There’s a time and a place for a big dinner out.
Def: a big dinner out.
I’m talking about a place where you can put on a frock and some pearls and not feel silly. Where you can drink wine out of delicate stemware. Where there’s a sommelier who will happily match something to sip with each course. Where the bread is warm and the napkins softly starched. For bonus novelty points: there’s a stool for your handbag and on the rare occasion, something to take home at the end. Everyone likes a goody bag.
The time had come. Monday night is not regularly a big night for dining out- unless it also happens to be your birthday.
A month or so ago unbeknownst to me a booking was made by the other half (aka The Hungry One) at Pollen St Social. Jason Atherton, once from Gordon Ramsay’s stable and the helm of Maze opened this sleekly elegant space in Mayfair 18 months ago.
The menu was reportedly not the easiest thing to navigate- but the food- everyone had good things to say about the food.
So if you want the quick version, then this is it. I’m going to add another voice to that chorus.
Pollen street is a quiet linking road within high heel tottering distance from the hubbub of Oxford Circus. The restaurant has a restrained front of white timber and glass. Inside it’s dark wood Nordic designer chairs and sculptural floral arrangements. The spaces are separated with glass doors, marked by gustatory quotes in block capitals. A favourite:
‘Marriage is a dinner that begins in dessert’ , Toulouse Lautrec.
And this is how a date night in our marriage commences.
There’s a separate bar at Pollen st, where girls in pencil skirts, straight from the neighbouring offices of Conde Nast are sipping hard drinks while trying to keep their faces soft.
It’s well worth dipping into the cocktail menu either there or at your table. A Breakfast Fizz (try not to swallow hard at its £14.50 tag) is pure charm in a champagne saucer; marmalade vodka, chatreuse, pink grapefruit and the light fizz of prosecco. It comes with a wafer thin slice of ‘toast’ and a light lick of jam. All days should start like this.
The easiest way to navigate a menu that skips between a collection of not-so-share-friendly small plates and robust main courses is to take the choice out of your own hands. There’s a tasting menu made up ostensibly of eight courses, with a few bonuses along the way. While some may find handing their meal over to another to arrange unnerving, for me it’s a blessed relief. To not have to analyse and choose, but just to be a passenger is a luxury. And if they’ll do the same with the drinks- even better.
Pollen St Social is a place that knows its audience. Behind us are a table of six men celebrating a deal made in Dubai. Next to us are some media types on second dates and on the other are some folks dressed up to celebrate. We’re easily clocked as one of the latter group. But being a school night, when it comes to the booze we baulk a little. ‘Would you like us to pair wines with the food?’ they ask. ‘Is it possible to split the wine tastes?’ is our reply. Six glasses of wine each might make for a rough Tuesday morning.
The sommelier doesn’t even blink. ‘Of course. I’ll match something for each course and then just divide half of a 175 ml portion into two glasses.’ Everything should be this easy. With the steady pace in which the courses flow, it’s perfect, giving just enough time to taste, consider, chat and complete the glass before the next arrives. There’s no double parking of wine glasses or hurried chugging to catch up, just a brief and considered description of the wine, why it was chosen and the chance to taste and approve before it’s poured. It doesn’t get much smoother than that.
To many modern British food is a phrase that is empty until it’s coupled with examples. ‘Snacks’ here give you some idea. To start; Gaudi esque wafts of pork crackling, with an apple sauce to dip that’s as soft as a baby duck’s back. There are fat green olives and a smooth brandade for bread. It’s borderless fare.
Our first course proper hints at one of the themes of the meal. Mr Atherton appears to be quite fond of his ices. The first part is a riff on ‘British Nature’. Exhibit one is The Sea- a quenelle of Colchester oyster ice cream slicked in olive oil and topped with two oyster leaves. It’s soft and briney, with the real taste of the bivalve coming from the green leaf (the first time we tasted these was at El Bulli, when they were served on their own, just listed as ‘oysters’. Back then we weren’t quite sure what to make of it at all).
I like it. The Hungry One is less convinced. Ice cream to him is almost sacred. Bacon and egg ice cream was one thing, but this is a whole other kettle of fish.
The course is completely redeemed by it’s second part; listed as ‘Farm’. Two fingers of Romney Marsh lamb and pressed, breaded and fried and served with a pot of sauce gribiche, zippy with capers and soft with egg.
Next is another dose of whimsy. It’s the restaurant’s famed English Breakfast, its arrival heralded by two splay footed egg cups.
