There are times when you just need a cosy night in a Parisian bistro. The need for warm baguette, yellow butter and possibly steak frites scratches. You’re not looking for much; just some comfortable banquettes, a few brass finishings and – if it’s not too much to ask for- a smile from the floorstaff.

Here’s the thing. We probably won’t find it in Paris. For one thing, we’ve put a small halt on immediate travel plans. Twelve flights in the stowaway’s first 12 weeks of existence was probably enough for a while. Most of the time I’m content to spend at least a few more weeks with my passport safely tucked in the filing cabinet.

And here’s the other. The Parisian bistro fantasy has always remained just that during our jaunts to the city of lights.  Sure there have been some splash out, outrageous meals. But most of our attempts to conjure the holy trinity of  contentment;  from terrine-steak-frites-chocolate fondant with a slosh of cote du rhone have whimpered into dim, hollow meals, ringed with disappointment. If it’s not some gristle in the meat, it’s the grim service, flat tasting puddings, or limp salads. It was always better in our heads at the start of the night.

I’ve  slowly come to realise that my Parisian bistro fantasy is actually a pastiche. The closest I’ve come to it have been in places far, far from France. There’s the  joy of Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Yountville. Down under, in Shannon Bennet’s Bistro Vue. And in London, Le Deux Salons  often fits the bill. And what do they all have in common? These are Chefs (capital letter intended) dabbling in baby sibling restaurants to their flagships, indulging in their own personal fantasies of Parisian brasseries.

So, it was with excitement that on a pissing miserable Friday night in London’s endless winter of 2012-13 that we found ourselves at a preview of the latest addition to that circle- Jason Atherton’s ‘Little Social’.

It’s just across the road from his shining Pollen St Social, in a quiet hamlet not far from the gadding masses on Oxford Circus. The fact that it’s tucked away adds to its charms. This is not going to be a place overwhelmed by tourist foot fall in search of the next outpost of Cafe Rouge.

The interior has been revamped in the few short weeks since the team acquired the space. Gone are the garish walls that once marked the room- it’s now muted and restrained, large mirrors, bistro chairs, burgundy banquettes (some positioned horizontally for groups of four and six, others flanking the wall, designed for cosy dinners for two). At the back there’s a private dining room, cordoned off with doors, so it really is private.

The soundtrack to start is a curious mix of Jack Johnson and Madeleine Peyroux, later overtaken by the clamour of voices and clatter of cutlery.

The current version of the  menu is neat and precise, with five options for each course and a supplementary page of specials, including a couple of larger plates for two to share. For carnivores like us, there’s lots to keep us entertained. If you were vegetarian- I suspect in its current iteration you might struggle a little (there’s not much beyond a starter of slow cooked egg, parmesan and squash soup, with roasted mushrooms and croutons). Though I’m sure these are teething problems which will be ironed out as time goes on.

Winning starters include the terrine of pork head and foie gras, with an artful splodge of prune and tea puree. There’s a well seasoned pile of leaves and a pleasingly murky note of char on the bread. This is a serious slab for a starter- the richness of the fattened liver generously snaked throughout means you could easily share- if not with the one slice of sourdough, then by making use of the excellent hunks of baguette which you’ll find sitting on the table.

A special of ‘poutine’ – that French Canadian comfort food, so often resembling a love child between a heart attack and a hot mess is an interesting exercise in spice and acidity. So often after a few minutes on the table it congeals into a mass of wet chips and gluey gravy, forcing to you try and seek some textural refuge in rather bland blobs of squeaky curd cheese. Here coins of chorizo punctuate the miraculously still- crisp chips and meaty gravy, adding a note of intrigue, while fat slices of lurid green jalapeno add a jangle of heat.  It’s listed as a special starter (£6.50), but anyone without a Hungry One sized appetite may falter in finding their way through it solo.

 

Portion sizes of some main courses are more restrained. There’s an abundance of  meaty goodness present in the braised ox cheek, bone marrow, horseradish mash and carrot, though perhaps a menu of side dishes; wilted spinach, sprouts or leaf salad wouldn’t go astray for those wanting a bit more green on their plates.

And the hero of my Parisian bistro fantasy? Steak frites is listed in three iterations on the specials menu, as a bavette (£15), sirloin (£23) and as a hulking cote du boeuf (£77 for two to share). It’s presented in dislocated parts, a bare warm plate, a cup of impossibly crisp matchstick frites – (a novelty of texture, but to me some internal potato fluff is half the fun), a jug of sauce and the well-rested steak on a black platter.

Its dsijointed presentation dominates the table- there’s an element of DIY in composing the plate yourself- and some canny sense in serving the beef on a black board- no chance of being greeted by a puddle of leaching pink meat juice if the resting process has been rushed on the pass. For me there’s little need to upsize to the sirloin or cote, there’s always great flavour in a bavette- and if cooked carefully, it’s perfectly tender (which this was).  As for the bearnaise- it’s a textbook iteration, strident with tarragon and gloopingly soft.

Desserts have long been a highlight for Mr Atherton and at Little Social they’ve kept up the tradition. A hot chocolate moelleaux is well worth the fifteen minute wait. An extreme version of a fondant, there’s crust housing a lake of liquid ganache. A small scoop of almond ice cream brings some cooling contrast.

There are macha macarons and an apple and blackberry crumble on offer, but for those who are feeling like retreating to a safe land of nursery puddings, it’s very hard to go past the rice pudding (£7). The soft texture of the rice and custard in its gleaming copper pot  is as comfortingas a duvet day when it’s sleeting outside, but the real heroes are the flavours at play. There’s the gentle twang of goat’s milk and a sparkle from a splodge of rhubarb and ginger jam.

We end the eve with a shared pot of fresh mint tea before steeling ourselves for a walk in the cold.

There is much to like about Little Social- from the considered charm of the continental floor staff, to the cosy ambience and serious food at pretty darn sensible prices. The Hungry One might like to see the drinks list expanded to include some more European craft beers, and in time I’d be interested to see the full wine list (at the preview house wines were poured). And I’m sure that in time the vegetarian selection will be expanded and the kitchen will develop a little more consistency in the sizing of starters and mains.

But even now, in its infancy, it’s a sterling addition to central London- and for me it’s a place that’s ticking all the right sorts of boxes.

(Never fear stowaway- the passport might be able to stay in the filing cabinet for just a little while longer).

Little Social
5 Pollen Street
London, W1S 1NE
http://www.pollenstreetsocial.com
Ph: 0207 870 3730
reservations@littlesocial.co.uk

Little Social on Urbanspoon

Nb, in the interests of disclosure, The Hungry One and I were guests at the preview of Little Social.