THERE are restaurants that open with whimpers and others that open with bangs. Ex-Ramsay super-protégé Jason Atherton’s new eaterie, Pollen Street Social, was always going to open with a bang – and, two months in, continues with a clamour. The clamour is not of chaos, plates smashing or chefs shouting, but of the throngs trying to get in. Last I checked, bookings were being taken three months in advance.
When Atherton left Maze and Maze Grill, his swanky Mayfair duo beloved of the jet set, he bowed out of the Ramsay family. Not acrimoniously, unlike other of the ex-Ramsay chefs, but boy was he ready. Actually, it’s remarkable his first high-profile solo venture comes only now after years as the wonderkid of London food.
Pollen Street Social’s main challenge was to live up to the hype. And, as far as I could see, its only major downside is that as a Mayfair star, Atherton can’t help but attract hordes of plastic-looking, noisy, blingy members of the international “elite”. It’s rather funny seeing them clip clop down the miniscule alleyway that is Pollen St (home to another swanky, but not as tasty, restaurant across the street). If they don’t put you off your food, along with the weirdly muzak-style noise being loudly piped in (my companion was substantially put off by this – indeed, the restaurant would be classier without music), you’re in for a serious gastro-treat.
The restaurant is split into two rooms: the front one has a bar and the back has bigger tables, a dessert bar, a sort of island where waiters input orders and get bills and lots of expensive art. You can see the kitchen, and an exhausted-looking Atherton in it. For my taste, it lacks softness – it’s all echoey surfaces, hard furnishings and the boxy, low-ceilinged feeling of the rooms makes me feel a bit like I’m in a canteen.
The a la carte menu is just the right size: eight starters, nine mains. There are no side dishes listed but you can still have them. How to choose? I found the options almost equally mesmerising – so many using homely yet rather sexy ingredients like hops and seeds. Smoky flavours are everywhere, counteracted by bitter Asian-inspired citrus tang. Eventually pushing aside quail with chicken liver cream, nuts and seeds, and the Shetland smoked salmon with smoked herring roe cream, I went for smoked foie gras, black sesame and smoked golden raisin. Arriving in three melting discs with the spiralled coating of burnt seeds and a side plate of grilled bread, I refused (almost) to share. The creamy, boozy richness of the foie gras came across like butter and silk, while the tang of the raisin was a nice alternative to chutney. Spread atop an oval bread wedge, the foie gras made like a boat about to sail off (into my mouth). I mourned its passing, and would easily put it on par – if not beyond – with Heston Blumenthal’s famous Meat Fruit at his new restaurant Dinner. My friend had the quail, and the little bit I tried was fragrant and rich.
She was less in ecstasies over roasted cod with sea vegetables, creamed potatoes, lemon peel and English asparagus – cod always seems a bland choice next to meat – than I was over my magnificent trio of pork. (Though her mash was worth the whole cod order, almost).
Back to that pork. Roasted Dingley Dell pork, beetroot, hops, seeds and grains. Crispy fat, melting belly, wholesome, malty seeds. Big fatty rectilinear chips to go with – and I was really was a Dingley pig in clover.
Pudding is a big deal here, as the presence of a dessert bar implies. It doesn’t disappoint: I could eat the signature “PBJ” parfait (peanut butter mousse, cherry jam, creamed rice puffs) all day until the end of my life. The rhubarb and ginger cheesecake was also a delight: a zig zag of cotton-like vanilla cheesecake with rhubarb sorbet and nut crumble. Innovation abounds everywhere on this menu: watermelon, candied goat’s curd, basil sorbet, and Sangria mousse, blood orange granita, curd milk jam are two lighter dessert options.
Service was at times a bit supercilious (no, the waiter didn’t know I was reviewing), and I’ve voiced my issues with the room and crowd. Would I come back? In a heartbeat: for food like that, you’d be mad not to. FOOD: Four stars SERVICE: three stars ATMOSHPERE: three stars. Price per person without booze: £45. Pollen Street W1S 1NQ, tel: 020 7290 7600, www.pollenstreetsocial.com