African Volcano

Address:  6 Southwark Bridge Rd, London SE1 0EF
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Wednesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.45I have explained the concept of Great Guns Social on this blog before. Different pop-up restaurants are allowed to take up residence in their kitchen for a brief period of time, normally a few months, before saddling up again and hitting the road, to be replaced by another chef with a stack of recipes and a dream.

Previously, we ate the tasting menu provided by Fodder, a pop-up specialising in foraged food. It was brilliant, surprising and delicious. They’ve vanished now, but the memory of their cooking remains vivid with us. Wherever you are Fodder, you have two fans here at Life at the end of a Fork!

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.10.39In their place is African Volcano, a pop-up specialising in the cuisine of Mozambique. It’s the creation of Grant Hawthorne and his wife, a pair of South Africans, who sell peri-peri sauces and marinades from their website, as well as at a stall in Maltby Market. They have a fairly large pair of foraged boots to fill, but at first taste, they’re having a good go of it.

Their peri-peri prawns with tomato and pilaf were a hit, rich and buttery, full-bodied and smoky. It was the kind of dish that you miss the very second you stop eating it. Spooning up the last morsel was like saying goodbye to a friend at the airport. I would happily have had a bowl five times its size and just sat around all evening with that plus a bucket full of chilled beers.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.37But all precious things come to an end, and before long the bowl was vanishing towards the kitchen, replaced with a plate of great, thick cuts of smoked salmon. My partner in culinary crime normally corners any fish dish (even if it’s nominally intended to be shared), and deflects any would-be scavengers with the tenacity of an African lion swatting hyena on Serengeti. This is fine in principal, but it does mean I have to take her word for it when reviewing marine dishes. This time was no different, so you’ll have to have it on her authority that the salmon was well smoked and full-bodied.

A plate of cured hams were marbled and glistening, almost purple. They were thin and lean, but full of flavour.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.54A southern fried chicken burger with spiced mayonnaise and red onions disappointed me. It was tall and narrow, difficult to eat, and strangely absent of the punch and vigour of the other dishes. It was certainly not volcanic. We found ourselves deconstructing it, eating the decent piece of fried chicken, and leaving the pretty pedestrian salad and bread on the plate. The ingredients of a burger should want to bind together. These had no affinity for each other.

Screen Shot 2018-07-18 at 22.11.30The best dish turned up last at the party. Their Cape Malva pudding was an instant classic, one of the nicest desserts we’ve had this year. It came hot and spongy, studded with dark chocolate, a scoop of cool vanilla ice cream melting on the side, a cluster of fresh raspberries and strawberries gathered round it. Everything on the plate played perfectly, the sharp tang of the fruit and the deep flavour of the chocolate, the warmth of the cake and the chill of the ice-cream.

The dish took me by surprise. We’d dithered about whether even to have a dessert. But it was an ambush worthy of the African savannah, and it put an exclamation point on the meal.

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Congratulations to African Volcano. And congratulations to Great Guns Social for picking pop-ups so well, especially ones so sprawling different in their offering. Here’s to further culinary eruptions on the Southwark Bridge Road.


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!