Monday 30 April 2012

Momofuku Milk Bar - Book review

Ever get that feeling that some things are preordained? The sense that behind the scenes the cosmic building blocks of fate, unseen, are shifting and tumbling endlessly into place in infinitesimal combinations, until, finally they converge and suddenly it all makes sense. Like a one armed bandit’s blurred reels jolting to a stop one after the other, thumping into place… jackpot, jackpot, jackpot.

Well, that’s how I felt when my KitchenAid stand mixer and my copy of the long awaited Momofuku Milk Bar book arrived in the same frigging week! A quick shufty validated that feeling that it was indeed the hand of fate at work, when I realised that you definitely need a mixer to really make full use of the book. But back to that in a minute.

Let’s talk about naming kitchen equipment. All of my major appliances have, at the very least, a first name and in some cases, a surname. My Magimix is called Marcel, and any activities involving him are done in a ridiculously naff ‘Allo Allo’ style French accent. Braun the stick blender, whilst in use provokes an accent exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and somewhat alarmingly, now that I come to think of it, a definite vibe of mild perviness.
The arrival of the KitchenAid, a premium and not insubstantial piece of kit provoked much soul searching on what to name ‘him’ for it’s undoubtedly a male. Sleek, shiny chrome and black metal what I now possess is obviously the epitome of a rough, tough butch man’s machine. The throbbing Harley Davidson of home baking. Yet, despite the brand being American, I felt somehow, that like Braun, this piece of equipment was German and therefore needed a name reflecting his Teutonic origins and place of prestige in the kitchen pecking order. Then, like a thunderbolt, it came to me, arise Klaus Von Battenberg. A legend is born.

So now the scene is set. Back to the Momofuku Milk Bar book and it’s arrival providing the opportunity for Klaus to show what he can do. For those of you who don’t know, chef and foul-mouthed genius, David Chang owns a handful of ridiculously hip restaurants in New York under the Momofuku banner. One of these is a bakery and cake shop, the eponymous Milk Bar of the book title. The chef behind this is Christina Tosi and it seems she’s responsible for all the baking and desserts, across the board. This is her book.

I have to say straight away, it’s truly exciting. It’s unlike any other book I own. There’s a real feeling of inventiveness about it, as well as honest writing and absolutely filthy recipes, all of it coated in a veneer of New York hipster cool that’s somehow endearing. I want to cook everything from it basically, even if it makes me fat(ter).

Interestingly, Momofuku have a ‘Mother dough’ recipe. A sort of versatile utility dough, which is used for all their rolls, bread, some of the cakes and surprisingly, even their croissants. I’ve tried out a few of the recipes using the ‘mother dough’ and the results, even if I do say myself, have been frigging amazing.
Cinnamon Bun Pie, a Frankenstein mix of cheesecake, brown butter, cinnamon, sugar and dough is probably one of the most incredible examples of this kind of dessert I’ve tasted. Although to be fair, it almost defies categorisation. Admittedly, it’s a fair bit of work to make and is shockingly filthy. I dread to think of how many calories a slice contains, but it’s so incredibly good that it pretty much rendered both ‘E’ and myself speechless, apart of course, from muffled obscenities of appreciation as we both tried to stuff it all in our gobs.
The recipe for Bagel Bombs provoked a similarly enthusiastic bout of expletives mixed with frantic gorging. Basically a sort of bread roll stuffed with hot cream cheese, spring onion and bacon. Very simple to make, and it’s a classic flavour pairing but I honestly cannot express how good these are to munch on. I was also pretty smug with just how professional looking they turned out.
Finally, I tried making Volcanoes, similar to the Bagel Bombs in that it’s a stuffed roll, but on a much larger scale. Stuffed with a mixture of dauphinoise potatoes, caramelised onions, and cheese. Given the ingredients, I don’t think I really need to describe the sheer state of rapture ‘E’ and I succumbed to as we ate these. Truly epic. I think at one point I may have cried.

Based on results so far, I think it’s fair to say that we can chalk the Momofuku Milk Bar book up as a bit of a success. I mean, seriously, three of the nicest things I’ve eaten anywhere in months have come straight out of this book.

