For my Birthday this year, I was treated to lunch at Pollen Street Social – One of this year’s highly anticipated new restaurant opening (after Dinner by Heston Blumenthal) in London. Pollen Street Social is Jason Atherton‘s first restaurant (He’s Executive Chef at a few restaurants overseas) and given the good name he carved for himself not only from being the first British chef to complete work experience at El Bulli, but also from being chef-patron at Maze (whilst still working for Gordon Ramsay Holdings), Pollen Street Social was always going to be hotly anticipated from diners and critics alike. It officially opened a couple of days before my Birthday so when I learned not only that lunch reservations were scored on my Birthday so soon after they opened, but that it was going to be a Birthday treat, to say I was *very* excited would be somewhat of an understatement.
From the outside, it doesn’t look like a very big restaurant (especially as Pollen St itself is more like an alleyway) but once you step inside, the room is surprisingly large and thanks to some clever design, very airy and not at all claustrophobic. Upon checking in, we were handing a nifty brass key fob and key and were told that this was a key to a collection of locked boxes behind reception where there is a gift for us when we hand the key back in as we leave. A nice touch, I thought but anyway, back to the main room. The bar is long and seats comfortable, looking at the list you can order some bar tapas to nibble at (presumably if you weren’t there to eat) and given Jason Atherton’s previous plaudits for Maze, you’re assured of its quality. Looking over the drinks, I was treated to a gin cocktail and decided upon an Eastside: Tanqueray Gin, Lime, Mint, Cucumber which was as refreshing as it sounded (and somewhat more appropriate than my initial choice of a Last Word which the waiter informed me was “a bit alcoholic for this time of the day”!). From there, we were led to our table..
There is a set course lunch which I think is great value at 2 courses for £22 or 3 courses for £25. Looking at the table next to me who had the 3 course lunch, I was somewhat amazed that they complained that the starter portions were too big. That said, I was equally amazed when they thought that the mains portions were too small. Given that the different components meant that it took up most of the table and to me, the portions looked very generous, I really didn’t see how they could be complaining at all (This view was further backed up when I saw the desserts being made).
The A La Carte menu is divided into Starters and Sharing dishes of Cold or Warm and Hot, then you get your Mains dishes and Vegetarian dishes. It would appear that a lot of people are confused or just don’t get the menu at all. Basically, you can make up the ALC menu to suit yourself: The starters can either be a large starter or can be enough for 2 (3 at a push) people to share. So if nothing on the mains tickle your fancy, there’s absolutely no reason why you can’t order several of the starters and share them amongst yourselves and create your own tasting menu. There are no hard or set rules to dining here, it’s about eating to suit yourself and to have fun – Which I absolutely love and admire them for being so flexible in doing so. None of the mains really appealed on the day so we opted for a couple of cold dishes and a couple from the warm and hot selection:
The Light cured Loch Duart salmon, avocado, smoked herring roe cream was proof that you don’t need to muck about with high quality ingredients. The quality of the salmon shone through here and was paired with the delicious combination of avocado and smoked herring roe cream (which are the black blobs on the plate). More intriguingly, and a nod to show modern techniques and Jason Atherton’s molecular past, perched on top of the salmon snaking itself amongst the avocado was a slither of a jelly-like substance. Turns out this was the salmon skin which had been roasted, then made into a consommé which was in turn, jellied, cut and added to the dish. This touch of not wasting a good part of the fish wasn’t lost on me at all and I loved this dish. My only slight complaint was that the ribbons of mouli dyed with beetroot didn’t really add anything taste-wise to the dish. I was expecting something pickled, but sadly it wasn’t. That said, it didn’t detract from the salmon which was undoubtedly the star of the dish.
Next was Smoked foie gras, black sesame, smoked golden raisin. Seriously, put foie gras on the menu and not only will it be the first thing I’ll notice on the menu, but I’ll pretty much forget looking at the rest of the menu as a result. This dish was no let down: The silky rich, smooth foie gras lightly smoked but in a great contrast to the black sesame and sweet smoked golden raisin purée (and the thin slithers of pear which the foie gras rested on). Then you had the added textural crunch from the radish and what looked like a baby mouli – which were both pickled so added a nice zing to the dish (which was lacking in the mouli in the previous dish). Again, another winner.
Our warm and hot dish was kicked off by Full English breakfast. Those familiar with Jason Atherton will know not to expect something which can be found in a transport cafe. Instead, you have a slow poached egg (and I mean poached at 75c for 90mins) on a bed of fresh tomato purée (and hidden inside was a bean purée not too dissimilar to refried beans, which I love), with shards of very crispy bacon, fried bread cubes and morels dotted along the top. Break open the egg and a pool of golden sumptuousness that is the yolk slowly seeps out into the bowl. It was very good but the tomatoes on their own didn’t really taste that special – If I were to be harsh, I’d say they were like tinned tomatoes blizted up. They definitely needed some egg (yolk) or another component of the dish to compliment it, but given the pool of egg yolk once the egg was broken, that wasn’t a problem.
