Jason Atherton is one of my all-time chef heroes. I first tried his food at Maze Grill in Mayfair where my wife bought me a wagyu rib-eye steak for my birthday a few years ago – at an eye-watering, wallet-busting £110. For one steak! The experience set the benchmark by which I have judged all steaks ever since – and none have come close to wagyu.
I was delighted, then, when fellow foodie dad Danny chose Jason’s Pollen Street Social in London’s West End for our latest outing for the Dads’ Dining Club. I was even more delighted to see there was the option of a Taster Menu, so I could sample as many of the masterchef’s delights as possible.
And on the food front, I wasn’t disappointed – well, not by the tastes of the taster (every element was superb) but by the quantities and, ultimately, by the overall satisfaction of the experience itself.
There is nothing remotely wrong with Pollen Street: the atmosphere is buzzy, the service impeccable, the food sublime. But for all of that, it wasn’t a memorable experience, either. It lacked theatre, it lacked pzzazz, it lacked sock-blowing-off awesomeness.
And I suspect this is the fault of the Dads’ Dining Club, rather than the restaurant. Over the last few outings we have each strived to raise the bar on the previous experience because we are sadly, pathetically, uniquely-masculinely, competitive.
This has raised the standards, but it has also hiked the price and as a result the VFM Factor has started to wane. We’re paying more for less. And that was most certainly the case at Pollen Street Social.
A nine-course taster menu, with cheese boards on top, shouldn’t have left us hungry, but it did – and not just in our stomachs. We were also starved of focus because, with so much coming at us, so many different flavours arriving in procession, it was hard to attach the words ‘Stand Out’ to anything: everything was lovely, but nothing was remarkable.
Not the restaurant’s fault – but the DDC’s.
For we spent far too much of the evening bitching and moaning that the current experience wasn’t as good as past; that this taster menu didn’t stand comparison with those at the Fat Duck (for inventiveness) and Viajante (for theatre).
This wasn’t helped by the position of our table – hidden away at the back-of-the-room, affording only two of us a view of the restaurant, and the other two a view of the very attractive (sic!) scaffolding outside.
The ultimate conclusion to all of this is that we have become spoilt: like Fat Bankers we are resting on our wallets, taking for granted the good things in life, not appreciating how bloody lucky we are to share the experiences we have.
We all work hard for our money and we need to make it work harder for us. I, for one, don’t earn enough to be able to blow a whole week’s food shopping bill on a few (exquisite) mouthfuls of daintily prepared morsels (and, OK, glug half a gallon of wine). It’s time to have a re-think.
In the meantime, here are our reviews of Pollen Street Social:
DANNY (who chose this month’s venue):
I spent quite some time deliberating over The Pollen Street Social as my choice for this DDC. I had whittled down to a list of 3 places that I thought would be top class and that the other Dads would enjoy and although it was a great evening with some lovely food and wine ……I think I’m going to give taster menus a rest for a while.
Over the last 10 years or so I’ve sampled quite a few. The world class Fat Duck, the sparse but inventive Roganic, the wonderfully romantic Clos Maggiore, the smoke and mirrors theatre of Vijante , the totally under rated Lumiere and most recently the Pollen Street Social. All of these taster menu evenings have left a lasting impression. They’ve all been excellent, and as I’ve said before, a chance for the chef to really show-off.
With the exception of Pollen Street Social.
There’s no denying the food is very good but what the Social lacked was the flair, surprise and excitement delivered by all the others. There was only one Amuse-bouche, no special bread and butter, no little surprises. No Magic.
This was simply, very good food delivered in tiny portions. I was hungry when I got home. Not a good sign after spending as much as we did.
It’s possible we got a bit of a raw deal as looking at photos on the web, we didn’t get quite the same level of presentation others have enjoyed.
Large and loud are my lasting memories of this place. We arrived early and were led, zig-zagging through the rooms and past tables to the far corner of the restaurant and our table which was somewhat isolated. My view was of my fellow DDCers, a wall and the scaffolding outside.
Buzzy and busy but also rather clinical, industrial and (again) loud.
Service was very good. Efficient & friendly but wine wasn’t topped up discreetly and it wasn’t as professional as others.
There were some wines under £30 and they should get marks for that, not that we opted for any of them. The bill was considerable but that was because we added at least one cheese plate on top of the taster menu and too much wine. (I’m the only one who can go without the cheese board). When I compare with Roganic or Viajante, I have to award this only just
Jason Atherton’s Pollen Street Social has rapidly become a London culinary landmark and on paper was a sensible choice by Danny who’s turn it was to choose this month’s DDC venue. Now the adjective ‘sensible’ in the previous sentence is actually a problem for me as I really want to say it was inspired. However, the reason I can’t is two fold.
1. The concept of taster menus is now ubiquitous.
2. I’ve had the privilege of eating at the Fat Duck and therefore I have to compare against the ultimate tasting menu experience which is a problem.