But in the interests of balance, it’s not all swearing yourself silly as you ecstatically pile on the pounds. If you’re a strict vegetarian, you’re a bit screwed. A hell of a lot of the recipes contain gelatin, including all the ice-cream. In addition, some of the recipes themselves pull no punches and are pretty advanced, involving multiple sub-recipes within the actual preparation process. Oh and did I mention the inclusion of a fairly exotic and therefore expensive ingredient ‘freeze-dried sweetcorn powder’ in one of the more iconic recipes, ‘Crack Pie’?

For all that, this is one of the most exciting cookbooks I’ve read in years. I covet my copy. It’s cool, urban New York, tear up the rulebook, sassy vibe, combined with the most ridiculously dirty, brutal, sugar and good stuff laden recipes really makes it one of a kind. Buy it and get fat.

*Massive thanks to Absolute Press for being kind enough to send me a review copy*

Monday 16 April 2012

Essex Eating in Istanbul

Whenever I travel abroad, the very first bit of research I do, and the most important, is where and what I’m going to eat. Everything else, the culture, hotel and general sightseeing, yeah, they matter, but not as much as stuffing my face with whatever the most delicious local delicacy happens to be. Bearing this in mind, imagine the ridiculous, almost dangerous levels of excitement I generated whilst swotting up on Istanbul when I realised just how varied and interesting the food is, and how much of it involves grilled meat. I literally almost burst something.

There are some fantastic restaurants in Istanbul, I ate in a few on my visit and they were great. But what I really found most exciting was the street food. The city is bursting at the seams with cheap, excellent food. It’s everywhere you look. On my first day wandering around, to use a crude but apt expression, I was like a ‘dog with two dicks’. Eyes bulging, stomach growling, I just didn’t know what to start on first.

Luckily for me, help, in the form of a more structured approach to the problem of stuffing everything in my gob, was on hand in the form of Istanbul Eats. An incredibly comprehensive blog, which has branched out into providing ‘culinary walks’. Admittedly, I was slightly dubious initially, regarding the worth of a guided food trawl around the city, but I’d like to state categorically, for the record, it was without a doubt the best thing I did whilst in Istanbul.

First thing in the morning and we’re meeting our guide Angelis, on the steps outside the somewhat confusingly titled ‘New Mosque’ (construction started in 1597). It quickly becomes apparent that he could be best described as a bit of a character. Exuberant, incredibly enthusiastic about the city, its culture and its food, our small group of just 6 (the maximum tour size) plunges off into the bustling warren of streets surrounding the spice bazaar opposite.

We’re in search of breakfast, and Angelis stops us at various points along the way, to point out interesting local delicacies. Heaps of olives, spices of all descriptions piled up by the kilo, cheeses, meat, fish and coffee. It’s all here, crammed into the crowded streets and we’re urged to try everything, to taste the goods on offer. It’s the way things are done in Istanbul and the vendors don’t mind at all, it’s good for business.

As we walk, our guide appropriates various Turkish breakfast items along the way, stuffing it into his rucksack as we go. Eventually, we’re ushered into a doorway between two shops, down a crumbling corridor flanked by a jumble of crates, storage boxes and offices to an area enclosing a newspaper covered table and a kiosk serving tea and coffee to traders in the bazaar.

Taking a seat at the table, Angelis opens his rucksack and fills the table with his purchases whilst explaining that our picnic area is in a ‘han’, an old warehouse, still very much in use. Just to underline the fact, boxes and crates are ferried past to the street outside with the passing traders barely giving us a second glance. After taking our drinks orders, dainty glasses of hot sweet tea and small cups of thick strong coffee arrive from the kiosk opposite and we’re encouraged to dig into a typical Turkish breakfast.

I dip a ripped off piece of simit, a chewy type of sesame seed covered bagel, into a thick puddle of kaymak, like clotted cream and made from buffalo milk. It’s an amazing combination and tastes absolutely incredible. I divert my attention briefly to the olives, cheese and sliced meats but keep coming back the simit and kaymak. It’s in a league of it’s own.

Breakfast over, we plunge back into the throng around the bazaar and head off down a packed side street. Angelis is on good terms with all the vendors, and they don’t bat an eyelid when he often pops up behind the counter of their shops to demonstrate the finer points of their wares and to offer us samples.

