On our previous trip to London in December myself and Nicola had treated ourselves to lunch at Marcus at The Berkeley, one of London's 11 restaurants that hold two Michelin stars. The fine dining experience was wonderful, so much so that we made a very early decision that on our next visit to the capital we would try to squeeze in another Michelin lunch experience.
It wasn't long before we had started organising our next trip and with train, hotel and theatre tickets booked, I started researching the many Michelin restaurants in London, knowing that one of them was going to be our next fine dining experience.
One of the more affordable ways to experience Michelin dining is to book a table over the lunchtime service. Most restaurants offer a pared back lunch menu for under £40 that still let you get a feel for top quality food and service. Sometimes you can find deals on the popular restaurant booking sites that might include a glass of wine or two for the same price. After much research, we had made our decision - Pollen Street Social was where we wanted to be.
Pollen Street Social is a 1 star Michelin restaurant located just behind Regent Street and is the flagship restaurant of Jason Atheron, a chef who is easily recognised from his recent TV work over the last few years. In 2008 Jason won the starter and main course sections of Great British Menu for a meal hosted by Heston Blumenthal at the top of The Gherkin. With regular appearances on Saturday Kitchen with James Martin and most recently a co-host on My Kitchen Rules with Lorraine Pascale, Jason Atheron in no stranger to our screens. Despite the regular TV work, Jason still manages to oversee a growing and well respected restaurant empire that currently has restaurants all over the globe, employing over 1000 staff.
After a casual stroll from our hotel in Bloomsbury, via Forbidden Planet in order for Nicola to get a little Doctor Who fix, we arrived at Pollen Street Social. We were a little early for our reservation so this allowed us to unwind with a cheeky wee aperitif. With a huge range of premium spirits to choose from, Nicola decided on Crystal Head vodka whist I tried a chilled bottle of Gentleman's Wit from Camden Town Brewery. I had been communicating with the restaurant prior to coming to London, enquiring whether Jason would be in the restaurant on the day of our lunch but had been advised that as he was in the final stages of opening his new restaurant, City Social, that he would not be around during our visit. Ah well, maybe another time.
As we sat enjoying our drinks we were a little surprised to see someone walking through the bar wearing 'chef whites', looking like he owned the place! It turns out that Jason was indeed in the restaurant and kindly came over to introduce himself and welcome us to his restaurant. I'll admit to being a little star struck (so much for the Gentlman's Wit!) and don't recall much of the few minute conversation that we had before he shot back into the kitchen to get on with the busy lunch service.
Still a little in shock, we finished our drinks before being escorted to our table in the restaurant, and once comfortable we were left to cast our eyes over the food and drinks menus.
We had already seen the set lunch menu online and were both happy that we could easily order three course from here without the need for the a la carte menu. (The set menu does change dependent on season) Like most high end restaurants, the Pollen Street Social wine list reads like a copy of Encyclopedia Brittanica with something to suite every taste and budget. In the end we ordered a fantastic bottle of Sauvignon Blanc Ventolera from the Chilean Aconcagua region of Chile. We also asked for some iced water which was served through our meal without the awkwardness of being forced to choose between still or sparkling.
Pollen Street Social presents itself as a contemporary bistro, offering deformalised dining and the design vision of Chinese design agency Neri & Hu back this up. The open plan restaurant and dining area, complete with wood panelled tables & booths, Chesterfield inspired leather sofas is a great mix of traditional with a modern twist. As we sat sipping our wine we commented on the fact that there weren't a huge number of women dining but just at that, two young ladies were ushered to the table next to us. It took is just a second to realise that one of the girls was TV presenter Davina McCall who was having lunch having just done a charity photo shoot for Stand Up 2 Cancer. It's really odd trying to relax when there's someone sitting across from you that you think you know, who doesn't know you! It didn't get any easier Ant McPartland stopped by Davina's table for a quick chat.
Before we could get too carried away with celebrity spotting, some warm bread served with salted butter (hoorah), and a paste of salt cod, potato and olive oil, were served. We also received an amuse bouche selection, neatly presented inside an old book. The three appetisers were Crispy artichoke skins with truffle ricotta, Parmesan sablè, tomato fondue, black olive crumbs, and Prawn crackers, brown crab mayonnaise. Each tiny morsel was packed full of flavour, and we both struggled to pick a favourite but our taste buds were warming up nicely and we were both loocking forward to our starters.
The next dish to arrive at the table was compliments of the chef.
Inside the ceramic egg cup was what can only be described as a fancy 'all day breakfast' as we were served Jason Atherton's Breakfast egg mousse. The hollowed out eggshell had been carefully filled with layers of baked potato foam, tomato fondue, scrambled egg, then topped with crispy pancetta. This playful dish was fantastic, and demonstrated the skill and imagination that Jason is known for.
After 'breakfast' we were treated to yet another dish with the compliments of the chef. This next surprise course looked lovely and tasted even better. I never thought that I would like cold soups but this starter of poached prawns with peas, shallots and a quinelle of crème fraîche, lemon zest and lime juice which was then ceremoniously drowned in a chilled pea soup was outstanding. The vivid colours and clean, fresh flavours of this dish have definitely changed my opinion on cold soups.