We’re then asked to carefully transfer a decapitated egg from the serving platter into our cups. Carefully being the operative word. Turns out some ham fisted patrons have smashed theirs. Images of Lennie loving a kitten to death quickly spring to mind. This is an easy course to dote on; it’s all the comforting flavours of breakfast, softened into two sweet mouthfuls. There’s a cushion of tomato puree, morels, a soft set egg topped with a blanket of soft potato and some shards of crispy bacon. It’s clever, fun and tastes good. It’s hard to ask for much more.
The next continues the iced theme.
It’s a martini glass that looks more like dessert playing host to a Cornish crab salad, its gentle threads studded with granny smith apple. Beneath there’s a soft puree of avocado. On the top; beetroot sorbet. On the side a finger of brioche, spread with brown roe and edible blossoms.
It’s cold again through to the next, very cold in fact, courtesy of a trough of horseradish snow, formed with liquid nitrogen. The dish is listed as’ Trip to Japan 2012′- that’s a trip I want to go on. An Orkney scallop, served sashimi style with pickled root vegetables and horseradish snow.
There’s a lovely habit here of finishing the plating of a dish tableside. It prevents any unsightly splaying of sauces while they’re ferried to the table, as well as adding a little drama. It started with the snow and comes into its own with the line caught Cornish turbot, with a squid and langoustine, coco bean and baby courgette ‘minestrone’. The ‘minestrone’ is a sauce that’s closer in flavour to a bouillabaisse, lightly foamed and saffron orange.
There’s a choice of duck or lamb for the final savoury course. In gilded restaurants there’s often a tendency for main course to follow a formula: a lake of demi glace, symmetrical shape souse vide-then-seared red meat with a side of fondant potatoes or pureed root vegetables. It usually means by the end of the meal you’re wishing you wore something with an elasticised waist. It also means it’s such a delight when you eat something that’s not. Here it’s a rack of salt marsh lamb is gambolling along with a cube of braised shoulder, spiced aubergine and black olives. There’s the brightness of a splodge of yoghurt cheese and a seriously sexy dot of cumin puree, that I which I’d ferreted out earlier in its eating.
It reminds me of the ‘time stops still’ it’s so good lamb dish I ate at Daniel in New York a few years back now. This is a very good thing.
After main courses it’s proposed by the floor staff that we move to dessert bar. A canny move to help turn tables for a second seating, or a little bit of dining theatre? I suspect a little from column A and a little from column B.
Sitting up at the bar isn’t quite as intimate as holding hands across the table, but it does afford a view straight into the kitchen. The transition is eased by the presentation of two scoops of sorbet (another iced thing to conquer on a nippy November night). One is Barney purple. It manages to be both bright with blackberry and murkily dirty with beetroot. The other is a sunburst of passionfruit.
Next; a tumbler with base of raspberry and yuzu sorbet, crowned with a foam of cream cheese, sprinkling of macha powder and freeze dried raspberry segments. The first thing out of my mouth is to wonder which poor chef is responsible for having to segment the raspberries. It might be a nightmare for a sommelier with all that tannic macha (we opt to go without a wine on this one), but it’s a delight for us- it’s like eating one of Rainbow Brite’s clouds.
And lastly we get to watch the construction, piece by piece of the Asian mango pudding with mango sorbet, crumblings of freeze dried mango (more ices) and sails of yoghurt meringue .
It’s a dessert which means yum cha mango puddings will forever be ruined. It will also leave you pondering why all meringues aren’t infused with yoghurt powder.
As we collect our things to go (The Hungry One declining coffee after being a right snob about where they source it from) there are two final treats. The first are warm financiers filled with apple gelee.
The second is a white box emblazoned with ‘Happy Birthday’ containing a dense and fat cube of chocolate ganache and cherry cake to home.
This isn’t an everyday meal. But that’s the point. To splash out on a meal like this once or twice a year, is what really makes it shine.
But Pollen Street’s dessert bar on the other hand- that’s a whole other matter. It seems that any night of the week you can roll in and have mango pudding, followed by their takes on a PB and J or a tiramisu, for £8.50 each.
This is dangerous first hand knowledge to acquire.
I’m posting it now. If The Hungry One has anything to do with it, that dessert bar is going to become a much more frequent destination of ours.
After ten birthdays of mine together I’ve learned that while for some a marriage might be a dinner that starts with dessert- our union is one where repeat appearances of treats certainly don’t ‘t go astray.