LONDON 3/11/14: THREE BY ATHERTON

AFTER NINE YEARS BEFORE THE MAST WORKING FOR GORDON RAMSAY WHERE HE OPENED RESTAURANTS IN DUBAI, SHANGHAI AND PRAGUE, JASON ATHERTON, A YORKSHIRE-BORN CHEF, STRUCK OUT ON HIS OWN.  POLLEN STREET SOCIAL, THE FIRST OF FOUR RESTAURANTS (A FIFTH OPENS IN 2014), QUICKLY GARNERED A MICHELIN STAR AND TIME OUT“S BEST NEW FINE-DINING RESTAURANT OF 2011, PLUS THE HESTON BLUMENTHAL AWARD.  OVER FOUR DAYS IN LONDON, WE ATE AT THREE OF ATHERTON’S RESTAURANTS; A VERTICAL TASTING, ONE MIGHT SAY.  THEY GOT BETTER AS THEY WENT ALONG.

POLLEN  IS A U-SHAPED STREET IN MAYFAIR, A SHORT, BUT CONFUSING WALK FROM DUKES HOTEL ON ST. JAMES WHERE WE WERE STAYING.  POLLEN STREET SOCIAL IS AN ELEGANT, MODERN SPACE WITH A SEPARATE BAR AND ADJACENT DINING IN MUTED BROWNS AND BEIGE.  THE SERVICE IS FRIENDLY BUT POLITE; THE STAFF CLEARLY PROUD OF THEIR RESTAURANT AND EAGER TO DESCRIBE THE INTRICACIES OF ATHERTON’S CREATIONS IN SOMETIMES EXCRUCIATING DETAIL.  HESTON BLUMENTHAL’S INFLUENCE, HIS PENCHANT FOR “MODERNIST CUISINE” IS APPARENT IN THE QUAIL APPETIZER WHICH IS PRESENTED TO ALBYN IN THE BOX WHERE IT WAS SMOKED IN HAY.  WHEN THE WAITER LIFTS THE HINGED LID, I FEAR THE PIGEON MIGHT ACTUALLY ESCAPE.  MOIST AND SUBTLY SMOKEY, PERFECTLY COOKED, IT BARELY MAKES IT TO THE PLATE.  FOR THE ORKNEY SEA SCALLOP CARPACCIO A COMELY WAITRESS DIPS A LONG SPOON INTO A STAINLESS STEEL PITCHER FILLED WITH VAPOROUS LIQUID NITROGEN TO SCATTER CRYSTALS OF PINK GRAPEFRUIT ON THE LOVELY RAW SCALLOPS.  MY NEXT BITE TASTES MORE OF GRAPEFRUIT THAN SCALLOPS.  BETTER WAS THE PRECEDING AMUSE, A CUP OF CONCENTRATED MUSHROOM “TEA” TOPPED UP WITH WARM CREAM.  SECOND COURSES ARE A REAL IMPROVEMENT, ALTHOUGH OF THE THREE LAMB PARTS ON THE PLATE (RACK, SHOULDER AND SHANK) THE SIMPLEST AND SIMPLY THE BEST IS THE TWO-RIB RACK, JUICY AND PINK.  ALBYN HAS HIGH PRAISE FOR HER HIGHLAND VENISON WITH HONEY-SPICED BEETS, QUINCE PUREE AND PICKLED PEAR.  DESSERT OR “PUDDING” LAPSES BACK TO MODERNIST WITH THINGS LIKE BEET AND ORANGE SORBET AND CARAMEL POPCORN WITH SWEET CORN ICE CREAM.  THE SOMMELIER IS HELPFUL, RECOMMENDING TWO EXCELLENT WINES, A LIGHT-BODIED BUT FRAGRANT HUNGARIAN FURMINT AND MEDIUM-BODIED, VIBRANT RED FROM THE DOURO IN PORTUGAL CALLED DRINK ME.

