Frangelico and I recently had lunch at Jason Atherton’s new venture, Pollen Street Social. Jason Atherton was previously Executive Chef at Maze, part of the Ramsay chain. My experience with the Ramsay brand had made me hesitant to try Maze and, to be honest, Pollen Street Social. But I’m glad I overcame my resistance, because the experience was a unique one – and nothing like my previous Ramsay nightmares.
Located on a quiet lane near Regent Street, the restaurant occupies a site that formerly housed a Pitcher & Piano. Pollen Street Social has done a wholesale refit of the place, bringing in a warm, welcoming and tasteful décor with plenty of light. And, of course, the team has installed a fun and quality dining experience.
Entering the restaurant, we were met by a front desk with rows of small, bronzed lockers behind it, reminiscent of entering a comfortable and trendy boutique hotel. We were mysteriously given a key to one of the lockers, before being walked through to the main dining area.
There was a fantastic immediate impact here. There’s a dessert bar to the left, with a delicate bouquet of bauble-like lamps hanging from the ceiling and with a skylight above the patissiers’ work station. Just beyond, the kitchen – playing with a dark and bright, shadow and light, theme – is visible behind sliding glass doors. The main dining room is partitioned by a low service island in the middle – a genius idea – that holds customers’ wine bottles and where staff are centralised (from which point, importantly, they’re able to sight customers who need attention). Tables are wooden and comfortably wide (banquette seating on one side), with a linen cloth casually thrown across, striking a balance between formality and fun. The walls and floors are a mix of Scandinavian-inspired wooden panelling and soft brick-work.
Ok, so I loved the décor and design ideas! I’ll tell you about the food too. Menu options included a set lunch, à la carte starters (from which you can design a bespoke tasting menu), and à la carte mains. Frangelico and I opted for a starter and main each, given the interesting mains on offer.
For starters, I had the cauliflower and squid, with roasted squid consommé. We were told that the dish was essentially designed as an inverse risotto, with the squid being cut into small Arborio rice-sized pieces and coated in rich risotto starch. Frangelico ordered the BBQ mackerel, cucumber chutney, frozen ajo blanco and scallop.
Cauliflower and squid
For mains, I had halibut with Catalan paella, asparagus, pork-ham fat and mussel stock. Frangelico had bream with asparagus, prawn, crab bisque, and mash. The halibut was an exceptional piece of fish, and it was divine paired with the paella, which was full of fresh tomato and chorizo flavours. The bream and prawn were very good and fresh too, and the unusual coral red of the prawn was mesmerising. The mash that came with the bream – outstanding.
Halibut, asparagus and pork-ham fat
Catalan paella being served
Bream, prawn and asparagus
For dessert, we moved to the dessert bar, where six lucky people get to watch the patissiers preparing Pollen Street Social's delightful range of sweetness. This is where I felt the tempo increase – where the starters and mains were innovative, charming and pleasant, the dessert bar was where the Atherton team went into impress-your-socks-off mode.
So much of the dessert menu sounded too good to pass up. We restricted ourselves to one Traditional English Rice Pudding, and one Micro Menu, which gives you tasting portions of Sangria Mousse, P.B.J., and 'Ham, Cheese & Herbs'. While waiting for all of this to arrive, we had a couple of sorbets and watched the action at the dessert bar.
Like biting into a frozen Alphonso mango...
Rhubarb cheesecake prep
Calm and focused
Adam Summers in the foreground, who looked after us at the dessert bar
The Pollen Street Social Micro Menu
Bit by bit, our ambitious dessert orders started arriving. First up, the traditional English rice pudding, with hay ice-cream and lime jelly. I have a soft-spot for traditional English desserts, but this was extraordinary, my bias notwithstanding. The hay dimension adds a toasted flavour to the vanilla ice-cream and takes the rice pudding up one level, with the lime jelly just cutting elegantly through all of that. The ice-crisped tarragon leaves provided a few intense notes.
Then came the Sangria mousse, blood orange granita, and curd jam from the Micro Menu. The construction of this dessert was a winner - a soft, airy mousse with the tartness of Sangria, ice crystals of citrusy blood orange, and a simply luscious curd jam, with just a hint of the sourness (from the curd) tying it to the rest.
Sangria mousse - three layers of luscious deliciousness
Number two in the Micro Menu - 'Ham, Cheese & Herbs'. This is one of the most inventive desserts I've come across. The 'ham' is actually thin slices of watermelon that have been cooked for hours sous-vide (vacuum-packed and in a warm water bath), so that you get the appearance, and bite, of ham. This then wraps candied goat's curd, which, given the richness of goat's milk, has just the right amount of weight to match the ham. Alongside, you have an intense basil sorbet (which was too bitter for my taste, but which Frangelico enjoyed) and a watermelon granita.
Deep and intense basil sorbet
Watermelon 'ham' and cheese, with ice-crisped tarragon
There was one more dessert from the Micro Menu (seriously, I can't believe we ate this much) – the P.B.J. This was a dome of peanut parfait, cherry jam, cherry tagliatelle, creamed rice puffs and peanut powder. The peanut parfait lived up to its name - I could have had the whole thing to myself! It was dense with peanut and yet light, and I was glad to find out that it was made from real peanuts and not bottled peanut butter (as was the case at another restaurant I dined at recently).
The peanut, c'était parfait, with cherry tagliatelle
Cherry sorbet with creamed rice puffs and cherry jam
I'm usually quite shy about taking my very visible camera and lenses to new restaurants, because of the amount of attention they generate. But it was worth it for the trip to Pollen Street Social, given the feast it turned out to be on the design and food-styling fronts. I think it might have been this and the number of questions I was asking our waiter – What's the inspiration behind the wooden panelling? Where are the scallops from? What's the difference between a Catalan and a Castillian paella? – that led to the Head Honcho asking to meet us. Frangelico and I trooped into the kitchen, behind aforementioned sliding glass doors and past busy service staff, to meet Jason Atherton. Having talked non-stop with Frangelico and Adam about how much I loved this or that about the food and peppered the waiting staff with questions, I was tongue-tied before the chef. I managed only to congratulate him on the wonderful experience he and his team had created.
The man himself, with Head Chef Paul Hood
So, the key we were given at the start of the story? As we collected our coats from the front desk, it opened one of the small lockers to reveal a parting gift within: a single tea bag and some of the yummiest black olive scones I've ever had. Not really a parting gift, then, because we'll definitely be back.
Pollen Street Social
8 Pollen Street
London W1S 1NQ
+44 (0)20 7290 7600