We stop at a lock up, containing nothing else but a bloke tending a charcoal grill over which hang what look like giant ribbed sausages on skewers. It smells incredible. I have absolutely no idea what it is. Andreas orders a few for us to try and explains that it’s called kokoreç, chargrilled lamb intestines and sweetbreads mixed with oregano, stuffed into bread and sprinkled with chilli flakes. I’ll eat pretty much anything, and I didn’t need any encouragement to get stuck in, despite the questionable sounding ingredients. It was absolutely delicious with a subtle smoked, herb and lamb flavour.

Moving on, we make a brief diversion to an ancient eating place, the former soup kitchen of the adjoining small mosque. It could now be best described as the Istanbul equivalent of a working mans caff, the low ceilinged curved stone room certainly looks the part. We take a seat and try a bowl of red lentil soup with lemon and chilli flakes. The same dish has been served on this site for five centuries, more or less. We duck our heads as we head back out into the sunlight.

Further down the street we crowd into a shop selling pide, basically Turkish pizza. The smiling owner has the squat hunched look of a guy who has been kneading dough for decades and he casually and expertly throws together a few pide for us to try, firing them quickly in the wood-burning oven at the back of the shop. Freshly baked, straight out of the oven and oozing melted cheese, they are bloody superb.

Next stop, a sweet shop, specialising in Turkish delight (or lokum as it’s known locally). It’s been in the same family for four generations, opening in 1865. We crowd in and ogle the display case, accepting the proffered samples as Angelis talks us through what’s on offer. All of it is made traditionally, upstairs, and it’s sensational, putting all other examples of Turkish delight I’ve tried in the past entirely in the shade. I decide to buy a half-kilo box of cocoa, hazelnut & coconut, rose and finally pistachio. The price is ridiculously cheap, something like £2.50

After a quick diversion for another glass of hot, sweet tea served in the sun drenched courtyard of a particularly historic and ancient han, we’re off again.

Stopping momentarily to eye a shelf of tavuk göğsü in a shop window, the famous Turkish dessert made from chicken breast and milk (I tried it later on in my stay, and if you didn’t know it had chicken in it, you’d refuse to believe it) I was momentarily distracted by the most impressively moustachioed bloke I’ve ever seen. Check out those whiskers. This fabulously hirsute gentleman looked only faintly bemused as I took a photo.

Moving into a traditional working class area, less frequently visited by tourists, we make another pit stop and this time it’s to sample a kebab. But this is nothing like the defrosted elephant leg we’re used to at home. The example rotating on a spit before us is a sebzeli kebab, the meat layered through with peppers, tomatoes and onions. It’s a work of art. We’re told that the owner marinates the lamb overnight in shredded onion and onion juice to tenderise the meat, then assembles the kebab by hand each morning. It’s frigging superb. We wash it down with freshly squeezed pomegranate juice and move on.

We enter a rather grand looking old shop, dating from 1876, all dark wood, beautiful tiling and elaborately attired vendors to sample a very traditional Turkish drink, boza. Made from fermented millet, it has an incredible effervescent lemony tang. Traditionally topped with cinnamon and roasted chickpeas it’s surprisingly good. I finish off everyone’s dregs and follow Angelis back into the street for the last stop on the walk. Believe it or not, after all that, lunch.

Siirt Şeref Büryan is a restaurant located in a predominately Kurdish neighbourhood, right next to an ancient Roman viaduct. Specialising in lamb that’s been roasted in an underground pit for hours. Grinning in expectation, I was the proverbial pig in shit.

It turned out, the famous lamb, despite being delicious wasn’t the dish that really impressed me. Maybe after so much savoury food, I craved something sweet. A Syrian dish called Künef, was stunning. Consisting of shredded filo, stuffed with cheese, baked and sprinkled with pistachio. It finished the meal and finished me off too. I couldn’t eat another thing.

We’d started out at 9am; it was now late afternoon, and we’d eaten something seemingly every 10 meters or so. I am a glutton of some renown, but by the end even I was fading as we waved goodbye to Angelis and our group, and waddled off down the street stuffed to bursting.

As an introduction to the city and it's food, I can’t recommend the Istanbul Eats culinary tour enough. It was fascinating, we’d eaten dishes at places we’d never have found if left to our own devices. It was easily the highlight of our trip. The walk was ‘Culinary Secrets of the Old City’. The price was $125 US Dollars per person, and all food and drink was included. I have to say, it was worth every penny.

