Pollen Street Social

Address:  8-10 Pollen St, Mayfair, London W1S 1NQ
Bookings:  Booked
Day:  Saturday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.46I’m in the middle of reading the late Anthony Bourdain’s career-launching book Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain has some interesting comments on tell-tale signs that a restaurant’s kitchen may not be entirely sanitary, or its cooking particularly artful. For example, he says that if a restaurant’s bathroom is not cleaned thoroughly, then it’s unlikely its kitchen will be. If its front-of-house staff are dishevelled, smell like sour milk, and slump about the dining area like students nursing a hangover, then this slovenliness will also pervade the kitchen, where cooks will leave fridge doors open, not wash their hands, and hang on to fish just a little longer than they should.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.03.02His point is that a restaurant has an ethos, and if it cannot be bothered even to make the visible parts of the restaurant presentable, then the invisible kitchen will likely be the stuff of nightmares.

Now, when I eat out, I pay attention to these things (and I don’t eat fish on a Monday, but you’ll have to read Bourdain to find out why). Pollen Street Social, where we dined out on Saturday evening, passed with flying colours. Its staff were better dressed than most of the clientele. Certainly, better than I was. The bathrooms had the clinical shine of an operating theatre. Staff glided across the well-polished floors.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.38The occasion was my Mum’s birthday, and so the whole clan, plus my partner in culinary crime, were gathered in Jason Atherton’s flagship restaurant, Pollen Street Social, inconspicuously tucked away in a little side road off Regent Street.

The food here is nice. Some of it is very nice. My partner in culinary crime had a portion of lamb from the Lake District, pink and delicate, accompanied by a small mound of peas, broad beans and mint oil, that she adjudged better than the slow-cooked lamb shoulder we ate at Berners Tavern last year. This is praise higher than the Burj Khalifa. As she sat on the sofa this evening, she suddenly furrowed her brow, shook her head and murmured simply, “that lamb though”, as if marking the 24-hour anniversary of first encountering it.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.03Across the table my father was nodding approvingly at a plate of jellied eel, whilst my crab salad was sharp and fresh, a slither of crispy toast a perfect scoop for it. My mum made her way through a rich saddle of Lincolnshire rabbit wrapped in Parma ham.

If I have a gripe with Pollen Street Social, it revolves around portion size and cost. The portions were Lilliputian. I could, if challenged, have eaten my entire crab salad in one bite. My main course, a couple of pork chops, might have required two gulps and a glass of water.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.03.09True, the food we ordered were supplemented by a continual stream of miniature dishes that arrived unannounced at the table. A small tea cup of mushroom soup that kicked things off was exquisite. But still, Atherton is certainly coming down very firmly on one side of the ancient quantity vs. quality debate.

The restaurant is also expensive. The wine by the bottle would make a Russian oligarch blanche with terror, and not only for fear that Putin might have slipped a vial of novichok into it.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.55No main course on the menu even thought about creeping below £30. That ignominy was reserved for the starters, which sat at around £20 a dish.

Nevertheless, this is a quality restaurant, serving very good food in elegant surroundings. And it passes the Bourdain test so effortlessly that I might even dare to order fish there on a Monday

Happy birthday Mum!


Berners Tavern

Address: 10 Berners St, Fitzrovia, London W1T 3NP
Bookings: Booking required
Day: Saturday
Meal: Dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 9/10

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 10.45.56Last weekend, I went to Berners Tavern. It is a long-standing fixture of Life at the End of a Fork’s illustrious top-ten restaurants list, notable both for the food it serves and the impressive room in which that serving takes place.

The joyous occasion was my younger brother’s birthday, and so after spending the afternoon hunting around Covent Garden for a suitable gift (he narrowly missed a set of black working socks and blue tie), I headed off to Fitzrovia to meet the family.

Regretfully, my partner in culinary crime was absent from the dinner, marooned outside London because Greater Anglia had closed various train lines for the weekend, presumably because one of their staff had spotted a rogue leaf on one of the tracks and had called in a full bomb squad to remove it. Given her absence, apologies in advance for the dearth of photographs, and the dark, blurry quality of the only one that does exist from the meal.

But back to the restaurant. Berners Tavern couldn’t be less like a tavern if it tried. It is one of the most spectacular dining rooms in London, vast in area, the ceiling high and ornate, and every single inch of the walls smothered in paintings. The paintings may be of variable quality, but their combined effect is dazzling, making the place both very majestic and a little surreal.

