Review: Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social – 2011’s Second Best New Opening

by timchester

What’s in a name? Quite a lot for me actually. I’m a bit of a stickler for monikers and make desicions based on rubric all too often. It’s why it took me years to bother checking out Elbow and why heading to Spuntino wasn’t a foregone conclusion despite the praise. It may be irrational but I put an enormous amount of stock behind a name. A choice word or phrase can fire the imagination and pull you in or spark a subconcious but compelling revulsion. And of course there’s those places whose names downright lie to you when you do check them out (the soulless L’Anima and Stoke Newington’s Yum Yum to name but two).

pssfront

Pollen Street Social practically commands you to head down. Of course the word “social” conjures thoughts of companionship and conviviality (not to mention drunken hours at The Social’s yacht rock nights) but the “pollen” to me comes across bright, yellow, springlike and promising. A good name also implies thought, care and attention, and Jason Atherton’s first solo venture displays those qualities in droves.

To cut to the chase, I loved Pollen Street Social. From the minute we sat down, and were poured champagne from an open magnum, to the moment we exchanged the mysterious key we’d been given at the start for a goodie bag full of madeleines, teabags, and a cute card that read “breakfast is on us”, it was close to sublime. Atherton, formerly executive chef at Gordon Ramsey’s Maze, hasn’t left anything to chance. The room is light, bright and populated with unusual artworks while the Saville Row-dressed waiters are just the right side of friendly. Thick, freshly varnished wood is everywhere as are plush leather seats and low-hung amber filaments and the whole place balances just so between chic and comfortable – no mean feat.

Maybe we should flush the negative vibes out the room first? It’s not cheap. That champagne was £12.50 a glass and our final bill came to double this blog’s guiding principles. Plus portion sizes weren’t exactly generous. And while there’s a handful of mains on offer the menu’s main MO is small sharing plates priced at £8 – £12, which is a nice idea that really doesn’t work here.

The whole concept of mix’n'match sharing is reasonably priced dishes in abundance. You order until you’re full. You pick at bits and bobs from plates passed across the table. You certainly don’t prod at miniscule displays of haute cusine and start arguing about geometry. I mean, the three of us that turned up to Pollen Street Social on its fourth night used to think we were share-and-share-alike kind of people but most of these dishes proved us totally wrong.

In our defense, splitting two prawns (and one extra prawn head) between three people is a recipe for disaster. And if “Orkney scallops, mackerel tartare, and grapefruit” shows up with only one scallop on the plate, what are you supposed to do? We paused, looked each other in the eyes and went to war.

pssscallop

I’ve never seen so little food pushed round a plate by so many, with so much demented gusto. We were grabbing shards of rustic bread from every passing tray and mopping up every atom of tweaked and trussed ingredient with a desperation that was, frankly, embarrassing. Splitting two shards of asparagus between three, meanwhile, didn’t encourage any of us to be sociable.

In PSS’s defense, Atherton tweeted today that they’re changing the sharing concept to tasting dishes, which is probably a good idea. The rest of my gripes, meanwhile – the continuous cutlery changes, the hubbub of waiters running rings round us, the occasional gap in knowledge – are petty concerns that should be wiped up once the place has been running for more than four days. And the sharing issues aside, our meal was one long display of culinary excellence and artistry.

Cocktails meant a Gimlet of carbonated gin mixed with lime jelly, brought to the table and sprinkled with lime dust, and a Ramos Gin Fizz that was all fluff, egg white, mango milk and black olive caramel. A Mojito was made as a Mojito should be, less sugary than most and potent.

pssbreakfast2

Hot sharers included the Full English, a slow cooked egg sat triumphantly in a viscous heap decorated with shards of bacon, puréed tomato and fried bread cubes, a breakfast of champions deconstructed, and 24 hour braised Suffolk pork belly and shoulder (the advertised cheek was off). The belly was very much size zero but just so while the shoulder, according to my companions, was “officially aight”. Better was the braised Irish ox tongue ‘n’ cheek with salt-baked carrots, a rich joy.

