His life-long dream, to own his own restaurant – a humble goal, that’s all he wanted. Now it’s happening, and within hours Jason Atherton has Thomas Keller swanning into the room, headed straight for the kitchen. Daniel Boulud breezes in behind him. Maschler is on a table of four, notebook flourished. Rayner carouses on a table for six nearby with Jacquesson Champagne. Pressure? Expectation? Just the beginning of the maelstrom which will be swirling around 8-10 Pollen Street W1S.
The Social Room Bar is the life of the restaurant, a space to drop in and out of casually. It’s smart too, very smart. Martini is as crisp as a winter’s morning, glass frosted within a degree of its shatter threshold – the kind that has has you enraptured at the thought of almost frozen spirit charging your veins with other-worldly energy. A chiselled and pristine, clear as glass block of ice is the big f**k you of the cocktail bar-tender. We’re hardcore, we’re the real deal, now how dry would you like this Martini? Sahara, please.
So with those perfect frozen glasses, block of ice, dazzling array of twenty-eight Gins, my choice of Whitley Neill (soft, balanced, citrus-heavy), a first sip delivers the requisite effect. Full-throttle.
The main room sees a return to the unobtrusive kitchen, tucked away modestly in the corner, something of a respite from the “open-kitchen” scene which can often come across as some sort of self-flagellating penance for crimes in a past life. “What, a chef you say? Well you must perform in front of your adoring public, we want to hear the sizzle, see the maddening flames, feel the droplet of sweat from your flicked hair…”. Or something like that.
Menu sees Starters and Sharing plates, Warm and Hot, Cold, averaging £10 a plate, a short list of five mains which play around the £25-30 mark. We choose just to hit the starters and sharing plates:
Escabeche of quail, chicken liver cream, nuts & seeds - Slivers of tender pigeon, other sparks of flavour playing off each other, brooding swirls of mushroom ketchup insist on being chased round the plate, feisty bit of salty, pickle of carrot. Scattered seeds, shards of nut, the quail’s lunch?
Smoked foie gras, black sesame, smoked golden raisin – Couple of discs of suitably decadent Foie terrine, atop thinly sliced disc of pear, the fruit zesty, kick of spice, as if pickled. Dots of raisin purée sees dried-fruit sweetness, revealing a hit of real smokiness. These shrivelled puppies have been smoked somewhere down the line.
Full English breakfast - De-constructed fry-up. Slow-cooked egg. Searingly good crisped slivers of Alsace bacon, sweet roast tomato bringing it all together. I may have hallucinated but I think I popped a puckered morsel of morel between my lips, lurking beneath. A liquefied toasted bread sauce is poured with a flourish before eating. Buttered toast, blitzed, I overhear. Dish gets better as you eat, yolk melding with sauce, distilling separate elements into one. Yeah, man.
Cauliflower & squid, clear roasted squid juice - Chef’s Favourite, whispers our waiter conspiratorially. Risotto in reverse. Tender cubes of squid for rice, cooked risotto rice liquor for stock. Fishy, inky slick at the bottom is spoon-up-every-last-drop good. Barely cooked sliver of cauliflower dares to convert the Haters.
24hr braised Suffolk pork belly & pork cheek, fermented apple sauce,nuts - Satisfying slab of belly, decent tranche of crackling, belly fans rejoice. Puck of dark cheek alongside hits the pig buttons too. Scatter of seeds beneath evokes the pig’s snuffling habits, crisped Pork Puff murmurs a Momofuku moment.
“Ham, cheese & herbs“ Watermelon, candied goat’s curd, basil sorbet - Echoes of Mugaritz as a watermelon pretends to be a piece of Jamón, wafer thin, opalescent edges echoing piggy fat. Curls wrapped around curd. Basil sorbet is a blast of spicy, herbaceous intensity, cleansing like an after-dinner mint.
“PBJ” Parfait, cherry jam, creamed rice puffs – Riffs on cherry, cherry tagliatelle luminescent like a cherry string from the 1980′s, good cherry sorbet, nutty rice puffs.
Sangria mousse, blood orange granita, curd milk jam - Glances from across the room, distinctive number served in a glass. Rippled, textured mousse looking like violet Mr Whippy. In a good way. Perky blood orange granita beneath.
The song clicks on in my head before dessert: Maschler to the left of us, Rayner to the right, here we are, Stuck in the Middle with Them.
Wine list shimmers at Pollen Street Social, no mistake, no happy co-incidence. Laure Patry, the elfin Head Sommelier has done her dues in town, arriving ten years ago from France and was Head Sommelier at Maze. The list bristles with energy and interest. First to catch the eye are the Pollen Street Social own-label red and white, which she sourced herself, making it an exclusive. The white is an Anjou Chenin Blanc, and is taut, finely boned and balanced. “I’m from Anjou”, she says. Insider knowledge enriches the restaurant.
Champagne includes Jacquesson from magnum as house (£12.50), with other excellent names, Gosset among them, and grower Champagne Gimonnet. Thomas Keller would have approved – it’s by the glass at The French Laundry.
Front of House are headed up by the experienced Mike West, ex-Gordon Ramsay also, ten years with periods at Pétrus, Claridges, Boxwood Café, before becoming Maze Restaurant Director. Pedigree. It shows as he chats to guests at the bar, a steady hand at the tiller.
Atherton emerges from the kitchen at the end of the night, propping up the Dessert Bar, admitting he’s exhausted from the thrill of his baby finally being born tonight in Mayfair, and no doubt the drain of dealing with wave after wave of well wishers, critics and a roll-call of Inter-Galactic chefs who just happened to be attending the highest profile restaurant awards list in the world. Enough to drain the best of them.
Hub of the restaurant is the unreserved Social Room Bar. It’s the first thing you see. Martin Renshaw, Assistant Manager, reveals that the whole menu can be eaten at the bar. “We want it to be casual, no rules.”
Samuel L. Jackson would approve.
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