I had a huge treat recently - an invitation to Pollen Street Social for a fellow foodie's birthday celebration. This was my first visit to Jason Atherton's flagship restaurant, which famously was awarded a Michelin star within six months of opening, and it more than lived up to expectations.
The tables are simply laid with white linen and country-chic design tableware in a buzzy dining room area with contemporary art from the likes of Gavin Turk. The overall effect is relaxed and welcoming, making it a perfect choice for anyone who might feel intimidated by the idea of Michelin-starred dining - or for a casual but wonderful birthday dinner.
Once greeted and seated, we had this very welcome selection of amuse-gueule, a literal taste of things to come: smoked salmon, sweetcorn muffins and my absolute favourite, crisp and delicate little beetroot and blackberry tartlets, full of contrasting flavours and perfectly balanced.
For starters we had the Wye Valley asparagus with native lobster and shellfish hollandaise, and the Eyemouth crab salad with apple, coriander, lemon purée and black garlic, and brown crab on toast. Gorgeously plated and precisely balanced, this was an outstanding dish.
Central to Pollen Street Social's ethos is a commitment to sourcing top quality seasonal produce from British suppliers; exhibit A, the Wye Valley asparagus.
Mushroom tea, served from a very elegant and covetable white tea set, was next up; earthy yet delicate and a great transition into the main course.
Again, a near-impossible choice for our mains; I opted for the Cornish lamb loin with braised neck and roasted artichoke, served with a salad of crisp baby vegetables, merguez sausage and curds and whey. I can't help but think that this was a good call. The combination of the two cuts and cooking methods of lamb was really interesting, with the beautifully rare, springy loin contrasting with the deeper, soft braised meat, cut through by the sharpness of the salad. It was again one of the most beautifully plated dishes I have seen.
My companion chose the South Coast Dover sole, which was served with Cornish fish soup poured over at the table and an Orkney sea scallop on the side. If I hadn't been feeling quite so smug about the lamb, a serious case of meal envy would have ensued.
I've never quite understood why the portions always look comparatively small in top restaurants, yet you leave feeling perfectly full. It could be that there is another little tasty something brought to you at every feasible opportunity - this one being pre-dessert and a perfect basil and foamed yoghurt ice.
I don't really have a sweet tooth but you can't really go to Pollen Street Social without having dessert, courtesy of Leo Maple and the crew. Chocolate heaven comes in the form of the bitter chocolate pave with chocolate ice cream, olive biscuit and olive oil conserve.
And just when you think you've seen it all . . . along comes the banana soufflé with the wonderfully retro rum and raisin ice cream and lime. It looks spectacular and tastes even better.
We briefly debated ordering a coffee somewhere else on the way home but decided we were way too comfortable; yet another good call, as it turned out. Not only is the coffee fabulous - single estate from El Salvador - but it comes with 'mignardises', which in this case turned out to be an array of yummy extras including chocolate ganache, Turkish delight beautifully presented in an antique tin and a Bakewell tart, still gently warm from the oven.
Wandering around downstairs on my way to the ladies' I stumbled (did I mention the awesome house white?) across this slightly Lord of the Flies glass-sided meat locker; quite a lot of the prep takes place at bars in the dining area so you can see the masters at work.
I don't know why, but this is my favourite shot of the evening; a bit blurry, rushed, but for me - a glimpse of where the magic happens.