Those bloody prawns that caused such consternation were served on a bamboo basket as a gambas with seaweed tea consommé, poured triumphantly by the server. Underneath was a surprise, two dumplings with ginger, that we uncovered before their scheduled unveiling, much to the disappointment of our man in the waistcoat. One of the two prawns was still clinging on to its digestive tract – a fatal error really – while the bed of seaweed was like a mouthful of sea water that sparked Proustian recollections of schoolboy dunkings.

pssbasement

Downstairs at Pollen Street Social, just on from the carcasses hanging in the ageing room and the wine bottle-lined private dining room, is a glass wall dividing the toilets, which bears a quotation from absinthe fiend and post-Impressionist Toulouse-Lautrec that reads: Marriage is a dinner that begins with dessert. While that may seem pessimistic to any fiancés in the world, it gives a clue as to Pollen Street Social’s pièce de résistance: the first dessert bar in the capital.

We bagged three seats there (of about seven) to watch the three pudding chefs (to give them their technical names) at work, and sample the wares. It’s sort of like sitting onstage for Saturday Kitchen (a show Atherton is no stranger to) and they presented all manner of delights. A sangria mousse with blood orange granita and curd milk jam (served for free while we were making our minds up, nice touch) was more deconstructed hanky panky, calling forth memories of hazy nights in Valencia in whipped up form while the PBJ parfait was a slate slab dotted with cherry jam and almost illegally tasty creamed rice puffs. Rice pudding served in a dinky saucepan with hay ice cream was reportedly the best thing in the world ever, a claim I couldn’t corroborate as sharing was very much a thing of the past by this point, and the “Tiramisu” (quote marks restaurant’s own) another display of theatrics, all impossibly balanced shards of chocolate and steaming coffee espressos poured from a mini cafetiere.

In a further show of relaxed generosity the dessert bar staff served us all mini versions of the espresso to sup on while we talked about the restaurant’s first reviews with them. Apparently, they’re more concerned with bloggers’ reviews than the professional critics, which I find hard to believe. Either way, they can take this one home with them after today’s 18 hour shift.

Pollen Street Social then – by any other name would taste as sweet.

Price Per Head: £72. Could you eat here for £31.75? Just, if you don’t drink and skip the main course menu.
Soundtrack: Practically inaudible.
Clientele: Thomasina Miers and A. A. Gill. So. There you go.
Other notable words: eGullet, Fort On Food
Website
Pollen Street Social on Urbanspoon

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Rich April 23, 2011 at 4:29 pm

Grand review. It’s definitely somewhere that’s dividing opinion, mine included. There are some very solid concepts and some really interesting dishes being talked about though, and I’ve heard nothing but praise for the desserts. I’ll definitely be back for more of the meat and a session at the dessert bar..

Rich

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timchester April 23, 2011 at 4:53 pm

The dessert bar made it. Some things were better executed than others, but the passion was evident throughout

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Gourmet Chick April 23, 2011 at 11:13 pm

Booked in to go here in two weeks time and counting down the days. I agree with you it is a great name.

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Jill Clement June 16, 2011 at 3:47 pm

We ate there on Monday and it was a really memorable evening. The complaints about small portions were certainly not our experience. We four all chose different starters and they were superb. My husband had the oysters with an exciting hot and cold twist andI had the quail which was delicious. My children loved their goats curd and beetroot and the smoked mackerel.
The mains were just as delicious. Daughter loved her cod and sea vegetables,
Son had the roasted pork and husband enjoyed his roast lamb. I ordered the black angus steak with chips and salad, The waiter asked if I’d like a fillet steak and what arrived was a huge fillet loin to be carved bigger than I usually buy for Sunday Lunch. It was superb and perfectly cooked and enough for everybody to try a s massive slice! I was too full for dessert but daughter had tiramisu with the hot chocolate coffee in a cup, son had a deconstructed fruit crumble and cheesecake and husband had the cheese and pickle platter.
Everything was perfectly cooked and delicious. The service was friendly but not intrusive. Wines, courses and coffee arrived with immaculate timing. As we left we saw Jason in the kitchin!
The place was full and if we can get in, we’ll be back soon.

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