Pollen Street Social, London – highs and lows
One of Greedy Girl’s gripes – not just in restaurants – is being asked to make a decision without full information. As we awaited our visit to Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social, just off London’s Regent Street, a phone call was made to inform us that our table on this balmy Monday night was to be vacated by 8.45pm.
If restaurants actually conveyed that information at the time of booking, the diner has an opportunity to reject it as too short a time frame to enjoy the experience or buckle down and take what they can get. Greedy Girl made those remarks and a somewhat unnerved voice at the other end of the line said she’d do what she could.
So, battling through heat and afterwork crowds along Oxford Street, we turned off towards Hanover Square and the laneway that is Pollen Street. We’d got there in record time and arrived 15 minutes before our booking. Settling in to a large, light dining room (the restaurant is huge with two dining spaces upstairs and a private room below), we ordered a bottle of an old favourite, Jacquesson Cuvee champagne, and perused the menu.
We wanted to try the tasting menu, having ordered a la carte at both previous visits to Atherton’s Pollen in Singapore and his Table No. 1 in Shanghai. He presents his food with innovation and a little bit of humour – a good example of that is his take on ‘English breakfast’ seen at the top of this post.
Having dealt with quite a fast degustation at Bray’s Waterside Inn the previous night, we wanted to take our time. We informed our waitress that if we were required to be out the door by 8.45, we wouldn’t have the degustation. She said they could easily do the full menu in an hour and a half. Wrong answer. If Greedy Girl ate every tasting menu that quickly they’d be able to sell her liver as foie gras – it’s akin to force feeding.
Eventually, after consulting with ‘her manager’, our waitress (who was absolutely lovely and did her utmost throughout the evening to make sure we were happy) said they would be able to manage the table bookings and we were welcome to enjoy the full menu at a leisurely pace. All good. At such an early hour, only a few tables were occupied but by the time we were originally due to leave, the place was packed – and we still had our final savoury course to come, plus two desserts. The reprieve on the time limit as well as the spacing worked well.
And so to the food. Taking the tasting menu, we had a choice of mains. Greedy Girl took the black angus beef and gluttonous husband had the other option, lamb. The chef, said our waitress, recommended to have both medium rare. That was fine with us but more on that later.
First up was an assortment of little treats, not unlike what was presented at Pollen in Singapore. We had a brandade, an apple and English mustard dip, some Sicilian green olives and some pork crackling. The brandade was probably the nicest of these. The pork crackling, which was like a rice puff with pork flavouring, was tasty on the first bite but the flavour quickly subsided. The apple and mustard dip didn’t taste very balanced and the olives well, Greedy Girl rarely enjoys the green variety and this was no exception.
The first dish from the menu proper was ‘British nature’. Sea was exemplified by a gambas (prawn) tartare and farm by Romney Marsh lamb and a sauce gribiche. The gambas tartare had a touch of ginger and was topped with a few specks of caviar. It was delicious and gone in a flash. The lamb had a crunchy coating and worked well with the sauce which is, essentially, a variation on tartare sauce.
Up next was ‘English breakfast’. The eggs were presented to the table in a box full of straw, as though they’d just been hatched (see the picture at the top of the blog). We were invited to take one each and place into our own egg cup.
This was extraordinarily good. All the aspects of a traditional British fry up (minus, happily, baked beans) were contained within this egg shell – runny yolk egg, bacon ‘crumbs’ on top and when you delve your spoon beneath the surface you get a little potato, some mushrooms and a tangy tomato compote. It was spectacular.
We then moved to a Colchester crab salad with English asparagus, citrus and radish salad. This was too heavy on the radish for Greedy Girl’s liking and the grapefruit ice on the plate was too bitter for her but gluttonous husband enjoyed it. The crab was pleasant and worked well with the asparagus, splodges of citrus sauce and a small amount of the radish.
Apparently the chef travelled to Japan last year and was inspired to create a scallop sashimi. The scallop (from Orkney) sat on a disc of turnip marinated in dashi and went well with the wasabi mayo and a little horseradish ice spooned on to the side. There was some thinly sliced ginger in a little cake on the other side of the plate but Greedy Girl handed that over to gluttonous husband. The scallop worked really well with the marinated turnip which gave it added texture.
Next up was Cornish turbot served with cauliflower and cheese puree, seaweed salt and topped with a cauliflower and cockle chowder. The fish was a tad dry for Greedy Girl but the cauliflower elements were both very tasty. This was topped with a few vegetables and, all together, the dish worked well.
It was time for the meat courses. The waitress had said the chef preferred to send both the beef and lamb to the table ‘pink’ or medium rare.
Gluttonous husband had the ‘best end’ of salt marsh lamb and braised shoulder served with Jerusalem artichoke and goat’s curd, a spiced aubergine sauce and English greens. The lamb was indeed pink and quite tender but gluttonous husband believed it was lacking a little flavour for the absence of fat. The braised shoulder he thought was a little dry. He enjoyed the accompaniments, especially how the sauces combined.
Greedy Girl had the Black Angus fillet with charred eggplant, roasted salsify, charred onions, oxtail and marrow bone. It arrived at the table still mooing. Gluttonous husband, who orders his steak ‘blue’ would have been delighted but Greedy Girl less so. She alerted our waitress.
When a chef recommends how to cook a piece of meat and then cooks it on the rarer side of rare, that’s absolutely not on. It’s not like the old French ‘battle of wills’ when a diner requests well done and the chef refuses. Greedy Girl merely assented when the recommendation for ‘medium rare’ was given. The dish went back to the kitchen. Gluttonous husband ate his lamb, lest it get too cool, and eventually the beef was brought back. It met the definition of medium rare this time. The meat was quite tender and worked well with the salsify and eggplant. The rest of the dish, however, was also on the dry side.
It was time for dessert. We’d already been alerted that the advertised dish of chocolate ganache with banana ice cream and other elements was a late scratching – apparently the liquid nitrogen had run out in the kitchen and the dish couldn’t be completed.
The suggested replacement was tiramisu. ‘Ewww,’ Greedy Girl exclaimed, not enjoying coffee in anything other than, well, a cup. She was given the chance of choosing another dish from the dessert menu and settled on a lemon and white chocolate ganache with carrot cake and basil ash meringue, but more on that shortly.
First was a cantaloupe and camomile tea sorbet with yoghurt and sudachi lime (the latter also perhaps a legacy of the chef’s Japanese visit). This was too strong in terms of the yoghurt for Greedy Girl but gluttonous husband happily consumed the lot.
The main desserts arrived. Greedy Girl, disappointed at the loss of her chocolate fix, was not having her mood improved by what was to come. This didn’t score any points. The lemon and white chocolate ganache was very sweet, the carrot cake a little soggy in the mouth and the little shards of meringue not enough to give the dish a much-needed different texture.
Gluttonous husband had before him the ‘tiramisu’. This was mascarpone punctuated with crunchy crumbs, a quenelle of chocolate mousse and some chocolate shards. The ‘coffee’ was contained within a jug of coffee and chocolate sauce to be poured over the dish. Greedy Girl could have had her chocolate fix without pouring over the cream. She was crestfallen and found it hard to work out how the dish could honestly be described as tiramisu. Grrr.
Jason Atherton is absolutely a talented chef. He did a stint at El Bulli, then the most famous restaurant in the world, under the famed molecular genius Ferran Adria. He also worked in several of Gordon Ramsay’s establishments before zooming to prominence in his own right on the TV show Great British Menu. Greedy Girl has to say this evening had it all. Highlights, lowlights and the middle ground. It wasn’t what she was expecting – or hoping for.
Pollen Street Social
8-10 Pollen Street, London W1