I hate to start a rave review with a criticism, but 'Little Social' isn't a great name. The jog-trot phonemes suggest something pinched and underfed, like one of those Dickens urchins called Jo or Smike. You might as well call an eating-house 'Vaguely Jolly'. And it's easy to confuse with all its half-brothers in the vicinity.
Little Social lives at Number 5 Pollen Street, between Hanover and Maddox. Before it opened, the premises was a restaurant called 5 Pollen Street. Little Social is the younger brother of Pollen Street Social across the road, the Michelin-starred brainchild of Jason Atherton, one of my favourite chefs. Jason is a busy chap, soon to open a sister restaurant called Social Eating House in, not Pollen, but Poland Street round the corner. I don't know if he's trying to confuse hotel concierges and others professionally concerned with sending tourists to restaurants, but it seems likely.
None of this matters when you walk into Little Social. Past the velvet curtain that keeps out the freezing March day, the welcome is fantastic, like entering a speakeasy or a gambling den. The maître d' beams. You're shown to a lovely booth, sit on leather banquettes and, as your eyes adjust, you see you're in a French cellar, a war-time Resistance cell.
The ceiling is low, marbled, apparently rag-rolled with cloths stained with nicotine. Globe lamps hang down. Faux-Lalique lampshades illumine your table. Elderly French movie, travel and perfume posters festoon the anaglypta walls. Beside the stairs, the wall is lined with Michelin road-maps, and features a neon display of four words ('Silence – Logique – Securité – Prudence') that will make sense only to fans of Jean-Luc Godard's Orwellesque dystopia, Alphaville. The only thing missing here is a reek of Gauloise fumes.
Atherton has taken such care over details – the silver sugar bowls, the huge rosebowl holding champagne bottles, the leather-topped barstools, the single vase holding an explosion of peonies – it makes you gasp. So do their cocktails: try the Negroni Francais (£12.50) which is citron vodka with gentian liqueur and Lillet blanc, served with a dash of pernod.
The menu is, given the weather, shrewdly full of comfort food: soup, risotto, pork chop, ox cheeks, shank, sausage. But Atherton, a man who has worked with all the greats (Pierre Koffman, Nico Ladenis, Marco Pierre White, Gordon Ramsay, even Ferran Adria in El Bulli), never leaves such dishes untransformed by touches of genius. He and his head chef Cary Docherty offer up a series of treats.
Angie's Seared Tuna Niçoise was a beautiful sight, roundels of tuna studded with gems of olive, slices of egg, both overlaid with bright silver anchovies, criss-crossed with haricots and served with radicchio Castelfranco, a cream-coloured lettuce flecked with lipstick-pink. "It's a pared-down and sophisticated version of salade Niçoise," said Angie. "An Anna Wintour Niçoise…"
My crab salad looked just as gorgeous: a large tomato, boiled and peeled, sat like a dome over white crabmeat softened by miso dressing, served with mandolined wafers of radish and beetroot. I hate both radish and beetroot; I loved this.
Braised Irish ox cheek is the perfect dish for brass-monkey days. This one was black and secretive, soft and yielding, with a wonderfully nubbly surface accentuated by sourdough crumbs. Bone marrow and roast carrot offered back-up flavours (though I never really got bone marrow) and horseradish mash brought a tear to my eye. Angie went for a similarly earthy dish of Toulouse sausage with mash, greens and onion gravy. It wasn't as trucker-ish as that sounds: the greens were al dente crispy cabbage, the mash velvety smooth, the onions tickled with chutney. Together with the meaty, garlicky sausage, it made a fantastic gobful.
Out of interest we ordered a side-dish called 'Putine' which the Canadian chef seems to have brought with him: a meal-in-one mess of French fries, chorizo, cheese, jalapeno peppers and gravy. It's disgracefully low-rent bas-cuisine, has no place in a decent restaurant, but it's shockingly moreish.
Puddings ended the meal on a high: poached Yorkshire rhubarb Eton mess was sublime, the rhubarb ice-cream sustaining a tiny kick of tartness, the meringues slathered in pistachio green syrup. More pistachios could be found in my coconut panna cotta, a bright pattern of coloured bits, pineapple jellies, mango half-moons like quails' yolks; the panna cotta beneath it all was tropical heaven.
It's not every day you can give a restaurant five stars for design and atmosphere, but Little Social's intimate room is irresistible. The food nearly gets five stars for invention, polish and presentation; and the sausage-and-beefburger heartiness that robs it of top billing is, paradoxically, one of its great attractions. Hats off to the brilliant Mr Atherton. I can't wait to see what he does with the next number in the Pollen Count.
Little Social, 5 Pollen Street, London W1 (020-7870 3730). Around £120 for two, with wine.
Tipping policy: 'Service is 15 per cent discretionary. All tips and service charge go to the staff'
Side orders: Culinary offshoots
Simon Rogan is the culinary king of Cartmel, but his latest venture is this hotel restaurant in Manchester; a three-course meal costs £29.
The Midland Hotel, 16 Peter St, Manchester (0161 236 3333)
Keith McNally's London incarnation of his New York Brasserie is currently talk of the town. Try the grilled dorade with romesco sauce (£16.75).
4-6 Russell Street, London WC2 (020-3301 1155)
The Cornish Arms
Rick Stein rules Padstow – but his pub in nearby St Merryn also serves his excellent seafood; the mussels and chips with mayonnaise costs a reasonable £12.50.
Churchtown, St Merryn, Padstow (01841 520288)