Sunday, 6 September 2015

Street Food

Blink and you'd miss Pollen Street. It's an unobtrusive little thoroughfare just a few minutes walk from London's bustling Oxford Circus, and is also the home of Pollen Street Social; the flagship restaurant of Skegness-born chef Jason Atherton - a former Great British Menu winner and occasional TV presenter. Since it opened in 2011, Pollen Street Social has been doing pretty well, gaining a Michelin star and a number of other awards; so we were pretty excited to finally be paying our first visit.

After a cocktail each at the impressive bar attached to the restaurant, we were shown to our seats, despite having arrived over half an hour before our booking time. There was a little confusion before our meal began; with our amuse bouche (just called 'snacks') being served before we'd actually ordered or chosen our wines. When we did order, it was the eight-course tasting menu with venison main course. Rather than a bottle of wine, we wanted glass of white wine for the earlier courses and a red for the mains and desserts. The restaurant was happy to do this and the excellent sommelier's selections were both nicely matched to the food. The aforementioned snacks included a memorable parmesan foam mixed with mushroom tea and a miniature sweetcorn muffin topped with cold cucumber and broccoli, which was far nicer than it sounds.

The wait between snacks and course one of the menu proper was a little long, and it took a couple of prompts before the opening course finally arrived. It was worth the wait though, taking the form of a cold pea and langoustine broth poured over a pea sorbet and langoustine tail. The sweetness of the shellfish and peas were nicely balanced by a smoky garlic flower and it was a fine start to our meal.

Our second course blew it out of the water (or chilled broth) however. This was a salad of crab meat with coriander and tiny apple chunks. Accompanying the crab were zingy globules of lemon puree and a delightful dome of brown-bread foam. Mixing the foam and meat tasted like the nicest crab sandwich you could ever hope for, while the apple added a satisfying crunch to the overall softness.

Next up was 'Haggis, Neeps and Tatties.' Not the traditional Scottish dish perhaps, but very nice nonetheless. The tatties were, in fact, spaghetti-like strands of potato, which were smothered with a rich lamb ragout and sauce. The dish was more like a spaghetti bolognese, but that was no bad thing.

The first of the mains was a meaty slab of halibut, which seated a couple of cockles and covered a smattering of spring onions. Perfectly cooked fish and almost-sweet onion made for a winning combination, though the thin potato slices didn't add much to the dish for me.

There were no such passengers in the second main though; everything on the plate contributed to the other real standout dish of the evening. Two perfectly pink ovals of venison were ably assisted by honey-spiced beetroot, smears of red cabbage purée, tiny cubes of pickled apple and a pair of sharp blackberries. Not physically sharp, obviously. That would've been weird - not to mention dangerous. Every combination of flavours on this plate was a delight, with the venison and beetroot mixed together being particularly memorable.

Following the venison was the crossover (here called transition) dish of goats cheese ice-cream on a malted biscuit and drizzled with sweet syrup. I'm not a huge fan of goats cheese and the sourness of the ice-cream would've been a bit much for me, had it not been tempered by the sweet and crunchy biscuit. The dish as a whole worked, but I'm not sure I'd want too much of it.

Pre-dessert was a cloud-like vanilla foam, smothering some pumpkin granite (curse my spellcheck for not adding the accent to the 'e') like low-flying cumulonimbus over a bright orange field. Very tasty it was too, with crunch provided by caramelised sesame seeds.

And then to the dessert. The blackcurrant Eton Mess contained all the components of the traditional favourite but was presented with a twist - this being that the meringue was on the outside. So, breaking the crispy exterior of what looked like a white ice-hockey puck was rewarded with sour blackcurrant sorbet, a crunchy biscuit base and some delicious cream which might have had a subtle hint of cheese flavouring, though I might have imagined it.

We'd noticed our fellow diners receiving some interesting-looking petit fours, so to finish the night we ordered a cappuccino each to make sure we wouldn't miss out. These were a great way to round off a very accomplished meal and could've been a course in their own right. Atop a mini ice-cream cone sat a white-chocolate covered sphere of apple sorbet, while the cone itself contained a blackcurrant sorbet. This was served with a pot of rich chocolate and bergamot sauce and - nicest of all - a warm Bakewell pudding which had the almond and cherry flavour and a hint of egg custard about it. Mr. Kipling certainly never made them like that.

While the meal was pretty much faultless we had a couple of gripes with the service. Our main waiting staff and the sommelier were all great, but the wait for our first course was - as mentioned before - longer than it should've been. We were also left twiddling our thumbs before paying, and indeed we had to ask a passing waiter for the bill. This was slightly irritating as another member of staff had previously removed the rack which held the mini cones and could clearly see that we'd finished, but didn't think to ask whether we wanted anything else or were ready to pay.

These are small complaints though and certainly didn't spoil the overall experience. The food throughout was wonderful; I don't think I've ever had better venison and the brown-bread foam with the crab dish was inspired. Perhaps a couple of tweaks to the service are needed to take Pollen Street Social to the next level, but I certainly wouldn't hesitate to come back.

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