Cheaper Eats: Pollen Street Social, Jason Atherton
Many moons ago, the news broke that Jason Atherton was leaving Maze and the apparent safety of the Gordon Ramsay empire. A few questioned the decision at the time, but it was an itch that Mr Atherton had been yearning to scratch for a number of years. His first eatery was in a somewhat surprising location, Shanghi, China. Table number 1 opened some 6 months ahead of Mr Atherton’s eagerly awaited London solo debut, Pollen Street Social (PSS). Whilst the idea of ‘social’ has been emulated, badly by other restauranteurs, Mr Atherton appears to have hit the nail on the head.
Whilst there isn’t the long benches & communal dining ala Wagamama element of social eating at Pollen Street, there is a different angle to the concept which has divided many – The Dessert Bar.
The restaurant at PSS is separated into 2 rooms both well lit, half timbered up to the dado rail and then an off white to the ceiling. Various pieces of art adorn the wall, from the painted plates to the Andy Warhol self portrait near to where I was sitting. Both rooms have a bar, the first has the traditional bar (ie serving drinks) & the second in the other room is manned by 3 members of the pastry team (1 pastry chef & possibly 2 commis or demi CDPs). More on this element later.
The table is initially bare except for the thin, crisp white table cloth & some Reidel glassware. Not long after being seated I was asked about drinks and was then presented with a menu. Now I know in the early days of PSS there was a review in one of the weekend broadsheets criticising Mr Atherton for having his name all over the menus etc. Well I can say now, it isn’t overkill. The logo-ing is subtle, tasteful & you know what, it’s his money at stake, so let him do what he wants.
So far the experience has been quietly understated, the minimal table setting coupled with the speedy yet efficient service. A choice of 2 different breads was presented, I was mildly disappointed that there was only the two, both of which both were loaves & sliced. The quality of the breads however, was outstanding. Do a simple thing well? Perhaps? On a £25.50 per head lunch menu, I wasn’t expecting any of the usual fripperies of dining in a newly starred place and so it was straight into the starter.
Ham Hock & Foie Gras Terrine, piccalilli gel, coco beans, squid
I’m always sceptical of seeing expensive ingredients on cheap menus, so I wasn’t expecting the level of foie gras to be anywhere near as prevalent as it was. Sandwiched between two layers of ham hock, the enriched liver showed why this is a tried & tested combination. As was going to become apparent, there is always a twist with the food at PSS, yes there was the ubiquitous piccalilli which while in a different guise than normal was present, there was also the addition of a squid, coco bean & parsley combo on top of the terrine. Tasting the terrine with the condiment gel together I’d say that the gel was somewhat lacking in the usual punch, but throw the squid bean mix into the equation and it all makes sense. Too much punch and acidity & it kills the squid, not enough and it’s a dead weight passenger bringing nothing to the party. The kitchen team had judged it spot on and in lesser hands it could have been a car crash.
Moving on to the main course.
Braised Beef Cheek in Stout, Bone Marrow Crumbs & Horseradish Mash
Not that it was a usually autumnal day in central London, but the other choices just didn’t float my boat, so I happily selected the comfort food option. I like beef cheek, don’t get me wrong, I think it takes a chef who really knows what he or she’s doing to make it into the tasty, rich lump of meat it should be. Accompanied by orange & purple baby carrots, curly kale & creamy smooth horseradish potato purée, this had the potential to go to either extreme. A classic case of a cheap cut treated with respect, nurtured & caressed into a jewel to be cherished or a lump of rubber that had a tough sinew running through the middle. As you’d expect of an outfit like PSS it was most definitely the former. The large nugget of beef cheek was unctuous, sticky and glistening in the discreet light illuminating the table. Now to the downsides, the crockery which was chosen to serve the beef cheeks was a beautiful casserole dish, typically used for a family style meal. But this isn’t that type of service & it makes eating the dish somewhat of a challenge. However, at the end of the course all I wanted to do was to get the remainder of my bread and mop up the juices, such was the addictive nature of it, the vegetables were excellent bed fellows & the bone marrow crumb just added that extra dimension of texture to what was already on its way to being a classic.