We could have chosen from the a la carte of course but that’s not really the point of going to Pollen Street Social. The quality of every dish was of the highest order as was the service. With the horrors of The Delaunay gradually fading into distant memory this was one classy joint. Gabor our waiter who had cut his teeth at Aubaine in Mayfair clearly knew his onions so to speak.
So we all plumped for the £78 tasting menu (slightly ouch) and every dish was an exquisite explosion on the taste buds. There was even a Hestonesque attempt at a boiled egg which I have to confess looked even more real than the Fat Duck’s version. The trouble was it was actually in a real eggshell which I took a nibble of much to the mirth of my fellow DDC ers. So all of that effusiveness should equate to a very high score but in a strange way, the experience for me felt strangely perfunctory and rather clinical.
A clean, bright modern but largely uninspiring interior. We were given a table at the back of the restaurant cut off from the main room with a view of the street and scaffolding on the outside of the building.
Due to the positioning of our table we could have been in somebody’s front room. A nice airy front room but nothing to really write about.
Our head waiter was Gabor who was a superb host. Knowledgable, affable and passionate. The sommelier was a nice enough chap too, but wasn’t really needed as we always choose our own wine from the bottom end of the scale.
The restaurant has a superb reputation for its food and rightly so. The 8 course tasting menu had some flashes of brilliance and every dish was of the highest quality. Personally though I am getting a bit bored of tasting menu’s. At £78 the tiny portions need to be damn good and they were. They just weren’t extraordinary. 8/10
With an aperitif, a bottle of relatively inexpensive wine each (£35 approx) , a cheese board and service charge, the bill was £170 a head. That is certainly pushing the boundaries of what is an acceptable spend for the DDC and I left with the feeling that although we’d had a nice experience, it wasn’t a memorable one.
With the Delauney debacle (for that is what it was) still leaving a bad taste in everyone’s mouths – at least that evening hasn’t been forgotten! Which brings me to Danny’s choice of Pollen Street Social.
Unlike the other DDCers, I NEVER read reviews of the restaurants we visit beforehand as I feel that this can sully the experience somewhat before we arrive – or indeed unduly influence. Also being the least ‘foodie’ of the group (unpretentious), I’m not swooning over the chef’s name before we arrive either. But I’ve been to many a restaurant in my time, so I do know a good one from a bad one – and that is how I have judged Pollen Street.
So – was it good or bad?
Well I can unequivocibly say that it definitely wasn’t bad. In fact, the flavours within each dish were exceptional and they were obviously prepared by a very talented chef. But the problem with this taster menu was that the morsels were so tiny that it left you wanting. And hungry! And as an overall dining experience, I can’t put my finger on it, but there was just something missing – and i don’t mean Ryan Giggs!
Down a back street in W1, the interior was well designed but unfortunately our table was in one of the worst positions which is a fail on Danny’s part as he should have secured a better one on booking!
Only 5/10 due to the table position again, so this could perhaps have been a
Gabor, our Hungarian waiter was great. We asked him what Jason Atherton was like as a boss, and his answer was ‘driven’. Which was fabulously diplomatic as well as very insightful.
As I said before, the flavours were exceptional and clever, so it would be churlish to give the food less than 8/10. But the dishes were too small and too expensive for what they were.
In summary, the overall experience was just lacking something and will be quickly forgotten. But maybe we are losing sight a little on what these precious quarterly get togethers are all about. It will be my turn to choose for DDC in December and I can safely say that my choice won’t include a taster menu and it won’t involve a named chef.
Conveniently located, deceptively Tardis-like large inside. Wood-panelled warmth. It was a pleasant and welcoming restaurant. It’s just a shame we were seated in a hidden alcove with a view of scaffolding outside the window.
Buzzy and busy, though most of this was lost on us because of where we were seated. A table in the central part of the restaurant in view of the busy kitchen would have changed our outlook of the evening, I’m sure.
Our waiter Gabor, was superb. Friendly and funny, knowledgable and attentive. He made sure that my fish-allergy was dealt with by replacing monkfish with deer tartare. Faultless.
I’d give this 10/10 if I wasn’t comparing it to previous taster menus. Every dish was beautiful to look at and beautifully executed: crispy lamb belly was as light as a feather; English breakfast in an eggshell had a perfect perfume of truffle; chilled pea veloute was one of the freshest palate-cleansers I’ve ever tasted; the best end of lamb and roasted squab pigeon were rich and deep. But in hindsight, we should have chosen a starter and main course each and had a bite from each other’s plates. I feel we haven’t had the whole – and real – Pollen Street Social experience, judging by the glorious hunks of meat hanging in its drying cupboards – none of which made it to our plates.
The taster menu was £78 for nine courses – that pretty much works out at £8 per mouthful. That’s a lot of money. OK, we also spent a fortune on wine (and service), bringing our bill to a head-spinning £170 each. That’s an obscene amount of money for a one-off dining experience – especially one that we all agreed was rather ‘Meh’.
TOTAL AVERAGE SCORE: 7.05 out of 10