Living in London has changed my attitude to dining out. Going out for dinner in my hometown of Nottingham was a real treat – partly because there just isn’t the choice but also because the good restaurants are extremely expensive so dining out wasn’t quite so frequent. It is a lot more casual for me now. There is a plethora of fantastic quality, good value restaurants in London and sometimes it just makes sense to grab a bite to eat when I’m in town. I love it. Most of my usual haunts are based in Soho and it’s these restaurants that I would call ‘easily accessible’ – you can walk in off the street and be seated either immediately or not long after.
Every now and again I do like to re-live the excitement of dining out that I used to get when I was a kid but I choose my restaurants wisely. There’s nothing I hate more than paying through the teeth for average food and a mediocre experience.
I have been keeping a close eye on the progress of Jason Atherton’s new venture, Pollen Street Social for months and on the day of my booking was walking around with that excited feeling in my stomach. Jason has a string of achievements under his belt but is probably best known for his stint as head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze, which spanned from 2005 to 2010 when he decided to leave to work on his new venture.
Having read lots of press surrounding the opening, I was intrigued by the concept and to be honest I wasn’t sure if it was going to work or not. The current trend for ‘small plates’ seems to be growing rapidly and I didn’t know if Jason could take fine dining and make it sociable – i.e… create fine dining sharing plates.
Pollen Street is a tiny side street off Regent Street. The restaurant from outside looks sleek – step inside and it is even sleeker. Greeted by the hostesses, I handed over my coat and was supplied with a small key with a number on it. “When you have finished, come back to collect a little gift from us before you leave”, the hostess said to us as she pointed to small treasure type lockers behind her. What the gift was will be revealed at the end.
We were walked through the crisp cocktail bar and shown to our table. The interior of the restaurant is very lustrous indeed with black cushioned bonquettes, delicious looking Karl Hansen chairs and Scandinavian tables. Carbon filament light bulbs shone above our heads. The sociable fine dining concept is certainly true of the food but the waiting staff push further towards the fine dining end – there seemed to be a never ending supply of friendly waiters, ready to attend to your every need. Definitely more formal than I’m used to but I enjoyed having a bit of friendly banter.
Our first waiter started by explaining the menu. The eight dishes on the left hand side of the menu could be ordered as starters or as part of your very own bespoke tasting menu. The dishes on the right (except for the beef) could be ordered as a main for full price (ranging from £20-35) or you could order as a tasting dish for half the price. Since the tasting dish is in between the size of a starter and a main, it made sense to go for this.
A few months ago I was a guest on Market Kitchen and Jason was the guest chef. He made an unforgettable steamed butternut squash with goats curd and chestnuts dish so when I saw the Innes Farm goat’s curd, beetroot and pine nut dish (£8.50) on the menu, I had to go for this. We also ordered the cauliflower & squid with clear roasted squid juice (£10.50). They arrived and both looked fantastic – delicate, light and stunning. The goat’s curd was creamy, the purple and yellow beetroot tender and sweet.
My boyfriend slid a spoonful of the cauliflower and squid dish into his mouth and his eyes lit up – we swapped plates and my face had a similar reaction. The squid was in the form of little pearly sized balls and had a delicious melt in mouth texture. It went so well with the squid ink turnip discs.
We opted for two of the mains as tasting dishes and I thought that we might have made a mistake because I was certain that the portions would be small. However, I was pleasantly surprised when they came along to the table. The Scottish halibut, Catalan paella, sprouting broccoli, pork-ham fat and mussel stock (£11.50) was delicious. The paella arrived in a separate copper pan and was served by our waiter and contained chicken wings, rabbit, prawns and squid. It packed a punch and was exceptionally tasty. The halibut went fairly unnoticed under a foam, tender asparagus tips and broccoli but the paella was the star of the show for me.
We also ordered the Cotswold lamb sirloin, braised belly, pea salad and sheep’s milk curd (£11.75), which was also a delight. A beautiful dish, the lamb tender, the braised belly melt in mouth. It came with a side of pomme puree, which was creamy but maybe a little too salty. I’m glad that we opted for the tasting menu because it left enough room for both of us to have a dessert.
This is the part of the dining experience that I was most excited about. As soon as I heard the words ‘dessert bar’, I was hooked. I’m a dessert lover and the idea of watching it assembled in front of you whilst being able to fire questions was the best news I’d heard in years! The only snag is that there are a limited number of seats, 6 to be exact. At the end of your savoury dishes, if you wish to move up to the bar, the waiter will need to go and check availability. If there are seats available, you can move right on up. If not, you may have to eat the dessert at your table. We were lucky and moved straight up. The dessert bar is situated next to the gorgeous looking open plan kitchen so it is an extra bonus to see the chefs hard at work.
We were welcomed by one of the pâtissiers who told us that she would be on hand to answer any questions that we had. Good! She also brought over a scoop each of two of the sorbets on offer – lime and cream cheese and mango. Both delicious but the lime and cream cheese will leave a lasting memory.
We perused the menu and quickly chose our dishes. There was also a ‘micro menu’, which consisted of three tasting size puddings. Unfortunately I mistook the ‘ham and cheese’ for actual ham and cheese so didn’t opt for this. It was only upon closer inspection that I realised that I was wrong so I asked the pâtissier and was told that the ham was in fact watermelon and the cheese was goats curd mixed with marscapone and vanilla. Oh well, maybe next time.
We ordered the rhubarb & ginger, vanilla cheesecake, rhubarb sorbet & nut crumble (£7.50) and traditional English rise pudding, hay ice cream & lime jelly (£7.50) and watched them being assembled in front of us.
The rhubarb dish looked fantastic and had a lot of different elements. “The idea is that each mouthful tastes different”, explained the pâtissier. The desserts are all prepped in the downstairs kitchen and assembled in front of you upstairs. I watched the chef roll the vanilla cheesecake strip in the nut crumble, pipe the plate with rhubarb gel, drizzle with vanilla syrup and carefully place candied rose petals, crystalised ginger and the rhubarb batons on the plate. It was finally topped off with tiny mint leaves and placed in front of me. The cheesecake flavour didn’t cut through and I didn’t get much vanilla flavour. I didn’t get any taste of the candied rose petals but the flavours that aspects of the dish that shone out were the rhubarb batons and rhubarb sorbet. Delicious.
The rice pudding was utterly creamy and decadent. The lime jelly was one of the sourest things that I had ever tasted but worked really well. The tarragon that was added to the dish was also a welcome addition – really shining out at the end of the mouthful. The hay ice cream was interesting but I wasn’t sold. It is made by flavouring milk with hay, yes, what horses eat and making a custard, which is then churned into ice cream. It really did taste like the smell of hay but it wasn’t as sweet as I would have hoped.
We ended the meal at the dessert bar and went to pick up our coats and gift. The hostess opened our little door and handed us a tiny Pollen Street Social bag, which contained two ginger friands and a tea bag, along with a card that said ‘Thank you. Breakfast on us.’ Nice touch. I’m not sure if it is totally necessary but it certainly added to the experience and I walked out as happy as larry., whoever he is.
A meal for two with four tasting plates and two desserts costs around £65 (service included, drinks not). Pollen Street Social definitely won’t become one of my regulars but it will be at the forefront of my mind when I’m wanting that extra something special.
Pollen Street Social
8-10 Pollen Street