At this stage in the proceedings it had become obvious to the front of house staff that I was more than just taking a passing interest in the food & that I was maybe going to be posting my pictures on Facebook page. The Head Sommelier, Laure Patry (previously of Maze), was clearly interested in my thoughts on the Montrachet and the 2004 Virtus wines which I enjoyed with my starter & main course respectively. At a total of £29 for two glasses of wine, you’re highly unlikely to be disappointed but the 2004 Virtus left a more lasting mark on me. The similarities with the Italian wine from Piedmonte and a far more expensive Californian Opus One were so close, yes the Italian lacked the weight & slight density of its American counterpart, but the margin of difference was slight.
The availability of wines by the glass & carafe is becoming a widely accepted practice in London with a small smattering of worthy offerings outside of the capital. Whilst the PSS wine list doesn’t break any new ground with style, it’s the content which will endure itself to oenophiles who choose to visit. With the choices going from £6 for a Prosececo (‘Passaparola’, Pradio, Italy) to the 2004 Virtus from Piedmonte at £18.50 a glass and a good mix inbetween, it’s worth studying the initial pages.
After my chat, I was asked if I would like to move to the dessert bar. Never one to miss an opportunity to explore a different aspect of dining, I moved through to the second room which housed more original British artwork, the dessert bar & next to it, the glass fronted kitchen in the corner.
Sorbet & Pre-dessert
I was introduced to the senior member of the 3 strong pastry team, she was quite chatty at the appropriate moments and focused when necessary, maybe this is the social element of PSS? I was first given a palate cleansing sorbet of lime & fromage frais, which was light yet packing all the right punches to ready me for my pre-dessert. My only slight disappointment was that the microplaned lime zest was still too course & was bitty in my mouth.
The aforementioned pre-dessert was duly dispatched. A chilled glass layered with a citrus posset, blackberry grantité and topped with a sangria espuma (surely a nod to Mr Atherton’s time at el Bulli) & extra virgin olive oil. As was to become so apparent, the pre-dessert was a balanced affair. Textures, temperatures, flavours & colours, all combined perfectly. The slightly fruity perfume of the olive oil, the crunch of the grantité, the lightness of the espuma, all harmonised with the creamy texture of the citrus posset.
Broken fig bakewell tart
After a small delay & the theatre of the pastry team plating up several other tables, my final course arrived. The broken fig bakewell tart was passed to me from the other side of the bar along with an explanation of the component parts. The deconstruction of an old school classic came in the form of poached figs, a finger of frangipane, a disk of wafer thin blind baked pastry, all accompanied with a rich vanilla ice cream and leaves of lemon thyme. Dishes are classics for a reason and are often best left that way. But Mr Atherton & his team are talented people who know when to press a dish forward & when to show some restraint. Although with hindsight I now wish I had chosen a different dessert, curiosity got the better of me, wanting to see how broken the tart actually was going to be.
Throughout my time at the dessert bar I became transfixed with other chefs working. Whether it was the main kitchen from behind their shiny glass enclave, watching the pastry team dispatching various trays of desserts off to the rest of the dining masses or a couple of chefs downstairs in the development kitchen. It illustrated to me that the twenty four chefs on the PSS rota have come together to produce a well oiled machine.
Although the name of the post is ‘Cheaper Eats’, the bill that arrived was substantial. Take the £29’s worth of wine out of the equation and a few other extras and it looks like a bargain at £25.50 for three courses. Unfortunately, and PSS isn’t alone in this, there is the customary 12.5% service charge. I’ve never understood this concept. Surely the whole point of costing and pricing a menu should encompass all of these things not sting the customers for an extra, hence the reason I don’t leave a tip where I pay service charge.
The nuts & bolts of it
Can just say @Jason_Atherton Pollen street is freakin awesome. The man himself wasnt present, but still amazin £25 3courses bargin
If you go to PSS thinking it’s going to be a hushed temple of high gastronomy you’ll be disappointed. What you’ll find is a buzzy atmosphere, young enthusiastic staff happy to please & engage with you. The food is top rate & well deserving of the recent accolades, but it also covers so many bases. Whether it’s a meal for one, ladies that lunch or groups of chefs that were visiting the restaurant show, Pollen Street Social is all things to all people.
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