"Social" is a curious word for a restaurant. It has grim connotations with social welfare and the church social, to set against the edgy appeal of social networking. In the case of Pollen Street Social, it may be just a random add-on word to distinguish Jason Atherton's new restaurant from 5 Pollen Street across the road.
But Mr Atherton is not a man to do things lightly. Having worked with the most alpha-male chefs in the land, Pierre Koffman, Nico Ladenis, Marco Pierre White and Gordon Ramsay (not to mention a stint with Ferran Adria at El Bulli, where he turned up drenched in sweat after bicycling over the mountains to get there), he made his name at Maze in central London, and its carnivorous brother-restaurant Maze Grill. Atherton was named Chef of the Year in 2006. This new eaterie – off Regent Street, formerly the site of a Pitcher & Piano – is his baby, his brainchild, his personal calling-card.
The "social" side of Pollen Street Social really works. The bar has its own room, away from the menus and napkins. You sit on black button-back sofas, drink your Bloody Mary and admire the little green lamps that glow beside the bar stools. The main room is wonderfully light and airy, thanks to the giant picture windows. The tables are ranged around a central service area, and seat some serious trendsetters. Beside us, a grizzled Spaniard in tinted granny glasses and a Breton fisherman's wool cap harangued his English accountant. At the far end of the room, you can make out the kitchen and, beneath a forest of globe lights, the "dessert bar", of which more in a minute.
At its opening last month, Atherton's restaurant attracted criticism for over-complication: too many starters to be mix'n'matched, confusion about whether the starters were "small plates" (as in Maze) or "sharing platters". Some of the troubles seem to have been ironed out, but some remain. There are eight starters and eight mains – "though you can, of course, use the starters as the basis for a tasting menu," said the waiter, which translates as, "You can have four or five starters, at £11 or £12 each, thus spending a bloody fortune before you try the mains".
We went the traditional route. My "BBQ mackerel with cucumber chutney, frozen ajo blanco and scallop" was a wonderful nod to the Noma cookbook: a dish that resembled wooden twigs, leaves, stones and ivy. The hickory-smoked fish and seafood blended perfectly with the lightly-cooked cucumber cubes, though the ajo blanco (which is almond gazpacho, frozen, sliced and melting before your eyes) was more a clever idea than an assertive addition. Max (my son, and the kind of lunch companion who can tell you that the butter's been carved in the logo of Wu-Tang Clan) had a "Full English breakfast", Atherton's witty deconstruction of the morning repast. A "slow-boiled" egg lay on a bed of tomato purée with elements of bacon and mushroom occupying a couple of millimetres. "Very impressive," said Max, "the way all the tastes combine in a small spoonful – but it makes you wonder what a starter is for, since I'm still starving."
From the mains, I chose Irish ox cheek with tongue and onglet. The cheek was dark as a rainy Connemara bog; inside it was sexy purple. It steamed with dense and unctuous savouriness. A loose-textured roundel of tongue was tender to the point of disintegration. Both cheek and tongue reeked of carnivorous intimacy; it was like snogging an expiring water buffalo. Harmony carrots and horseradish mash contributed extra sweetness and bite. Max's roasted Scottish halibut, exalted by a yummy mussel sauce, twined itself around asparagus, and battled with a side-dish of Catalan paella. These were vivid and extravagant flavours I'd travel miles to experience.
The big innovation in Atherton's kingdom is the dessert bar, where one perches on stools and watches as the pastry chefs perform their calorific prestidigitations. I can't quite see how it works when five tables all go for their pudding course and fight for the stools. But we enjoyed the display – "PBJ" is peanut butter and jelly, and involves parfait of peanut and cherry, plus crumbs of one and dollops of the other, "Tiramisu" is a symphony of chocolate sheets and twirls, served in a sundae, melted with a hot coffee velouté. It's beautiful, it's a lovely climax to a meal – and it takes bloody ages. It's a little like watching Rowan Atkinson wrapping that Christmas gift in Love, Actually, all tiny details and dramatic flourishes. It's most enjoyable, provided you're not in a hurry.
The staff are unusually friendly and attentive, and Laure from the Loire, the sommelière, is a real find. She persuaded me to try a Spanish white, Albarino Santos, that I'd never heard of, then a Greek white called Assyrtiko Gaia (which ditto – Greek white wine?) and both were excellent discoveries. There's a great deal to enjoy at Pollen Street Social. Jason Atherton has put his heart and soul and his considerable imagination into it, and it shows.
Pollen Street Social, 8-10 Pollen Street, London W1 (020-7290 7600)
About £160 for two, with wine
Tipping policy: "Service charge is 12.5 per cent discretionary, of which 100 per cent goes to the staff; all tips go to the staff"
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