Obviously that was all just one day’s eating. As you can probably imagine, I have a reputation to live up to, so crammed a hell of a lot more gorging in for the rest of my stay. Here are the highlights…

Not food, but look at this incredible ramshackle building. We were on our way to find a kebab place of some fame; and were walking on a raised bit of road. I glanced down over the barrier and couldn’t believe my eyes. Look at that house! People were living in it, but the whole place looked like it was held together with bits of string and sellotape. Incredible.

But, not as incredible as the kebab place we were looking for, Durumzade. Located in the Beyoglu district, I’d seen it featured on Antony Bourdain’s TV program, ‘No Reservations’. Selling ‘durum’, meat wrapped in flatbread, which in this case is a soft wrap called lavash. It’s rubbed with spices and also smeared with the juice from the grilled meat on the skewers over the grill.

Watching the guy at work, there’s obviously a real art to it; quick, precise movements. When the meat is ready, the lavash is piled with a parsley, tomato and sumac salad, the grilled meat deposited on top, and then it’s deftly rolled into a cylinder. Easily one of the best things I ate in Istanbul. If somewhere sold these near where I live, I’d be a permanent fixture. As with all the street food in Istanbul, it was dirt cheap, from memory, 3 Turkish Lira, which is just over a quid.

Balik ekmek, grilled Mackerel sandwich, is something of an Istanbul institution. My pre-trip research had identified a particular vendor on a boat next to the Ataturk Bridge as serving up particularly good examples. On the day we decided to get one, it was pissing down with rain. We were drenched, and we’d somehow ended up trudging miserably, single file down a particularly un-picturesque carriageway, cars zooming past throwing up clouds of spray. We pressed on grimfaced and determined. As we neared the bridge in question, we caught just a feint whiff of grilled fish, it got stronger and more pronounced. We literally followed our noses, dodging puddles and mad, speeding Turkish drivers till we arrived at a boat, moored next to the bridge with a smoking grill on the bow. The smell was divine.

Walking up the gangplank, we asked for 2 and were ushered into the boat itself, where a kind of makeshift café had been thrown together. Dodging the dripping leaks in the ceiling and nodding to our Turkish shipmates, we took a seat. A few moments later, our grilled mackerel sandwiches appeared. At that point, soaked through, the hardship we’d endured on our pilgrimage suddenly seemed completely worthwhile. A truly beautiful sandwich. As with seemingly everything else worth eating on the street in Istanbul it was stupidly cheap, around £1.50

From beauty to the beast. The infamous Islak Burger or ‘Wet Burger’. I’d seen Antony Bourdain munching on one of these bad boys on TV and knew it was something I had to try. The majority of the purveyors of this particular delicacy seem to be centred on Taksim Square.

Basically, a burger entirely encased in a pappy white bun. The whole thing is moist and has been soaked in a greasy tomato sauce. To be honest, I just didn’t get it. It wasn’t unpleasant, but it wasn’t exactly pleasant either. The whole moistness thing was a bit off putting. Again, these were dirt-cheap. I’d say with good reason. I was later told that these are only really worth eating when under the influence of strong alcohol and as a result, taste sublime.

Finally, on my last day I somehow crammed in three lunches, so insistent was I not to miss anything. The last thing I ate on Turkish soil, a döner kebab, similar, outwardly at least, to the ones we’re used to in the UK, but better in every criteria it’s possible to be judged against. I mean, even the guy who carved it was attired in spotless chef’s whites and obviously took what he was doing incredibly seriously.

So that’s my visit to Istanbul. It feels like I barely scratched the surface with regards to the food. It’s an incredible, vibrant, fascinating city to eat out in and explore. Almost everywhere you look, someone is cooking up something interesting and there are whole swathes of the city I didn’t get a chance to visit this time around, setting me up nicely to return.
If you ever get the chance, go.

