Fantastic SA wine in London and why oyster ice cream is the most unusual thing I've tasted

It’s a common debate amongst those of us cheerfully obsessed with eating out: what’s the strangest dish you’ve ever eaten? I’ve had a few contenders over the years: a satay hotdog on a ferry in Indonesia that I fear might have been literally named, witchetty grubs sampled very reluctantly in Australia, a slab of reindeer at a street café in Stockholm. But the most unusual – in terms of taste, certainly – would have to be the oyster ice cream conjured up by chef Jason Atherton at his celebrated Pollen Street Social in London.

Jason’s proper culinary aristocracy in England: formerly Gordon Ramsay’s chief lieutenant, he’s now a Michelin-starred chef with restaurants all over the world. Pollen Street Social remains the Atherton flagship, though, and a popular destination for a gourmet pilgrimage – provided you can get a booking. 

Pollen Street Social opens up into a surprisingly spacious bar area, with polished staff offering some eclectic cocktails and a nice range of single malts. And good thing the bar is spacious: recently retired swimmer Cameron van der Burgh and his wife Nefeli joined me for dinner, and although he’s no longer in the pool for a living, Cameron still has a square set of shoulders sculpted from thousands of lengths. 

Olympic gold medalist Cameron van Der Burgh with w

The dining space is similarly open, with a warm buzz to it, amplified by the attention of the chef himself. Guy, a South African stuntman mate who did a lot of work on the Johnny English movies, completes the quartet for dinner, and together we lay siege to a menu that goes out of its way to underscore the sustainable nature of the fare being offered.

More on the food shortly; first, the wine, and just why I’m such a fan of Pollen Street Social. On a long, cosmopolitan list headlined by vast swathes of French, there’s a small but important South African presence – although probably not what you’d expect. 

Over a long and extremely pleasant meal, we tried the 2014 Thorne And Daughters Rocking Horse, the glorious white blend of grapes from across the Cape; the 2016 Crystallum Mabalel Pinot Noir; and Eben Sadie’s Syrah-led Columella, a signature celebration of one of winemaking’s foremost talents.

columella wine

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I’m not sure what evoked greater delight: the quality of some exceptional wine, or the discovery of some niche South African gems in a long and detailed list. Either way, it made for four very happy South Africans, and gave the Atherton menu some serious competition. But you don’t garner Michelin acclaim without being able to handle such competition, and the Atherton menu took on the challenge with relish…

From the fresh, light touch of a crab salad with apple and coriander, to the soft richness of suckling pig with poached pears, to the large chunk of cow the Van der Burghs devoured, there’s a classic foundation to the menu that’s given some deft touches and a little imagination, with welcome results. And then there’s that oyster ice cream. What did it taste like? Oyster ice cream, unsurprisingly: the texture of the dessert is familiar, but getting your head around the flavour that accompanies that texture takes some work. It’s a salty, marine mouthful that’s definitely an acquired taste – and with apologies to Jason Atherton, not the foremost reason I’ll be heading back. But a return is definitely planned: Pollen Street Social’s food is superb, the atmosphere is fantastic, and there’s some splendid South African wine to complete a superb night out in Mayfair. 

chef jason atherton and dan nicholl at Pollen Stre

What I’m drinking this week:

Chef Pete Goffe-Wood is quick to debunk established thoughts on wine pairing, and in particular the adage that white wine means fish or chicken, and red wine, red meat. It’s a belief I share, and last weekend’s research underscored that belief. Having challenged my Greek friend Saki to a souvla braai challenge, I tried the lamb with Bosman’s 2016 Optenhorst Chenin, an old vine wine that taps into winemaker Corlea Fourie’s love of the grape. Rich, and with plenty of depth, it gave the lamb a companion you might not normally think of, but which worked delightfully. Currently one of Wellington’s star attractions.

Images: Dan Nicholl