AFTER A LATE LUNCH WITH MY SISTER ANNIE AT BOCCA DI LUPO, OUR FAVORITE LONDON TRATTORIA (SEE LONDON RESTAURANTS 6/2013) , WE DIDN’T THINK WE’D BE HUNGRY FOR DINNER.  THINK AGAIN.  LURCHING TOWARD PICCADILLY ON THE #9 BUS AT 9:30, WE REALIZE WE ARE RAVENOUS.  BACK TO POLLEN STREET AND ATHERTON’S UPSCALE BISTROT, LITTLE SOCIAL.  THE PLACE IS JAMMED WITH NOWHERE TO SIT, NOT EVEN PERCH.  20 MINUTES AND A GLASS OF WINE LATER, WE ARE SEATED BY THE HYPER-ENERGETIC SOMMELIER WHO  POURS LYNN A RIESLING FROM THE MOSEL, “THE SEXIEST WINE ON MY LIST.”  WHEN HAUTE CUISINE CHEFS INTERPRET LESS HAUTE DISHES, THE RESULTS ARE OFTEN THE BEST OF BOTH WORLDS.  SUCH IS THE CASE AT LITTLE SOCIAL.  THUS, MY CRAB SALAD IS MOIST AND CRABBY; LYNN’S FOIE GRAS AND QUAIL DUO WITH PEACH CHUTNEY, SUBLIME.  FOR THE MAINS, THEY PROMOTE US TO A TABLE.  BAVETTE, THAT CLASSIC BISTROT CUT, COMES BATHED IN TARRAGON-SCENTED BEARNAISE.  MY BRAISED BEEF CHEEK SITS ATOP CELERY ROOT PUREE SPIKED WITH FRESH HORSE RADISH.  IN ATHERTONLAND, THINGS ARE LOOKING UP.  FOR THURSDAY, WE RESERVE AT BERNERS TAVERN.

BY THE TIME WE SIT DOWN IN THE CAVERNOUS DINING ROOM AT THE RECENTLY-OPENED EDISON HOTEL IN SOHO, WE DESERVE A GOOD MEAL.  JOHN AND LITTLE GRANDMA, AS GEORGIA CALLS US, HAVE TRAILED THEIR ADORABLE GRANDDAUGHTER UP AND DOWN RAMPS AND SPIRAL STAIRCASES AT THE ROYAL ACADEMY’S “SENSING SPACES” ARCHITECTURAL EXHIBIT, BEEN FORCED-MARCHED FOR THREE HOURS ACROSS THE HEATH, AND EXAMINED THE 18 ROOMS OF THE RICHARD HAMILTON SHOW AT THE TATE MODERN.  AT 7:30, WE DONNED DOMINO MASKS TO CHASE VARIOUS CHARACTERS IN PUNCH DRUNK’S PRODUCTION OF “THE DROWNED MAN” THROUGH A THREE-STOREY, SMOKE-FILLED WAREHOUSE, ASSAULTED FOR THREE HOURS BY PUNISHINGLY LOUD MUSIC AND PUNISHINGLY BAD ACTING.

ALL THE BETTER TO APPRECIATE IAN SCHRAGER’S SPECTACULAR CONVERSION OF WHAT ONCE WAS A BALLROOM INTO A RESTAURANT.  THIS PICTURE SPEAKS A THOUSAND WORDS, SO LET’S GET ON TO THE FOOD.  AT BERNERS TAVERN, ATHERTON HAS UPDATED AND RE-INTERPRETED THE OXYMORON CALLED “BRITISH CUISINE”.

ALTHOUGH ATHERTON’S TECHNIQUE IS DECIDEDLY FRENCH-BASED, EVERY ITEM ON THE MENU TRUMPETS ITS BRITISH PROVENANCE.  THUS, LYNN’S ICEBERG LETTUCE WITH SHROPESHIRE BLUE IS ENLIVENED BY SLIVERS OF ARTICHOKE HEARTS.  MY STEAK TARTARE IS COMPLEX AND CRUNCHY.  THE BEEF HAS A SATISFYINGLY MINERAL BLOODINESS.  BILL PRESSES ON WITH A PINK AND PERFECT DINGLEY DELL PORK CHOP, WHICH TEMPTS ME.  BUT FEARING MY OLDER STOMACH HAS REACHED IT’S MEAT LIMIT, I DEMUR AND OPT FOR THE PAN ROASTED CORNISH SEABASS, WHICH TASTES VERY MUCH LIKE STRIPED BASS AND IS GARNISHED WITH BROWN SHRIMP, SAMPHIRE (A KIND OF SUCCULENT SEA GRASS) AND KALE.  LYNN’S CREEDY CARVER DUCK BREAST IS PAIRED WITH THE BRAISED LEG, CARAMEL APPLE, PICKLED PLUM PUREE AND TURNIPS.  ALBYN, EVER WATCHING HER WASP WAIST, SETTLES FOR A SALAD.  AS FOR WINE, WE ORDER GLASSES OF A RATHER DELICATE CORSICAN WHITE, THEN SWITCH TO A 2012 PICPOUL DE PINET FROM THE LANGUEDOC.  IT’S MEDIUM-BODIED DRIED CURRENT FRUIT DOESN’T OVERWHELM MY FISH BUT HAS ENOUGH STRUCTURE TO STAND UP TO BILL’S PORK.  PUDDINGS, ONE OF WHICH IS CALLED “RHUBARB AND CUSTARD”, ARE FORGETTABLE.  BUT NOT THE MEAL AND NOT JASON ATHERTON.

 

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