I ordered a 2-person slow cooked Herdwick lamb shoulder, which came with potatoes, roasted sprouts, and a sprinkling of bacon, bathed in lamb sauce. I split the dish with my dad. Having eaten lamb the last time I visited Berners Tavern, I was forewarned of its gargantuan size, and so broke the habit of a life-time by not ordering a starter.

This decision was not regretted. The lamb was glorious, so tender as to practically disintegrate at the touch of a fork, wholesome and hearty. We dug into it with genuine joy, even conversation ceasing briefly as reverence for what we were eating took hold. The sprouts and the potatoes were simple, perfect companions.

My siblings and mum ordered steaks and some sort of fish that I was too lamb-fixated to enquire after, but there were certainly no complaints.

Screen Shot 2017-11-05 at 10.45.56There was one odd distraction. Midway through the meal a woman in a white, wispy dress, her faced blanched white with powder, her eyes sad and lifeless, her arms outstretched, came walking slowly into the dining room from the adjacent hotel lobby. She began to step softly from table to table, running her hand across the backs of people’s chairs, pausing to bat her eyelids mournfully, to sigh heavily. For a moment, I genuinely believed that a raving lunatic was in our midst – perhaps that some wealthy lady staying in the adjoined hotel had just uncovered a husband’s infidelity and been driven to insanity on the spot, and was now venting it on some hapless diners.

But as the staff stood by either smiling or ignoring her, I recalled that it was Halloween weekend, and that this was just one more piece of theatricality from a pretty theatrical restaurant.

If you live in London, Berners Tavern is one of those restaurants you must dine in at least once in your life.

 


Sosharu

Address:  64 Turnmill St, London EC1M 5RR
Bookings: Booked through Bookatable – 6 dishes and a glass of wine for £33.50
Day: Tuesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.35.01Sosharu is restaurant mogul Jason Atherton’s Japanese offering in London. It has received something of a mixed reception since opening in March 2016, a feeling that yet another restaurant in London (his 7th), in yet another cuisine, might be a gastronomic bridge too far.

But I have always liked it. It occupies a slightly precarious place at the very foot of our top 10 London restaurants list. It is always on the cusp of eviction in favour of a slightly bolder, more gripping number, but then salvages itself at the last moment with an interesting twist on something Japanese.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.34.41The restaurant itself is a big space opposite Farringdon station, the lights dimmed low, large wooden screens dividing the tables, and soothing, ambient music playing in the background, giving the restaurant the look and feel of a luxury oriental massage parlour or spa.

Thoughts of shiatsu massage and aromatic exfoliators are chased away by the arrival at the table of a pair of open temaki sushi, one tuna and the other salmon, a small bottle of lightly spiced mayonnaise sat between them. The temaki are cupped in toasted nori, and the effect is delightful, each bite cool and crispy, little sushi sandwiches which can be wolfed down in a couple of bites.

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Lined up on the side were six immaculate little sashimi pieces, some salmon, some sea bream, the others perhaps sea bass, the waiter’s heavily accented diction leaving me uncertain, but suffice to say it was something from the sea. These were a little limp and unloved, and slipped regretfully down the throat, the flavour washed rapidly away with a swig of diet coke.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.35.19We then shared a delicious, sprightly salad, which had been thoroughly doused in a sweet vinegar dressing which we both loved. The salad was littered with tiny little crisped grains of rice, which tasted for all the world like little pieces of popcorn, and worked well against the soft sheets of lettuce and chunks of refreshing pear and apple.

As if the restaurant was intentionally alternating the good and the bad, they then dumped a pair of pallid little chicken gyozas on the table, hidden away in a wooden bowl, the waiter escaping to the kitchen before we could lift the lid to reveal the disappointing contents within. The gyoza were watery, the skin soft and translucent, providing a glimpse at the soggy contents within.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.34.16In fairness, I should at this point note that we were eating the heavily discounted Bookatable set menu, and so may well have been receiving the runts rather than the highlights of the kitchen, but nevertheless, we are good people, and deserved better than those two gyoza.

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Finally, we were presented with a pot of steaming rice, a slow-cooked egg whipped-in, and chunks of soft, golden yakitori chicken on the side. This was delicious, warm and nourishing, heat and flavour radiating from the stone bowl that sat in between us. My partner in culinary crime grasped the ladle with the clenched fist of a woman with a purpose, and dug into the rice with gusto.

Screen Shot 2017-09-23 at 18.34.27It was a strong finish to a roller-coaster of a meal. Yet again, Sosharu had ridden to the very edge of being cast out forever from Life at the End of a Fork’s exclusive list of finest London restaurants, only to redeem itself at the 11th hour. It is safe. For now…