SOME restaurants raise the bar to a point that they defy the usual review or criticsm. There is just too much going on to fit the space. You would need a short novella to even broach the subject.
Squadrons of dishes arrive all armed with different ingredients and techniques and description would just overshoot the average newspaper column runway. There is no room for narrative just long listings. Top end London restaurant eating is therefore largely a secret, uber exclusive, rarely reported in a meaningful context.
Tastings menus are the most obvious culprit. Cooking small mouthfuls is also an easier trick than cooking dinner, in my book. I avoid them. The average New Yorker restaurant review is 436 words long which is something of an achievement in brevity for, this week, a restaurant offering a 10 course tasting menu at $148. The short form review is forced to fall back on the adverb, so, you get custard-like, strangely meaty, subtle, gently, bloody, which as we writers all know is unfortunate.
I have been going to Pollen Street since Jason Atherton defected from the Gordon Ramsay empire where he was head chef at Maze. It has been so much on message that it has funded a small empire of accolytes all of which have merits but the flagship remains just that, a flagship. It has become a bit corporate but it is not the sort of place you would go to negotiate, to strike a deal or be interviewed, rather that you might hope to have a boss who wanted to thank you for something. There is always some confusion in the whole brouhaha as to what might be deemed to be London’s best restaurant, but this year Pollen has appeared as number 4 in the Good Food Guide’s 2017 listings, the highest rated metropolitan operation, two of the others above it are small and out of the way specialist boutiques really, the fifth best is actually closed. It works on a much bigger scale than the others. In fact Pollen Street does not define itself as a restaurant at all but as a modern urban meeting point, a MUMP. Ummm? The sub line is it takes the best of British produce and does what it does with it which is fine by me, ie no falling back on Michelin crutches like caviar or foie gras or not unless they come from Barnet at least.
John Lanchester had it about right reviewing it in 708 words in the Guardian after its opening in May 2011 as “The polar opposite of what we have come to expect of fine dining. And it’s also properly brilliant.” I tend to agree.
The last time we went it was the extras that carried the day. Quite a few things just appear without being on the menu – two unannounced pre-starters, with dessert comes both a pre-dessert and a post dessert. These are things that are offered to show you what the kitchen can do. The art of the possible. Menu descriptions are also brusque, so you might get more on the plate than expected. The previous time we went it was these elements that blew us away. This time it was more conventionally the main menu items that shone.
So here I am giving you the whole grand opera including pictures to illustrate and discuss. It is worth having a few benchmarks for this blog but also even if you know the name, perhaps you have not read the book.
I can smell a good restaurant, literally enough from the kitchen, but you can also hear one, as in the babble of conversation of people enjoying themselves, not too preachy or screechy but a collective huddled, happy mumble. The staff here are drilled to the job in hand, you are going to have a good time, you are in safe hands, this is enjoyment time, this is the real deal rather than the poor devils struggling on Masterchef with their pot au feu. The tone is set by the cocktail menu. It opens with Hugs and Kisses.
Before we even get to whatever you are going to order there is the doll’s house tray of airline style canapés, a homage to an English tea, the smoked salmon sandwich, the muffin filled with a watercress mousse, the pastry cup of blackberry jelly. It does not quite fit. It is diverting, a wake up call. Hello, something is going on here, pay attention.
This is followed by a small white jug poured into white tea cups of mushroom broth with a Parmesan foam, a nudge and a wink of umami and a full wooden tray of warm petite baguettes and slices of brown sourdough.
The butter is whipped and comes on its own wooden dairy pat. They have developed lots of small tactile visual touches, jokes even, a little stool for bags and later a coloured antique biscuit tin for sweets. Stay alert.
We start with an egg. Not just any old egg of course but one that illustrates that the cooking keeps up or even is ahead of the game. Vegetables to the fore. This is not what you might deem to be unhealthy cooking at all. This egg is slow cooked from Cackleberry Farm, Paddy Bourns’ 30 acre smallholding outside of Stow in the Wold in Gloucestershire. Not that you might recognize it in a police line up as an egg, but rather it looks like a bowl of crumbs, in fact with turnips, sage, parmesan and kombu crumbs, to which the chicken gravy is poured over to make it a half soup into which the broken egg flows bright and yellow. You will appreciate the bread, bistro style.
Across the table we have a more conventional Miro-esque pressed terrine of duck and game decorated with a few small green leaves around which is poured a dark duck broth enriched with the heart, so the elements of wet and dry play off each other. You could put this one in the Tate.
The critical test of this approach to cooking is the main dishes. It is easy enough to play around and flirt but ultimately any meal needs a grounding. It needs to remember what it is doing. Here both were exemplary, both brave but executed with no little skill. To be original with chicken is worth a note.
Chicken with cockles and leeks was brilliant. Fish and meat is a tightrope. Marco Pierre White used to do steak with winkles. Here I might have been tempted to go with whelks (which combine very well with deep chicken reduction) but the cockles lent a herb like freshness, a waft of the estuary, each one in its shell with a spot of green parsley (I think) jus and to the side some tiny sprigs of samphire shoots. The chicken is poached wrapped in its skin, fashioned barrel like to imitate the leeks onto which the chicken jus is poured. It comes with roasted chicken fat mash. I do not want to get into the ethical politics of the newly-emerged chicken skin trade but I was glad enough to have tasted this.
Seabass was more conventional, fillet, skin on, precisely, and I mean exactly, cooked, served with a puree of jerusalem artichokes and yeast (a word our French waitress struggled with but it was the very best eest whatever it is) decorated with what the menu called sprout flowers, ie the sweetest leaves off the stalk, being three different kinds of sprout leaf. Atherton likes brussel sprouts.
The other choices on the set lunch menu at £35 were braised ox cheek with a snail Bourguignonne ( which feature on the menu at his newly opened grill Temple in the City) or a crayfish its own bisque. This is absolutely what I think of as British food notwithstanding the odd flash of finger lime and vanilla which I have down as just part of our trading culture.
There is a dessert bar where you can move to watch how the confections are put together which is a line up of prettiness. The chocolate marquise is served with roasted pumpkin seeds, a sorbet of pumpkin and orange, and some gold leaf.
Another English lilt is found in Sharpham goat’s cheesecake with prunes soaked in Armagnac and a William pear sorbet. Before the dessert we were given a basil sorbet surrounded in a swirl of soft curdy mousse…
We had the Eton mess which is a clever trick. The meringue is baked as a hatbox. In the middle goes the fruit and the puree, so you get something fancy which you have to break up.
The wine list is what you would expect but we got by more than happily with a glass each of Pinot Noir from New Zealand and a Rully from Burgundy. With this kind of food I never feel the point of making the wine compete. You want to drink expensive wine in expensive restaurants then that is your folly.
Oh, and we are not quite done as yet, the finale arrives in the form of a variation of the Bakewell tart: in the aforementioned biscuit tin are squares of beetroot and passion fruit jellies; in the conical cup is a couple of spoons of chocolate mousse.
All told the bill was £135 for two but you could double that with ease and a great deal of pleasure.
It has a Michelin star. Only one. That’s Michelin for you.
That is 1680 words, but I had colour photos to help and as is well known a photo is worth a 1,000 words…
8-10 Pollen Street, London W1S 1NQ
+44 (0)20 7290 7600 http://www.pollenstreetsocial.com