Our original three course lunch was now turning into an impromptu tasting menu, thanks to the generosity of head chef Jason, and it wasn't too long before our actual starter arrived at the table. I had almost ordered the wild garlic soup with crispy pig's trotter but bottled out of it at the last minute and as a result we both ordered the English asparagus with Dorset crab, passion fruit gel & blood orange.
Blanched spears of asparagus were joined on the plate with a generous amount of sweet flaked crabmeat, sharp passion fruit gel and blood orange segments. Perfectly balanced and visually stunning, this dish was a wonderful way to showcase seasonal produce at its best.
By this point of the afternoon it's safe to say that we had both been suitably 'wowed' by the quality of food coming out of the kitchen, and it just kept coming.
I would have been happy with any of the three main courses as they all sounded great, but I'm delighted that I chose to order the rabbit. Without a word of a lie, this has been the best plate of food that I have ever eaten. Once again the presentation was exceptional and this added to the attention to detail in the preparation made for a truly wonderful dish. As I cut into the tender rolls of soft rabbit, I could see that the loins had been stuffed with softened carrot and broccoli, this was accompanied with perfectly cooked baby carrot and tender stem broccoli, and a tomato purée. To top the dish off, the rich rabbit reduction from the cooking pan was poured over the top of the rabbit at the table. I could have eaten another serving of this fantastic rabbit without hesitation - it was perfection on a plate!
Anyone who knows Nicola will know that she loves lamb so it will be no surprise that as soon as she spotted the Lake District lamb neck then her mind was made up. Her main course of braised lamb neck, with wild garlic, peas and asparagus was a delightful plate of food. The lamb was unbelievably tender, almost falling apart as the fork touched, served with a rich lamb jus. Once again, everything was perfectly cooked and seasoned well. The lamb worked well with the fresh asparagus and peas, and the addition of wild garlic lifted this dish to another level. Neither of us could believe how much flavour is in the little wild garlic flowers that were scattered across the top of the lamb.
With the mains course now over we had a glance over the dessert befor making our choices. Our sommelier asked if we would like a dessert wine to go with our puddings so we left it to her skill and knowledge tto match an appropriate wine for the two desserts that we had ordered. Both were inspired pairings.
It is not uncommon to have a sorbet served after the main course as a palate cleanser. At Pollen Street Social, Jason Atherton had his own twist we were served the cutest strawberry milkshake between the main and dessert.
The 'milkshake' was actually a sharp strawberry compote with vanilla foam, olive oil and what I think may have been a basil flavour crumb on top, all served in a cute little tumbler with its own tiny glass straw.
As we waited on our dessert to be served, we were invited to sit at the pastry bar. This allows diners to watch the pastry chefs preparing all of the desserts before they are dispatched to the waiting diners. From this vantage point it is also possible to see directly into the kitchen however as we were now at the end of a busy lunch services, we could only see chefs and kitchen porters frantically tidying up in preparation for the approaching evening service.
My 2006 Sonnenglanz Grand Cru was full of body with a sweetness that cut through the rich dark chocolate from my dessert.
Nicola had ordered the English strawberries with vanilla sabe, custard, and strawberry sorbet as her pudding. Fresh strawberries were hidden under a sharp sorbet and a custard foam that was flavoured with fresh ginger. To finish the dish off, strawberry ice cream made using liquid nitrogen was scattered around the custard. This was a really playful dessert showing what can be done with simple flavours and little imagination.
My own dessert was a much more adult affair. I had ordered the 'millionaire shortbread' with hazelnut praline and stout ice cream. Talk about rich? The sliver of dark chocolate torte was balance perfectly with the sticky sweet caramel and almost coffee like flavour from the ice cream. I would like to say that I could have eaten this all day but after the previous courses I was now beginning to feel a satisfyingly stuffed.
As we sat finishing our drinks, the pastry chef was busying himself making a batch of Pollen Street Social's renowned 'Nitro Peanut', which is as it sounds - peanut butter cream & liquid nitrogen, and he kindly let us try some. It was lovely, tasting how I would image the nougat layer of a 'Snickers' to taste if you had left it in the freezer overnight.
With only a couple of hours until our train left Euston Station, it was time to draw a close to our lunch. Upon asking for the bill, we were presented with a final few little treats at the pastry bar. Freshly baked mini sponges filled with white chocolate, more nitro ice cream, (chocolate flavour this time), and little cones with liqueur filled bonbons were a wonderful way to end our meal.
As we were getting ready to leave, so too was Davina, so Nicola took her chance to have her own celebrity photo moment. We would like to thank Davina for taking a few moments out to stop for a photo and quick chat about lunch.
By the time we were leaving, Jason had already left the restaurant. We found out later that he had a TV interview as part of the promotion of the new restaurant, but before he left he had asked that I be presented with a signed copy of his 'Gourmet Food for a Fiver' recipe book. What a nice gesture and a great way for me to finish of my afternoon.
So how did our second Michelin experience compare to our first?
The food at Pollen Street Social was outstanding and could not be faulted, whilst the service was impeccable. I don't think it's fair to compare the two restaurants as they are both very different in setting and target market. What I will say is that our expectations of the day were very high and Pollen Street Social delivered in spades. I would not hesitate in recommending to anyone visiting London to consider making Pollen Street Social one of the things on their list of things to do.
I would like to take this time to thank Jason and all of his staff for making us feel very welcome at his flagship restaurant, as well as thank him for the 'little extras' that helped make our visit a memorable one.