Pollen Street Social: Reflections on Heinz?
Pollen Street Social is a modern bistro located in the heart of London’s Oxford Circus and steered by chef Jason Atherton, formerly of Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Maze’. His first solo project, the bustling venue with its very own Michelin star, has appeared in the World’s Top 50 Restaurants and been lauded for its inventiveness and reasonably priced set menus. Their heralded dessert bar is perhaps their best known feature and I haven’t failed to notice how other critics have honed in on their strongest point, delectable, artful, sinful desserts. Like many other places reviews are always mixed, depending on the reviewer and personal taste, but I entered this pleasant and airy venue with an open mind.
The decor is to my personal taste, for the record, clean lines, muted browns, wooden floorboards and a sense of refinement without undue pretension. I am seated by an amiable waiter at a table and immediately feel relaxed. The service is not too intrusive and at midday on a weekday there were plenty of customers without a sense of over-crowding. Obviously the emphasis is on the ‘social’ component given the operations name and I am sure it’s much more bustling in the evening and weekends.
The A La Carte menu has dishes starting at £14.50 and mains are £29+. The set lunch menu is a very reasonably priced £26 for two courses and £29.50 for three courses. The Tasting Menu comes in at £79 for 8 courses.
The menu options are actually wonderfully varied and there are a wide variety of vegetarian dishes. Again, confusion reigned for me and the waiter kindly offered me a dish from the A La Carte even though I had purchased the set menu because I specifically wanted one vegetarian option. I didn’t get charged any extra for this welcome bonus.
There was a reasonable amount of time left between each dish and surveying other diners plates, plus having an option from the A La Carte menu myself, there was no discernable difference between the set and A La Carte in terms of quality or quantity.
I don’t usually personally comment on bread, but it’s one of my favourite foods and I cannot abide a bad, sour, bitter, dry, bland bread. The bread is not baked in house, but the sour dough I was offered had a satisfactory texture, softness and taste, with crisp around the edges. It was suitably matched by the pre-starter below. There was a tough white bread presented that wasn’t to my personal taste. I was informed that no artificial additives or preservatives are used, which I always look upon favourably. The butter provided was absolutely fine – it’s no reflection on Pollen Street Social but I prefer olive oil to butter generally, so I’m not the best person to comment. 15/20
The pre-starter consisted of olives, pork crackling, yoghurt dip and other mustard dip. These were all nice enough and certainly enjoyable. They make a light start to the meal. 15/20
I opted for Pollen Street Social’s signature dish, the ‘Full English’ breakfast, a vegetarian starter that is of no close resemblance to its heavy, meat-laden cousin but a light poached egg with a tomato based sauce with crispy ‘bacon’ pieces, croutons and morels. I found this to be very mediocre having heard great acclaim from other critics. The tomato puree was akin to Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup, which is fine, if you want Cream of Tomato Soup, but I expected something a bit more delicate with a more intricate but subtle flavour blending. It was overly salted. It wasn’t Michelin star worthy, I suppose is my gripe, although reasonably priced. It’s just that, well, beans don’t mean Heinz. In this respect I wasn’t crying into my napkin but a little forlorn. 13/20
My main was the cod with paella, artichoke and broccoli. The cod was beautifully cooked and light, tasted just wonderful in isolation. The paella was a good paella, mind-blowing no but certainly delicious. The problem was, I detected, an air of Heinz Cream of Tomato Soup again and I wanted it to depart and leave my paella in peace because had it not been for the excess of salt and tomato overload, it would have been lifted more, just a tad less heavy and in my persnicketiness I would had preferred it airier. It has to be said though, lighter than many other paella’s I’ve had. Nothing here was perfect, but very good and the desserts, as other critics have highlighted, and you will see me comment below, come into their own a bit more. 15/20
Pre-dessert was a wonderfully palate cleansing chamomile mousse with a refreshing sorbet and made a lovely zesty entrance to my Eton Mess. I often prefer the pre-starters if anything and wonder why I bother with dessert instead of asking the restaurant to make me a full size pre-starter and it was no exception here. This is no reflection on Pollen Street Social, I think I just have a thing for granites and crème fraîche!
The Eton Mess was a Michelin presented extravaganza, style and pizzazz ever present in the aesthetics area. It was certainly no less delicious than desserts I’ve had in two star Michelin restaurants. The strawberries could have been fresher and sweeter, but it was overall a combination of tang, fresh cream and light cream/mousse that perfectly accompanied my pre-dessert. It was a tad sweet, but desserts always are and in my eyes, Ottolenghi, nothing compares to you (you must get yourself to one and try all of their desserts – particularly the carrot cake). 15/20
I skipped petits fours and coffee but was given two exquisite almond and raspberry jam financiers, which were delightfully warm, sweet and spongy. The waiter commented that he gets to take away batches and I must say I am very jealous! Such that I may even return and ask if I can buy a couple. 17/20
Scanning the tables I noticed that the diners next to me had some lovely dishes and the other desserts looked a similar triumph to mine, particularly the tiramisu with chocolate coffee and apple caramel puff with vanilla ice-cream and Calvados.
I also wonder on the integrity of ingredients in some venues and have tasted Michelins and food in other restaurants that retains a freshness and purity theirs couldn’t quite muster. It was there but perhaps too much, too intense and they need to scale back and retain a bit more purity. There’s a fine balance between bland and over-worked dishes and they sometimes sit happily in between, at others tend to go overboard if anything with seasoning.
Sorry to harp on about the high-priced ‘picnic caterer’ Yotom Ottolenghi, but his salads are spot on. Think Italian -tomato, basil, olive oil, bit of very high quality salt. Think chilli, a few herbs and evoking the aura and essence of the food origin you are attempting to replicate. Other than that I was duly impressed at the atmosphere, reasonable prices, good, solid quality of the food and overall environment and dining experience. Is it going to knock your socks off, probably not, but you will certainly leave with a winning smile.
Good, solid performance Pollen. The set menu is reasonably priced at £26.50 for two courses and £28.50 for three. They only charged me £35 for three courses (including service and VAT) and I had sparkling mineral water. Unlike other places they offered me just a glass, so I didn’t have to purchase the whole bottle. They were polite and courteous. It’s better value than a lot of high street options, so if you’re going to spend £30 on a meal for yourself, why not dine Michelin because believe me, compared to your average high street restaurant – which isn’t any cheaper and probably doesn’t put so much effort in – it’s way more than worth it. Overall it was good. Maybe there were better dishes I could have picked in some areas.
Telephone: 020 7290 7600.
Address: 34 Charlotte Street, London W1.
Price: Menus Lunch, £24.50 for two courses, £29.50 for three; à la carte, £45 for two courses, £55.50 for three.
For more information see www.pollenstreetsocial.com.