Chef Atherton's Latest Restaurant Is His Best in Years
There's a theory that Jason Atherton is expanding his dining empire so quickly that standards must drop and creativity wane.
That's a load of rubbish. Sosharu, the chef's new London restaurant, is the most exciting since his first, Pollen Street Social, which opened in 2011.
Atherton is certainly going for it. He owns seven establishments in London, three in Hong Kong, two in Shanghai and one each in New York, Sydney and Dubai. He plans to open Nova, in London's Victoria, later this year as well as a neighborhood joint in Cebu, in the Philippines, the homeland of his wife, Irha.
At that rate of international expansion, you might think Atherton would have nothing left up his sleeve other than a Rolex and lucrative TV deals. His former mentor Gordon Ramsay has followed that particular path with gusto.
But Sosharu shows a burst of creative energy, starting with the fact it's an izakaya, Atherton's first stab at Japanese cuisine. As bright ideas go, that is up there with a karaoke drunk attempting Amy Winehouse or Eddie the Eagle going for Olympic gold - enterprises that leave you flat on your face.
Not here. Much of the credit must go to executive chef Alex Craciun. Atherton's protégé spent years at restaurants in Japan learning about ingredients, cooking techniques and flavors.
That knowledge has created dishes that are modern and avoid the Nobu template of black cod and sushi. Sosharu actually brings something new to a city that is almost saturated with restaurant concepts.
Assuming you don't immediately head downstairs to the 7 Tales cocktail bar, with its Japanese pop iconography, the meal may start with sashimi. Just don't expect a pot of soy sauce and a dollop of wasabi.
Each fish is individually dressed and seasoned, from the sesame-topped salmon through the o-toro fatty tuna with a slither of eight-month pickled garlic through to the hamachi yellowtail with ginger and lime juice.
It doesn't come cheap: a selection is £22 ($31.60) for six pieces and £35 for 10. If you have my kind of appetite, it's easy to spend more than £50 a head on food at Sosharu before you go near wagyu beef or sake.
But it's good enough to keep going back.
The outstanding dishes include a reasonably priced avocado tempura at £6. The batter is light and crisp, the avocado oily rich. It is served with lemon salt and a light dashi soy, along with creamy Kewpie mayonnaise and roast pineapple. It's crunchy and gooey with the texture of a chocolate egg and sweet-and-sour flavors like a posh Chinese takeaway that's been to finishing school.
The chicken yakitori (£18) features rice cooked in a chicken stock, with ground cartilage for crunch, plus negi onions, garlic and egg for flavor. It's topped with tsukune chicken sausage and a shishito pepper to balance the sweetness and richness of the rice.
Service is both disarmingly friendly and scarily well-informed
And I wouldn't miss the scallop tartare, with fresh peas, sesame and lemon puree (£13). It is a beautiful dish that, like so much on the menu, combines contrasting tastes and textures in a dish that's great to look at as well as to eat.
Mixed Japanese mushrooms (maitake, shimeji, shiitake, enoki, king oyster) with crunchy toasted buckwheat (£11) are another winner. Desserts include kakigori shaved ice with different flavorings including rhubarb, hibiscus and mocha.
Not everything works equally well. On a couple of dishes, the seasoning is a bit too subtle: I didn't really get the chewy chicken skin from the hibachi grill and I didn't dare to order the wagyu sirloin from Miyazaki prefecture at £40 per 100 grams. (I had a taste and I'm worried that I may be hooked). I'm assuming the whole menu will slim down over time, gaining focus. You can see Craciun in the open kitchen, obsessing over everything.
I'm quite happy staying unfocussed, ordering a few dishes and looking out across the room, dominated by an abstract timber structure inspired by a traditional Japanese house - a crowded house as it turns out in the opening weeks of Sosharu. The designs are by the Shanghai-based studio Neri & Hu, which was also responsible for Pollen Street Social.
Service is both disarmingly friendly and scarily well-informed, like having the girl or boy next door sharing detailed thoughts on Japanese ingredients and cooking techniques while you are just struggling to pronounce words like tsukune and wondering if cobia is a snake or an Indian beer. (It's actually a fish, but you probably knew that.)
If this is Atherton spreading himself thin, who needs a fat chef?
Article by Richard Vines, chief food critic at Bloomberg.