahim conceived the latest in a string of COVID-proof business pivots: Following fresh pasta for retail, picnics in the park, meal kits for Valentine’s Day, viral porchetta sandwiches, and maritozzi, Ombra sought an opening in wholesale — selling its pasta (and later sauces) to delis and food shops across the city — after the interest in retail tailed off by the winter. Fresh pasta will also be sold onsite, alongside cold cuts, wine, and deli items, for customers to take home.
Ibrahim has been candid about how the pandemic was “the best thing that ever happened to Ombra” — in terms of revenue, awareness, and customer growth. The second site is testament to that success, but an eat-in venue was not the intended aim of the follow-up site back in April. The trouble was, Ibrahim said, the arch was far “too big and too expensive” to do wholesale only. So the idea “morphed” and given the proximity to the original restaurant, it seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. The kitchen will be used for the production of all pasta, baked goods, Italian pastries, and charcuterie, which for the past year have been shoe-horned into the daily prep schedules and the small kitchen of the existing restaurant.
The extra space, which will move a significant amount of burdensome jobs away from Ombra, will mean “the level will improve because the chefs will have more time and focus, but it won’t become a fine-dining restaurant,” Ibrahim says. To the “pastificio & forno” across the road, the Vyner Street site will be Ombra Restaurant and Bar, which he thinks will naturally mature.
Despite Ombra’s success during the past 18 months and the restaurant’s extended customer base, Ibrahim admitted that he was nervous about opening a new restaurant. “Especially with the staff situation,” he said, referring to London’s chronic shortage of workers — a result of both the pandemic, Brexit, and in Ombra’s case, a talent-poaching local “wasteman” — which meant cutting hours of service in June. “But being mostly a daytime operation will hopefully mean we attract more people who want evenings off,” Ibrahim said.
But evening services will eventually arrive, and with them a style of pizza Ibrahim loves and which he says he’s not encountered in London. “London is always about the new thing,” he said. “So many people ask for pizza at Ombra. Now we’ll be able to send them across the road [and vice-versa for pasta].” The crisp-based, tray-baked pizza typical in the Italian capital is very different to the Neapolitan (and to a lesser extent the NYC-style) chewy crusted pizzas that have become so commonplace in London. “I’m very much in love with Rome and all things Roman,” Ibrahim (who is Milanese) said. “It’s the best place in Italy to eat.” He referenced the legendary Gabriele Bonci — “the master of Roman pizza” — as a source of inspiration.
London’s “pandemic restaurant” has consistently countered the narrative through the coronavirus crisis: Staying open when others closed; innovating when others couldn’t or didn’t; succeeding where others failed. But in times that remain far from certain, Ibrahim will neither rest nor relax. “What worries me is [the return of restrictions],” he said. “If this is a version of ‘lockdown Ombra’, then what is Ombra going to be?
“The key is not to be damaging to Ombra.”