I wonder what they would make of oyster ice cream with smoked eel pearl in Skegness, where Jason Atherton was born. And of the warm oyster in dashi that sat alongside it, come to that. And of the barbecued mackerel with frozen ajo blanco and cucumber ketchup; of the quail escabeche or strawberries with black olive ice cream; and any of the other 12 courses of culinary pyrotechnics Jason Atherton and his team served up to Bob Granleese and me the other day.
I say pyrotechnics – and some of the dishes were brilliant displays of flavours, textures and even temperatures – but that seems almost too crude, too vulgar a word to describe some of the most fastidious, technical, exact, exquisite and delicious cooking in the country. It’s the culinary equivalent of high-definition.
But even the most dazzling technique means little if there isn’t a sense of personality to shape the dishes, an individual vision of what food can do. I’m not sure that the Atherton of La Tante Claire, Harvey’s, Coast or even Maze could claim that, but he sure can now. I had not quite realised just how technically complex his cooking was until discussing the details with him after the tasting. This is a man who salts lemons for three months, and then blanches them six times before immersing them in syrup to make a tiny addition to a cream of avocado to go with a slow-cooked salmon fillet. A man who turns salmon skin into jelly for the same dish and, further, who will make a mousse of herring roe and burnt leeks to sit alongside it. This is a man, for God’s sake, who will cook the skin of watermelon for three hours to create something that has the texture and colour (almost) of ham.
Atherton has also been exploring the nature of ingredients, sourcing his meat with ever greater specification – lamb from a small group of Gloucestershire farmers, English pork from Ginger Pig – and who has been rediscovering the culinary values of such British herbs as yarrow and rue, which have long since disappeared from the culinary repertoire.
In short, Atherton is drawing on a grounding in French haute cuisine, on the technical wizardry and thoughtfulness of El Bulli (where he spent some formative years) and on the flavour architecture and wit that is characteristic of contemporary British cooking to create something that is, well, just Jason.
He has come a long way from Skegness, by way of the kitchens of Pierre Koffmann, Nico Ladenis, Marco Pierre White and Ferran Adrià. That’s a heavyweight pedigree by any chef’s standards. He’s got accolades and awards by the armful, and he propelled Maze to a Michelin star, which, given the hundred-plus covers the place was doing twice a day, was nothing short of a miracle. Now he’s opening up on his own account at Pollen Street Social.
Which might seem a slightly odd name for a restaurant, a bit working man’s club, a bit northern industrial town, a bit “Oh, I’m just going down the social”, but then there’s nothing remotely snooty about Jason. Why shouldn’t you go down the social for some seriously top-drawer grub? He thinks that high-class cooking should be accessible to everyone, and I think he’s right. Soon, it will be.
Pollen Street Social, 8-13 Pollen Street, London W1S 1NQ. Opens 18 April 2011.
Tel: 020 7290 7600