We were tempted to try and book a table at Dabbous, which is a venue we visited a couple of years ago and absolutely adored, but in the end went and nabbed a reservation at Pollen Street Social. A relatively new (2011) addition to the London restaurant scene, it managed to gain a Michelin star within a year of opening, helped, no doubt, by the fact that the executive chef is former Ramsay protégé and Great British Menu stalwart, Jason Atherton. We were lucky enough to experience Atherton’s fantastic food when we he was cooking for Ramsay at Maze, so had high expectations.
Firstly, an observation. Pollen Street Social claims to be an informal restaurant. Allowing your customers to wear jeans does not, in itself, make you informal. Nor does playing music. The presence of thick, white linen, the phalanx of immaculate waiting staff, the Bible of a wine list, the sharing main course that costs not far short of £100…these elements tend to suggest that you are a rather formal restaurant. And that’s fine. I like formal – that’s what I’m paying for. But don’t kid yourself.
Secondly, brown crab on toast is a wonderful thing. DON’T MEDDLE. I don’t care how clever it sounds on paper, brown bread foam with a sprinkle of dehydrated crabcrap is a) not nice and b) falls distinctly short of the simple dish you’re attempting to homage.
From this, you might gather that our experience at PSS did not meet expectations. And, for the first forty five minutes, I’m afraid that this was so. The service was impeccable, the food well presented. But nothing wowed and the crab, in particular, was just plain wrong.
The tide began to turn with the main courses. My lamb loin was as sweet a piece of meat as I could have wished for, blushing and sticky with jus. My only quibble was the accompaniment of curds and whey and baby vegetables – absolutely delicious but served cold so that when the creamy cheese mingled with the lamb sauce, the whole dish was rendered lukewarm. I thought it a slightly odd decision but happily licked the plate regardless. D was less taken with his venison – well-cooked but, on the whole, a bit underwhelming.
We were then offered the opportunity to take dessert at the “dessert bar” which was situated next to the glass door through to the main kitchen and allowed for an almost chef’s table experience. Here, everything went up several notches. Not only were we treated to the spectacle of the working kitchen, complete with sweary head chef, but also presented with the nicest series of sweet dishes that either of us can remember having for a long time, all plated in front of us by the lovely head of pastry, Leo.
First, an Eton mess that wasn’t messy at all – a clove scented biscuit with fromage frais, blackcurrant sorbet and mousse all contained within a fragile box of the most delicate meringue. Then chocolate pavé, rich and bitter, with little cubes of fruity olive oil jelly and an olive biscuit, which combination happily reminded us of Barcelona. And even though we were now reaching capacity, we found room for a trio of miniatures – a divine chocolate pot infused with Earl Grey, a piercingly sour jelly and a melting mouthful of a Bakewell tart. As a decided pudding fan, I was in absolute raptures. Even D, who is not generally one for a chocolate dessert, was wiping his finger round the chocolate pot and wondering if it would be possible to come, order a bucketful and have done.
Definitely, for us at least, a game of two halves. I sometimes wonder – worry! – that I am becoming jaded, which I would absolutely hate, and there was lots to praise here, but it was by no means a flawless experience and, a week on, I still feel slightly annoyed about that brown crab. There’s just no excuse for that sort of thing. Still, observing the kitchen in a place such as this is a real privilege and salutary reminder that, actually, every single dish that was put in front of us was the product of a tremendous amount of work, precision and dedication. And swearing. Lots and lots of swearing.