Sunday 8 April 2012

The Montpellier Chapter - Cheltenham

Cheltenham boutique hotel restaurant, The Montpellier Chapter, caught my eye some time back. Unusually it wasn’t the menu or the food that I found most interesting, but that the consultant chef was Simon Hopkinson. One of the most talented chefs Britain has ever produced; the man is a legend. Since retiring from the professional kitchen, he’s written a number of truly excellent recipe books, particularly Roast Chicken and Other Stories, which is considered by many (including me) to be one of the best cookbooks of all time. As far as I know, Simon Hopkinson isn’t currently lending his name to any other restaurants, and considering his reputation; it’s kind of a big deal, even if he’s not actually in the kitchen cooking.

So, The Montpellier Chapter has been languishing on my extremely lengthy, mental list of restaurants I must visit for quite some time until last Sunday, a trip to Cheltenham finally propelled it to the top.

The Hotel itself is gorgeous. On the corner of a leafy road, lined with similarly massively proportioned grand regency piles, it’s an impressive sight. Inside, it all feels very Kelly Hoppen; taupe modernist, contemporary but with just enough of the period features retained to stop it running away unrestrained into footballer’s wives naffness.

The restaurant itself is a pleasant space - parquet floor, high ceilinged, white walls, with lots of windows flooding the room with natural light. One end of the room is tiled dark green and set with a wood fired oven. Beyond, just visible, are the kitchens.

On a Sunday lunchtime the restaurant was filled with well heeled looking families. We were handed the wine list, which in keeping with the upmarket contemporary vibe of the hotel is listed on an iPad. Tres space age.

Deciding that sherry would be just the thing to follow the superb Bloody Marys we’d already sunk at the bar, ‘E’ and I ordered a couple of glasses of Fino and asked for some tap water. Bread and butter were placed on the table. Outside the sun was belting out rays, the sky was azure, I grinned at ‘E’, this all felt very pleasant indeed. Our sherry arrived, and ‘Holy Moly’ I thought, ‘that’s a massive glassful’, ‘this is frigging awesome’…

*needle skidding across the track*

The massive glass of sherry wasn’t sherry. It was wine. Bollocks. Calling the waiter over, we explained there had been a mistake and could we get the sherry we’d ordered. No problem. Would we like some water? Yes, we’d already been asked by one of the other waiters so presumably it was being dealt with.

We were both starving, so we dived into the bread.

It wasn’t stale, but it definitely was not very fresh. ‘E’ in her expert opinion as a café owner, and therefore no stranger to the complexities of aging bread reckoned it was probably yesterday’s. It was so dry I could feel my essential bodily moistures being absorbed by the pappy dough in my mouth. Swallowing hard and greedily gasping for breath, I emerged muchos desiccated. ‘E’ and I agreed it was bloody horrible. Yet another waiter appeared with our much smaller, but correct order of ice cold Fino. We complained about the bread, and asked for some more. We wanted the fresh stuff, the sort they no doubt reserve especially for visiting dignitaries and royalty. The waiter assured us it was made today, but sometimes it’s sliced just before service and it dries up a bit, adding he agreed it should have been cut ‘à la minute’. A few moments later, the replacement bread arrived, and it was much, much better.

Still no water though. We grabbed yet another passing waiter (they seem to have a hell of a lot of staff) and asked for our aqua a la tap which still hadn’t arrived. He obliged, and soon after our starters arrived. Things were back on track and looking up.

Pork Terrine with Piccalilli and toasted country bread was good, the accompanying piccalilli was lovely. Overall nothing spectacular or special just well made, absolutely no complaints apart from it could probably have done with a little bit more toast.

‘E’s smoked salmon and crayfish salad with cocktail sauce, was more or less that 70’s classic, prawn cocktail. Retrotastic. Exactly as with my starter, ‘E’ reckoned it was well made but not particularly interesting.

So far, so middling.

My next course would be the real test. Roast Chicken. With the whole Simon Hopkinson ‘roast chicken and other stories’ Montpellier Chapter connection, if this wasn’t frigging exceptional, I’d be spitting and damning everyone involved for incompetence and would never, ever, ever forget it. Ever.
No pressure then.

I surveyed the Breast, Leg, Sausage rolled in Bacon, Bread Sauce, Roast Potatoes, Vegetables and a Jug of Chicken Gravy and then in a sudden movement, so fast it was almost imperceptible, I started eating. The roast chicken was perfectly cooked, crisp skin, moist flesh. It was a really decent portion of meat too. Top marks. The sausage wrapped in bacon was a bit inconsequential and could have done with being a bit more flavoursome. I also like the meat content a bit more coarsely ground, but it was more than welcome in the now swirling melee of meat, veg, spuds and gravy being pushed around my plate. The vegetables were cooked just right, with a nice bit of bite. The roast potatoes were decent, certainly not the best I’ve had but not bad.

