Pollen Street Social
8-10 Pollen Street,
London, W1S 1NQ
Tel. 020 7290 7600
Food type: Modern British
Nearest tube: Oxford Circus
Website: Pollen Street Social
Jason Atherton has done very well for himself. The last time I ate his food was way back at the original Maze, when he was still working for Ramsay and when the restaurant had a Michelin star. I still remember two things with that meal – the excellent ‘BLT’ dish that he got to the banquet of Great British Menu Season 2 and a horrible, overly acidic beetroot dish which still gives me beetroot nightmares. Since parting ways, Atherton has expanded his empire at a rapid rate, with his Social branded restaurants mushrooming up all over the globe almost as quick as Ramsay’s restaurant brand. He even has had time to launch his own brand of tableware with John Lewis! Somewhere along the way, he has also picked up his mentor’s knack of collecting Michelin stars. In total, Atherton now owns three restaurants with a solitary star each although a second star is proving elusive.
I decided to take myself to Atherton’s flagship restaurant, Pollen Street Social for a casual Friday lunch. The dining room was packed, with the restaurant turning tables, which is a very good sign given that these days, most restaurants in Mayfair struggle to fill half their dining room for lunch. On my way to the restaurant, I walked past nearby Hibiscus which in stark contrast was pretty much empty. Alongside a standard a la carte menu (items individually priced), there is a cheaper lunch menu (2 courses £32, 3 courses £37) and a tasting menu (5 courses £85, 8 courses £105). The restaurant proudly displays where their produce comes from but given the number of covers that need to be catered for, this is of course not Hedone-level of ingredient sourcing. With plenty of time for a long lunch, I opted for the long tasting menu with an additional course from the a la carte.
With a drink in hand, a wooden cake stand was presented with three canapés. First was a classic smoked salmon with cream cheese and keta caviar on top of a thin strip of rye toast. This was tasty, if unexciting. The second bite was more interesting – a corn muffin with cucumber and dill icing. The sweetness from the corn was carefully balanced against the savoury dill and cucumber cream, with the muffin having great texture. A final bite of beetroot and blackcurrant tartlet had excellent thin and crisp pastry and the acidity and sweetness of the blackcurrant playing off the earthiness of the beetroot. A second amuse came in the form of a mushroom tea which had a good depth of flavour. Excellent start to the meal.
The first course from the tasting menu were Scottish langoustines, with a chilled almond gazpacho. The langoustines were accurately cooked but they were not of the exemplary specimens that I have come across at say, the Square, which does come with a hefty supplement. There was plenty of freshness on the plate with small bursts of finger lime to balance the richness from the langoustine and almond. Good.
Next was a little play of crab on toast. Picked white crab meat was bound with a little mayonnaise with a little apple and coriander for freshness. This sat on top of a disc of brown crab meat set in a jelly. The bread element comes from croutons as well a sourdough foam, the later a genius idea to add a nice toasted, malty element to the dish. Once again, the dish was lifted with some acidity from a lemon puree gel. Aside from a small technical slip with a stray crab shell, this was a tasty plate of food which achieved what it set out to do – present a modern interpretation of crab on toast.
I then took a slight detour from the tasting menu with an additional course of quail breakfast. This dish was featured on Masterchef Australia (the one where the contestants are actually pretty good cooks) as a pressure test. There certainly is a lot of work involved. In the central plate is a spelt risotto with wild mushrooms. The spelt had excellent texture, and finishing it with mushroom puree giving a deep earthiness to the dish. On top, the wild mushrooms had been very lightly cooked so they were warm but still had a nice crunch to them. A chest on the side hid different preparations of the quail, sat on top of pine which had been gently smoking away. A quail supreme was nicely timed – moist and tender and benefiting from the lick of smoke. At a canter, I would guess that applewood chips were used. Next was the quail leg which had been confit and glazed – yielding and coming off the bone without much effort. Finally, the last treat was a crispy quail egg with a runny egg yolk. And that was only the first part of the dish! The ‘breakfast’ element was tied in with a terrine of quail and mushroom on toast as well as a quail consommé tea infused with lapsang souchong for a hit of smokiness bringing the dish full circle. Although there were many components to this dish, they all tied together nicely and the keep components of the dish can be distilled down to the quail, mushrooms and smoke.
Continuing with the tasting menu, traditional haggis, neeps and tatties had been given a complete remake. On the bottom was a linguine made from blanched turnips topped with a ragu made from the haggis and diced potatoes. A little crispy potato completed the dish. Little flecks of thyme gave bursts of herbaceous freshness which helped prevent the dish from being overly rich. The dish was finished on the table with some cooking liquor and a grating of (if I remember correctly) Berkswell cheese. A lovely interpretation of a classic.
The fish course fillet of halibut served with sweetcorn and a cockle minestrone which was a bit like a chowder. Halibut is not my favourite fish since it is relatively lean and dries out easily. The cuisson on the fish was fine and the ample moisture on the plate (corn, minestrone) helped alleviate the lean halibut fillet, but I found it very difficult to get excited over this dish.
For the main course, I had lamb cooked two ways with heritage carrots. On the main plate was the lamb loin, likely cooked in a water bath before roasted to give the lamb fat surrounding it a crispy, caramelised finish. The heritage carrots came in different guises – salt baked to intensify the carrot flavour, pickled and in as a puree. There was grain mustard which complemented the carrots very well. For me, the genius touch was a small touch of yuzu which lifted the dish. On a separate plate was the lamb neck which was braised until tender served on top of some pomme puree, with a few more carrots – perhaps a modern take on the classic shepherd’s pie.
As a bridge between the savoury and sweet courses was a interesting crossover dish of goat’s cheese ice cream . The ice cream was made with Golden Cross cheese which has a fresh, citrusy flavour. To balance the savoury notes of the ice cream was honeycomb and a salted caramel/ toffee sauce. Toasted oats and milk styrofoam (made from dehydrating milk foam) added further texture. For me, this dish had everything – I loved the play of salty/ sweet, hot/ cold and contrasting textures. Perhaps I should start making goat’s cheese ice cream at home.
Moving onto puddings, the first dessert was a take on eton mess. Hiding in a meringue shell was whipped cream, blackcurrant compote and a blackcurrant parfait of some sort. While this may have been a witty take on a classic, for me, the end result was that it ate less well than the original. There was a lot more meringue relative to the amount of the other components and even when mixed together thoroughly, the end result was relatively dry. The dish needed a bit more wetness to help bind all the elements together.
The final dessert was a chocolate pave with olive biscuit. I will put my hands up and openly admit that I am not a fan of olives in desserts. Olive oil yes, but actual olives, black or green, just taste plain weird. I get the concept behind it – sweet chocolate tempered with a bit of saltiness from the olives. Maybe my palate has not evolved enough to appreciate olives with my pudding. Technically correct, but just not my cup of tea.
My meal at Pollen Street Social was very accomplished. There was plenty of technique on display and even when dishes were elaborate, like the quail breakfast, everything tied in nicely and made sense. There was good use of acidity in many of the dishes which was clever as it made the cooking feel a lot lighter. Although my favourite dish of the day was the goats cheese ice cream dessert, I felt that the desserts that I tried in general were the weakest part of the meal. That being said, the level of cooking here is definitely above the 1 star level that it is currently at, although with a few inconsistencies to nail it on as a solid 2 star. With the new Michelin Guide for UK being released on Monday, and with a few demotions and deletions pretty much guaranteed at a 2 star level (the Square, Hibiscus and the Latymer) it will be interesting to see whether Pollen Street Social will make the cut for promotion this time around. There are certainly sparks of genius which would make it completely justified.