Tuesday, 14 February 2012

A Late Entry - Pollen Street Social: Mayfair, 28th December 2011

Shortly before Christmas, mired in wedding planning, the wife and I were debating our best meals of 2011. Including only London, since a couple of meals in Barcelona may've wiped the floor, the general consensus was that St John Bread & Wine's beef effort was pretty much the best thing we'd eaten locally all year.

But it had been a pretty amazing year of food. We'd had incredible highs and some worrying lows. It was an interesting debate in the build-up to a lovely family Christmas. Not that I feel a 'year in review' piece is necessary or anything, but the year itself was a lot of fun.

There was, however, one late contender for meal of the year. Pollen Street Social was booked on a whim as a Christmas gift for the wife and we did expect this to at least challenge for 2011 honours. Jason Atherton, refined at Gordon Ramsay's Maze, stole all the headlines this year with a Michelin Star for Pollen Street Social less than a year into operation, along with it being named the second-best place to eat in the country.

So, quite reasonably, we were expecting some fireworks for our money. It was a pretty nifty booking to have sorted, even though we could only get the last seating. There's something quite nice about sitting at a table in a place that you know everybody's been talking about. When someone next mentions it you'll be able to say "oh, I've been there." The question will then undoubtedly be "...and how was it?"

Things started well. The bread was delicious and complimented by some smooth, perfectly salted butter. That was lovely enough, but the canapés were something else. Home-made crackling pork was crunchy but not chewy (a real bugbear of mine when it comes to crackling) and was so indulgent it could almost have been candied (left). It was served with some divine honey-mustard sauce and salted cod purée. Utterly moreish (we got through two helpings) and totally refreshing: not the kind of pre-starter you expect to see in any Mayfair restaurant.

Things went from refreshing to stunning fairly quickly. My starter was placed before me and it made my head spin the second I smelt it, never mind how it looked. Parsley soup with truffled & breadcrumbed hen's egg, smoked eel and horseradish smelt like heaven in a dish (right). It was quite stunning, a perfectly-cooked egg the star. The soup itself was quite sharp but acted brilliantly as a counterpart to the strong, sweeter accompaniments.

The wife chose Atherton's take on the Spanish classic patatas bravas. A staple of more or less any decent Spanish place, this was certainly worth trying since Atherton's signature move is tapas-style stuff in a high-end setting. Social eating (hence the name), well-honed during his time at Maze. It was excellent, though not on the same level as the soup. The interpretation was thinly-sliced dried chorizo - which helped bring out the flavour - served on the side of pureéd potatoes and romesco sauce on the bottom (left). It was a triumph of altering textures whilst keeping flavour combinations classic.

Main courses were a real shock to the system. In the best possible way: they were exceptional. For a number of reasons, they altered my perception of a food I love at the best of times and the way customers are treated in decent establishments. Let's start with my main: venison (right). It was the best piece of deer I've ever eaten. Better than The Ledbury, better than Marcus Wareing, better than the lot.

The sliced, roasted fillet was completely perfect. The iron-y, gamey taste was a silkily rich set of weepingly sublime slivers. The offal faggot, whilst being ever so trendy, added a delicious variation to the dish. It was strong, tender and not at all up the nose as some offal can be. Chanterelle mushrooms, puréed potato and baked parsley root added to the dish in the best way. It was a combination made in the mind of a chef who knows a lot about what's popular, seasonal and tastes great.

The wife went for steak, as she tends to. This was special too. It was not in the same league as the venison but nevertheless a great dish with a delightful twist. Her sirloin was served with a couple of other cuts in cheek and tongue, keeping touch with the offal theme (left). It came served in the classic modern style of cutting up all the meat and layering it with bits of vegetables, dressing and jus.

There were two killer touches. The first was serving the whole lot with gorgeous dollops of caper & raisin purée. A sweet and tart accompaniment which brough variety and life to the dish. The second was the rest of the steak being served on the side with the meal. I've never seen this before in a high end restaurant and was gobsmacked. The decision to give an extra slab of sirloin to the diner is sheer class.

Desserts were preceded by some fairly disappointing chocolates. These were, it turned out, unnecessary and a wasted expense. We didn't dwell for long though, since our puddings were on their way. A caramel apple puff with calvados cream and vanilla ice cream was a sight for sore eyes (right). It was a well-thought out dessert, combining soft apple drenched in caramel with crisp pastry to create a sweet and bold finish, whilst remaining light. My complaint here was that the calvados cream was overly strong; the booziness of the liquor cutting through too sharply.

Our second dessert was an imaginatively served wonder. Chocolate pavé with mango was simple, elegant and utterly contemporary (left.) the chocolate was light, mousse-like and perfectly grounded with a bitterer, darker, thin layer of sponge. The chocolate work on top was pretty and complemented the dish instead of being a distraction as some dessert decorations are. The mango was a necessary burst of vibrant colour on the plate, but its necessity went deeper than mere appearances; the sorbet in particular was a perfectly judged light sweetness to contrast with the stronger pavé.

That was that. Stunned, we replayed the dishes and the experience in our minds. This was, without question, the best meal I ate in London all year. In fact, it was pretty much the best meal I'd eaten anywhere last year. The wife concurred. Excellent service, food and atmosphere. Adding in a special occasion at the end of the year, restaurant eating doesn't get much better than this.

Pollen Street Social

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