27 April 2011

Pollen Street Social, London – Restaurant Review


The irony of going to a restaurant called Pollen Street Social alone is not lost on me. But needs must and the chance to eat at Jason Atherton's first solo project – one of the most anticipated openings of the year – was not to be missed. So it was that on an atypically glorious April afternoon in London I found myself at Pollen Street Social, nestled in a narrow side street just off bustling Regent Street.

Atherton came of age as a chef working for culinary luminaries such as Nico Ladenis, Pierre Koffman, and Marco Pierre White. He was also the first British stagiaire at Ferran Adrià's legendary El Bulli restaurant. However, he is best known for his time at the Michelin factory that is Gordon Ramsay Holdings. There he spent eight years working under the 'craggy shouty one', the last five of which were at the helm of Maze restaurant, where he won a Michelin Star just one year after opening. Maze was one of the first proponents of serving 'tapas-style' gourmet food in London, and its mix of French and Asian food was widely applauded. To my regret I've never eaten there, but Pollen Street Social's smaller tasting plates echo the Maze theme.

On entering Pollen Street Social, the first thing you see is a long stylish bar area. Seating 45, it serves small 'tapas' dishes to be washed down with classic cocktails. The 60-cover main restaurant is in an adjoining room and is absolutely of the moment, with more than a hint of Scandinavian style coming from the wooden floorboards, wainscot panelling, plain white walls and Hans J. Wegner chairs; the same Danish-designed chairs that can be found at my favourite Oslo restaurant. Plush leather Chesterfield banquettes, linen tablecloths, and a vase of calla lilies soften the place up nicely.

Next to the semi-open kitchen is Pollen Street Social's party piece – a dessert bar where diners are invited to retire to after the main courses to indulge their sweet teeth. The jury's still out on this one – I'm not sure the ambience-changing move of leaving your perfectly pleasant table to finish your meal at a bar works. Unless of course you can come in and sit there just for desserts, now that would be something indeed. In any event, the only thing missing at PSS is some beds (and a breakfast buffet perhaps) and you'd never have reason to leave the place. It's a truly magnificent interior, just the sort of place to happily while away a few hours.
The menu at Pollen Street Social is was a confusing affair, with 21 dishes listed under headings such as "cold", "warm & hot" and "vegetarian", not to mention 5 main course choices and 11 dessert options. The idea, the waiter informed me, was to select three or four smaller dishes and one main course per person to share. A sort of mix-and-match tasting menu. But like a new fresh-faced graduate in the office, eager to please and show off their repertoire of skills, this was just too much too soon, and ends up annoying the hell out of everyone. Also, the portions and plating of some of these dishes make them difficult to share. Fortunately common sense has prevailed and the restaurant has now ditched this format in favour of a more streamlined and conventional menu with a pleasing symmetry to it – 8 starters, 8 mains, 8 desserts.

To begin, an understated salad of radishes and samphire (£8.50). Here a variety of radishes were prepared in different ways – some fresh, some salted and some lightly pickled. The whole thing had a mild pepperiness to it that was offset by a creamy green purée. What was the green purée stuff I asked? Avocado? A manager type said he'd go and find out, but he never returned. So I'll go with avocado as my final answer. A simple, but solid start to the meal.
Next came foie gras terrine (£11.50), a dish I have an eternal soft spot for. It was billed as smoked, but I could detect no discernible smoke taste to it, instead the smokiness came from quite heavenly blobs of sweet and smokey raisin purée. Black sesame purée, radishes, and translucent slices of pear jelly completed the dish. It was delicious and a very clever blend of flavours. It was only let down by the miserly portion of toast it came with, and the fact that the foie gras was quite cold, rendering it not the easiest thing to spread on the toast.

The first hot course was roast red mullet fillet (£11.50) that was served with wild leeks, black olive tapenade, garlic flowers and peas. A crystal clear black olive and sardine consommé was poured over the top. I adored this dish. Seemingly simple, this was actually very technical cooking. The crisp oniony taste of the leeks cut through mild oiliness of the fish nicely, while the sauce packed a huge umami kick. I dunked my bread in the consommé so as not to waste a precious drop.
A main course of Dingley Dell pork belly (£27.50) came with thin slices of raw beetroot, small baked beetroots, beer sauce, and a side of velvet smooth Robuchon-esque mashed potatoes. The pork belly was well cooked and utterly delicious, although the obligatory layer of crispy crackling was sadly absent. There was also an unadvertised, but gorgeous nugget of what appeared to be pork cheek nestling on the plate. Heeding Evening Standard restaurant critic Fay Maschler's advice, it seems some much needed greens have now been added to this dish. The one let down, though, was the mix of hops, grains and black sesame seeds that the pork sat on. This was way too bitter and totally overwhelmed the taste of the meat. The dish is much better off without it.
On seeing the dessert menu, I asked the waiter if these were also smaller tasting dishes and therefore if I needed to order more than one. Sadly the answer was in the negative and I was torn between a number of dishes such as "Ham, Cheese & Herbs", rice pudding with hay ice cream, and the visually stunning fruta cru. With a dedicated dessert bar, the final course was bound to be something special and my choice of "PBJ" (a remodelled version of Maze's signature dessert) did not disappoint (£7.50). The sweetness of peanut butter parfait and creamed rice puffs was tempered by sour cherry sorbet, blackberries, and strands of cherry jelly. A fantastic way to end the meal!
The total bill for one came to just over £100, which included service, a glass of wine, water and coffee. This seems a little steep to me, and is testament to the fact that smaller sharing/tasting plates always seem to lead to bigger bills – less food for more money. Service was fine, if a little hesitant, and lacked the confidence that a well-oiled Michelin machine has (of which I've no doubt that Pollen Street Social will eventually become). But I was there on only their second official day of opening so some allowances have to be made for that.

In general though, it was a very accomplished performance by the kitchen and front-of-house team. Not even an impromptu fire alarm caused the staff to falter, although Atherton understandably looked a bit perturbed. Not to worry; it turned out to be a false alarm but did leave me contemplating whether to evacuate the building, or finish my Dingley Dell pork belly and die in a blaze of glory. I'm a gambling man, so I chose the latter.

Before leaving one of the staff showed me the dry-aging room, with some impressively mouth-watering cuts of meat on display, and I also had a peek at the stylish subterranean private dining room, which is sure to become a popular celebratory venue.

There's so much to love about Pollen Street Social and Atherton comes across as the kind of guy you really want to see succeed. The food at Pollen Street Social is impressively imaginative. But, although there were flashes of brilliance in parts, I don't think it's quite there yet. However, I've no doubt that given time the sheer creativity, energy and passion of Atherton's cooking will eventually make Pollen Street Social a wildly popular fixture of the London dining scene.

Food:          8 / 10
Service:      8 / 10
Ambiance:  9 / 10

Pollen Street Social
8/10 Pollen Street
London W1S 1NQ
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 20 7290 7600
Pollen Street Social on Urbanspoon
Square Meal