Pollen Street Social, 8-10 Pollen Street, London W1
Jason Atherton might be out of Maze, but his new venture is truly hard to navigate
The food at Pollen Street Social is wonderful. Exciting, inventive, delicious. Can we leave it at that? No? Oh, all right.
I wanted to love PSS. The chef/owner, Jason Atherton, is a survivor of the Gordon Ramsay sausage machine whose last kitchen, Maze, was rightly lauded. His own much-anticipated (and much-postponed) place is finally here.
Mr M and I stroll down Pollen Street past vast windows, which reveal a softly lit, woody, welcoming space. The first room has a bar and tables for snackers. A foodie confidante loathes the "it's like tapas" concept but since it's seemingly obligatory for any recently opened restaurant to offer small plates, here it is again. There are mercifully no Scotch eggs or mini burgers.
The restaurant proper is beautiful – a dessert bar lines the back wall, next to a glass-fronted kitchen, where Atherton can be seen (in a blur). A central block contains a giant floral display, a place for wines to be stashed and a waiter's station. The tall "bedside tables", within which the waiters store the order pads, would be rather better if the drawers didn't stick. This focal point is one giant obstruction. The waiters must squeeze past the nearest table to move around it, and they huddle over the computer system in a harried way.
Navigating the menu is as tricky as navigating the room. The small plates, of which there are 16 divided into cold and warm & hot, get pride of place; main course and vegetarian get the back page, just five of each – and the veggie dishes are, in reality, side-dishes.
Our waiter seems unfamiliar with the terrain, too. He suggests six small dishes and a main course. Each. Which strikes me as excessive, especially since only five of the small dishes are less than £10, and main courses are all north of £25. We decide to abandon planning and order what we like the sound of. If we're still hungry we can fill up at the dessert bar.
As I said, the food is wonderful. Our first starter, cauliflower and squid with clear roasted-squid juice, is a sensation – a small arrangement of risotto-like nubbins of squid with shaved cauliflower and an intensely flavoured stock that takes pale and interesting to a new dimension (and then the ink and dark-stained turnips emerge). Full English breakfast is a jammy tomato confit on which sits a perfect slow-cooked egg, shards of bacon and truffle shavings. How one's supposed to divide the unctuous egg on to each of our oval plates is a mystery – and the tomato threatens to overpower all the other flavours.
Then we have a problem: the other starter, escabeche of quail, chicken-liver cream, nuts and seeds, arrives with the main dish of halibut, Catalan paella, sprouting broccoli with pork-ham fat, and a vegetarian offering – salad of radish, samphire, peanut powder, sweet'n'sour. It doesn't feel right. Hot, cold, big, small. I can't help wishing I'd been steered more carefully through the menu.
The halibut main is one of the best plates I've eaten in years – fresh, firm fish topped with asparagus, and a copper saucepan of soft rice which is at once murky and with distinct flavours of seafood and pork. But the quail is less a dish than a collection of unrelated clever things – though the chicken-liver cream is even better than Heston Blumenthal's.
On to puddings, which we eat at the table (the dessert bar is optional, I guess). Mr M has PBJ, a haute version of the American lunchbox special. A narrow slate is adorned with peanut-butter parfait, strips of cherry jam and creamed rice puffs – tooth-rottingly delicious.
My traditional rice pudding, hay ice-cream and lime jelly is another "huh?" moment. Each component is delicious (although the jelly has me emitting an involuntary squeak, such is its sourness to the power of 1,000 Haribos), but I am not sure they need to be related.
It's been a slow-cooked curate's egg of a meal. I want to come back to sip a cocktail and eat Dingley Dell pork cheek tapas at the bar. Or save up to make the most of the very good wine list and a simple starter and main in the restaurant.
Mr M judges restaurants by imagining how his most and least sophisticated relatives would manage. Atherton's (admirable) aim is to offer flexibility, but if the menu causes anxiety rather than freedom, then things need a tweak.
Scores: 1-3 stay home and cook, 4 needs help, 5 does the job, 6 flashes of promise, 7 good, 8 special, can't wait to go back 9-10 as good as it gets
Pollen Street Social, 8-10 Pollen Street, London W1, tel: 020 7920 7600. Open Mon-Sat for lunch and dinner. About £150 for two, including wine
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Reviews extracted from 'Harden's London and UK Restaurant Guides 2011' www.hardens.com
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