At the end, hefting my gut to a more comfortable position, politely belching, and considering my plate, so wiped clean it could probably be pressed instantly back into service, I mused over the fact that a good roast dinner is hard to find, and the one I’d just eaten, despite some minor niggles was overall, absolutely fantastic. I really enjoyed it, so much so that it almost cancelled out everything else. Simon Hopkinson can rest easy.

Meanwhile, ‘E’ had been eating Wild Mushroom and Spinach Tart with poached Eggs and Hollandaise. A bit of an usual choice this for Sunday lunch, but pescetarian ‘E’ wanted something that would work with the roast potatoes and veg and didn’t fancy the fish. The tart turned out to be a disc of puff pastry, with other ingredients piled on top in a sort of deconstructed assemblage. ‘E’ reckoned it nice enough as a brunch dish, but not really the thing when stacked up against a roast dinner. Having said that, the hollandaise and the poached eggs were absolutely perfectly cooked.

The available dessert choices were strictly old school, so sticky toffee pudding for ‘E’ and crème Brulee for moi. Exactly as with the starters, nothing that’s going to set the world on fire but good examples of classic standards.

It could be argued that Sunday lunch service isn’t the best judge of a restaurant’s capabilities. Although in fact, I was pretty content when I left. The chicken was probably one of the best roast dinners I’ve had for quite some time. The other courses we ate may have been a little workmanlike and uninspiring, but everything overall was well executed and the kitchen obviously knows what they’re doing.

The front of house however, was pretty sloppy. Entirely avoidable howlers included serving the terrible dry bread, the mixed up drinks orders, the fact we had to repeatedly ask for water before some finally arrived, empty glasses left un-cleared on our table throughout the meal, and then, the cardinal sin of not checking back to see if our food was OK when it arrived. All of these issues seemed to stem from there being no fixed waiting staff assigned to deal exclusively with areas of the restaurant but a kind of ‘free for all’ system of constantly rotating faces. It left us feeling that the service we received was friendly but sadly inattentive and impersonal.

Nevertheless, tantalisingly, that roast chicken dinner really impressed me, and I could forgive almost anything for a decently cooked bit of meat. So, I’ll probably pop back at some point to see how things roll on a different day with an alternative menu.

The Montpellier Chapter

Bayshill Road
GL50 3AS
Telephone: 01242 527788

Tuesday 3 April 2012

Pollen Street Social - London

Jason Atherton’s, Pollen Street Social was one of the big London restaurant launches of last year. Opening to a mixture of mostly rave reviews and a smattering of less positive takes on the small plates menu, I somehow missed visiting it entirely. But last week, proving that stuffing my face is more of a marathon than a sprint I finally made it for a solo lunch.

Chef Jason Atherton’s first solo venture after moving on from Gordon Ramsay’s restaurant empire, is very slick indeed. Beautifully laid out, light, airy, sleek and modern.

On Monday lunchtime, my fellow diners were a wealthy looking crowd of sharp suited media types, no doubt spanking those expense accounts, hard. I studied the menu, noting that it’s layout had evidently changed from the ‘cold, warm and hot’ of earlier reviews to a more standard and less confusing ‘starters, mains, desserts’ format. To be honest, I wanted to order everything from the a la carte, the whole shebang. There wasn’t one dish that didn’t appeal. But feeling perhaps a little less flush than the majority of my Prada suited neighbours, the set lunch menu at £25.50 for 3 courses looked infinitely more enticing.

Good warm bread, with butter, and a glass of Manzanilla to ease me into it, a small bowl of verdant Sicilian green olives and a delicious smear of salt cod brandade appeared. Generosity with the bread was mentally noted and approved as I made yet another raid on the proffered tray.

