Slice and dice it as you will, the two most important new London restaurants of this year are those of chefs Heston Blumenthal and now Jason Atherton, whose Pollen Street Social received 5,000 bookings on the first day.
Blumenthal, 44, is best known for the Fat Duck and for television shows where he shows a zany approach to food, such as making a jelly wobble by inserting a vibrator. Atherton, 39, is less of a showman yet no less creative. There’s more respect than rivalry between the two, and Blumenthal was among the chefs who attended the opening party at Pollen Street.
Atherton was the first U.K. chef to work at El Bulli and went on in May 2005 to create Maze, an original and exciting restaurant that combined modern European, British and Asian influences and abandoned the traditional three-course style of dining in favor of a meal constructed of small plates.
The owner was Gordon Ramsay, from whom Atherton split in 2010. Pollen Street is his first solo venture in London. He’s been working on it night and day and has plenty of pride and capital tied up in it. The good news for him, and us, is that it’s a worthy culinary rival to Dinner by Heston Blumenthal.
It’s not another Maze, though you will spot dishes that carry through the fun theme of Atherton’s food there. His deconstructed BLT (featuring lettuce veloute in a chilled martini glass) is replaced by Full English breakfast: An egg is slow cooked in its shell and served on a tomato compote with morels and bacon with parsley, seasoned with pepper.
The menu is structured so you have a choice of about eight starters that can be combined to create a meal, or you can choose a main course in the usual way. My preference is to order a bunch of starters and mains to share: There’s so much creativity, so much exciting food, it’s hard to choose.
It reminds me of being young, entering a club full of beautiful women and trying to decide who to ask for a dance. (The main difference is that I’ve never been rejected by dishes in a restaurant.)
Among starters, the Fowey oysters (with oyster ice cream, dashi stock and herb yarrow) could only give you more of a taste of the sea if you listened to a recording of crashing waves while eating. (No one would do that, would they?)
A main of Cotswold lamb sirloin, braised belly, pea salad and sheep’s milk curd is sensational, with deep, sweet flavors balanced by the sourness of the curd. It’s a dish I love, but I’ll happily two-time it with the Black Angus aged beef. Only the duck-fat chips are a work in progress: If they were on Facebook, they would have no friends.
Atherton lets rip on the playfulness when it comes to desserts: “Ham, Cheese & Herbs” anyone? This consists of watermelon rind slow cooked to resemble ham, creamed vanilla cheese with icing sugar and goat’s curd, with basil sorbet. Tiramisu is feather light and comes with hot-chocolate coffee.
The wine list by head sommelier Laure Patry -- one of the many faces you may recognize from Maze -- is one of the most enjoyable in London. I can’t think of another restaurant with the range and variety and so much choice below 40 pounds.
You might pick Grace Koshu Kayagatake, Katsunuma, Japan, 2009 (44 pounds/$66.60) for fun or a bet, though it isn’t bad. The Slovenian Sauvignon Blanc, Verus, 2009 (35 pounds) you may order again, and I fell in love with the Bulgarian Pinot Noir, Edoardo Miroglio, Nova Zagora, 2007 (35 pounds).
Pollen Street Social isn’t yet great: The service started with a wobble and Atherton is still tweaking the menu. The prices are higher than the casual ambience suggests, though there’s nothing casual about the cooking and few diners could complain about 20 pounds for the two-course lunch.
Atherton last year opened a restaurant in Shanghai (Table No. 1) and if I were a gambler, I’d be willing to bet that Pollen Street Social is just the start in Europe. He’s an exceptional chef -- a fine technician with a creative mind.
Pollen Street Social is a work in progress and I’m giving it a maximum four stars because I believe it’s progressing toward excellence.
Pollen Street Social, 8-10 Pollen Street, London, W1S 1NQ. Information: +44-20-7290-7600 or http://www.pollenstreetsocial.com/.
The Bloomberg Questions
Cost? Up to you, though easy to spend 100 pounds.
Sound level? Not noisy: about 75 decibels.
Inside tip? Try for the bar if the restaurant’s full.
Special feature? Dessert bar.
Will I be back? Yes.
Date place? Perfect if you don’t mind waiting.
What the Stars Mean: **** Incomparable food, service, ambience *** First-class of its kind. ** Good, reliable. * Fair. (No stars) Poor.
Sound-Level Chart (in decibels): 65-70: Office noise. 70-75: Starbucks. 75-80: London street. 80-85: Alarm clock at closest range. 85-90: Passing bus. 85-95: Tube train.
(Richard Vines is the chief food critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)