The 24hr braised Suffolk pork belly & pork cheek, fermented apple sauce was another dish that caught my eye so when it was presented to the table and the sauce poured around the edges of the dish, it took every ounce of self-control to not grab the plate and eat the whole thing there and then – Not least because I spotted a cuerito sitting upright on the plate practically screaming “EAT ME!”. The dish itself was quite subtle; the difference in textures and tastes between the slow braised pork belly which pretty much fell apart once I attacked it with a knife and fork, to the gently smoked but still very flavoursome pork cheek. If truth be told, I thought it was more like a pork loin but it was tasty nonetheless. The cuerito (as it didn’t have any pork fat, so wasn’t really a chicharrón) was a mouthful of crunchy porcine goodness and I could imagine a bowlful of them in the bar would go down a treat to accompany any drinks. The pulses and root (salsify?) were a nice contrast and the sauce wasn’t particularly overpowering, but this dish was about pork and much like in the salmon cold dish, the main component was the star.
For desserts, we were seated at the already fabled Dessert Bar. It’s basically an open plan kitchen with several high bar stools for you to sit at which 3 pastry chefs take care of you as you watch them making desserts. Call it gimmicky, but I personally love it. We started with a nice sorbet as a pre-dessert and I’d heard of a “micro menu” where a small trio of desserts from the menu were made for you. Well, who could turn that down?
No single component of the Sangria mousse, blood orange granita, curd milk jam overpowered each other even though when you ate them on their own, were full of flavour. Combined, they were a delicious contrast of flavours and temperatures – The cold Goat’s milk jam sweet and dense contrasted the light airy sangria mousse which was more like an espuma, then the cold crunch from the granita.
The “PBJ” Parfait, cherry jam, creamed rice puffs sounds like something that shouldn’t really work and it wasn’t my favourite, if I’m honest. Individually I liked all the components and they did go nicely together but there was a certain something that was missing – And I can’t quite put my finger on it. It was a perfectly nice dish but it just didn’t wow me like the others.
Finally, we had something entitled “Ham, cheese & herbs” on the menu which was Watermelon cut to look like slices of ham, candied goat’s curd rolled in between, basil sorbet and topped with a watermelon granita. Oh I loved this dish – The play of making the watermelon to resemble ham and pairing it with cheese, the shockingly green sorbet FULL of basil to contrast the cheese and watermelon (I got chatting to the chef as she was making it and she was happy to chat about the processes involved in making it) and topped off with a cooling and refreshing watermelon granita. Again, I couldn’t help but smile as I ate this because not only was it so playful, but it tasted so bloody good too!
So that was it, it may not have been the most delicious food that I’ve ever eaten nor the most showy, but it was more than very good and very much acceptable. I had a smile on my face for nearly every dish and they’re bringing home the fact that good food isn’t necessary about big and bold flavours or a showy thing to wow you, but that in sourcing good ingredients and treating them with understated skill and respect, you will please the customer. More to the point, there’s a fun element to the food and I love how you’re not restricted to the confines of fine dining (as in other establishments) and they won’t bat an eyelid here. It may not be for everyone who want to label it either as a fine dining restaurant, or don’t get what they’re trying to achieve here with their menu construction, but personally, I love it. I think Jason Atherton should be applauded for daring to be so flexible and forward-thinking.
After asking for the bill and there was one more surprise in store for me: Knowing that it was my Birthday, I was presented with a box all tied up with ribbon and a nice “Happy Birthday” card on top. It was a lovely touch and indicative of the exemplary service we received – Friendly, knowledgeable and completely on the ball throughout the whole meal. They staff (including the bar staff) were a credit to Pollen Street Social and I left feeling very loved and satisfied after a very good meal. I already look forward to going back.
Finally, that surprise in the locked box that we were given a key for upon arrival? It was Afternoon Tea from the restaurant – Tea bag, scone and cookie to take away with us. If I didn’t already have a smile on my face, I certainly did after that nice little touch
You can view all photos from my visit on my Flickr
EDIT: Since my visit, the menu has changed slightly to make it easier for people to order/understand; some one the starters have gone and they’re all listed as starters now (rather than cold or hot and warm). The price of mains dishes have come down significantly which will again help with however you want to construct your meal. The set lunch prices have come down a touch which make them seem even more good value for money. Credit to Jason Atherton for listening to feedback and reacting upon it – I still look forward to going back