Smoked Hake, slow cooked egg, wild garlic and curry puffed rice. The wild garlic element in the form of a soup ceremoniously poured over the beautiful assemblage of ingredients. The egg, slowly cooked sous vide was at first off putting in it’s apparent rawness but, just then, it broke, a golden pool of yolk starbursting through the bright green liquid wild garlic, and it tasted amazing. Combined with the soft Hake and the salty, curry spiciness of the puffed rice it was beautiful. It wasn’t long before I was scraping the bowl and looking around for a refill from the waiter serving the bread.

My main arrived in two parts, a plate of braised Irish Ox Cheek, smoked mash potato and salt baked onions and a wooden stand with a small piece of marrow bone stuffed with ox-tail meat complete with tiny spoon to scrape it out.

The concept of this dish surprised and delighted me. It’s such a fantastic idea and a really inventive use of cheaper ingredients. I decided that my first priority was to scrape all of the oxtail out of the bone, to a soundtrack of me, unknowingly at first, making the sort of noises more likely found in a particularly graphic porno film. I’m happy to say that it tasted as obscenely decadent as a bone stuffed with sticky oxtail meat should.

The accompanying dish of Ox Cheek was also superb, meltingly soft and sticky, the addition of smoked mash potato and salt baked onions was inspired. Basically high-class comfort food, all of it was fantastic.

Plates cleared and a few moments to relax, I was ushered over to sit on a stool at the dessert bar. A seat, which allows you to directly overlook the pastry chefs working just inches away. First up, a Lime & Cream cheese palate cleanser. Gorgeous stuff.

Whilst eating this, I looked to my right and noticed the kitchen for the first time and did a double take. It’s got to be one the most high-tech looking culinary workplaces I’ve ever seen. Entered through an automatic sliding glass door, the interior is seemingly entirely black with strategic spotlights over every workstation. If the assembled brigade of chef’s ever decided to swap their whites and butcher stripe aprons for black bodysuits, it’d be like watching disembodied heads in some kind of bizarre contemporary theatre. I spied Jason Atherton himself working the pass. I have to say, full marks to see the chef who’s reputation the restaurant is built on actually cooking.

Next, a pre-dessert of, wait for it, Pineapple and Kafir Lime granita, lychee foam, passion fruit sauce and freshly grated kaffir lime zest. Luckily for me, it’s harder to say than to eat and I’d stuffed the lot in no time. Once again, it was absolutely delicious.

Dessert proper was constructed in front of my eyes, Yorkshire Rhubarb Sorbet, Pistachio Financier and Ginger. A draw droppingly beautiful looking plate of food. Ginger and rhubarb is a classic combination. The rhubarb sorbet was amazing and the moist comparatively unsweetened pistachio financier took the edge off all that sugariness nicely.

If all this wasn’t enough, a spiced pumpkin jam financier followed and Jason Atherton, likely spotting me snapping away at my desserts, came out of the kitchen to say hello.

To be honest, I was surprised and a little star struck. I have a couple of his recipe books and pinch ideas from them regularly, they’re bloody awesome. He came across to me as surprisingly modest and quietly spoken. He was keen to stress that Pollen Street Social is really hitting its stride now after the opening last year, and that he spends almost all of his time cooking there, and as a result, couldn’t be happier, reeling off a list of upcoming seasonal ingredients that he was looking forward to laying his hands on.

It was a nice personal touch, and a lovely end to lunch. As were the selection of petit fours, chocolate covered coffee beans, a Hazelnut Chocolate Praline and three different types of Macaron, Japanese Pink Peach, Bitter Chocolate and finally Matcha Green Tea. They were so nice, and the meal such a bargain that I almost didn’t begrudge the outrageous £4.50 I paid for a double espresso.

I absolutely loved Pollen Street Social. The food is beautiful, inventive and delicious. The set lunch menu could be used as a case study in how to perfectly utilise cheaper ingredients and turn them into something amazing. The profusion of desserts was an unexpected surprise at that price, and almost left me wondering where they make their money ahem…*£4.50 espresso, I’m looking at you* Nevertheless, at £25.50 the set menu really is a bargain and if you haven’t been yet, I urge you to go try it. Altogether, with a glass of sherry, a glass of wine, ‘that coffee’ and service my bill came to a very reasonable £48.

Pollen Street Social

8-10 Pollen Street

Telephone: 020 7290 7600

*This was written as a guest post for The Great British Chef's blog. I paid for the meal myself*