Maze is the most successful of all the establishments within the Gordon Ramsay Group, the original Grosvenor Square location spawning outlets in Melbourne, Doha, Prague and New York (the Prague branch has now closed). The man largely credited with the eminence of Maze is Sheffield-born Jason Atherton, the executive chef at Maze London since its inception in 2005. Atherton left the Ramsay Group in April of last year, in a not entirely amicable manner (he still speaks highly of Ramsay, but concedes it was a dispute about money that caused him to leave), and has now set up his own solo project – Pollen Street Social, so named because, and I quote directly from its website: “Pollen Street Social's name characterizes the dining experience within its doors. It's a social restaurant where the vibrant surroundings and atmosphere which mirrors the food. People can choose what they want freely, from an extensive a la carte, sharing plates or even if it's just a dessert. And, wear what they want, regardless of whether they've come for a special occasion or just for a casual drink in the social room and some tapas.” That blurb, penned by Atherton itself, continues to say: “Pollen Street Social allowed me to create exactly the sort of restaurant that I would love to eat, drink, and socialize in, not only for special occasions, but also for simple everyday affairs. I just want people to come and have fun".
Well guess what, I arrived at Pollen Street Social in an upbeat mood, looking forward to a good meal before an exciting day out at the tennis at Wimbledon the following day (yes, this post is a little delayed), and left in a bad one. For this diner at least, dinner at PSS was not a “fun” experience.
It all started with our table – our party was three strong, and we were put at a rectangular table for two, with a third chair stuck on the side. And that wasn’t the worse of it – the third seat jutted out, almost in its entirety, into the main corridor joining the bar/social room area to the main dining room. It was ridiculous. They moved us quickly and without fuss when we protested, but we should never have had to in the first place.
Unlike the small-plate, multi-course model adopted at Maze, the menu here is split, in the conventional fashion, between starters and mains. However, the option is given for one to create their own tasting menu from the a la carte, using half-portions of main courses if they so choose. And better yet, there is no need for the entire table to have the same tasting menu (or even the same number of courses), each individual can have their own - in effect exactly what Maze does, except it was a lot less difficult to explain, or understand, at Maze. I should also note that the waiter who brought the menus neglected to explain how the tasting menu concept worked, or that main courses were available in half-portions, until we asked. If this sounds a bit like I’m nit-picking, perhaps I am – I would ordinarily let a lot of these small things go without mention, but because there were so many of them, and because the entire experience left me in a foul mood, Pollen Street Social doesn’t get, or deserve, any benefit of the doubt.
I constructed my own tasting menu with 4 courses, three from the list of starters and one half-sized main. I must mention at this point that the bread, a simple baguette, was great - warm, not too hard or crusty, and accompanied by a lovely, appetising brandade. First of the courses to be delivered was an Escabeche of quail, chicken liver cream, nuts & seeds which was decent - the quail a tad chewy, but tasty. The chicken liver cream that accompanied it was luxuriously smooth but spoilt by the unnecessary sprinkling of rock salt that made it, surprise surprise, far too salty in parts.
Next, the much talked-about deconstructed Full English breakfast. This was a clever bit of cooking with all the familiar flavours – egg, bacon, tomato, mushroom and toast coming through, in unfamiliar ways. Even this star dish wasn’t without fault however, with the tomato and parsley purée a little too robust and overpowering.
At this point, the restaurant slipped up again. After a rather lengthy wait for the next course, the waiter came by to apologise – apparently the kitchen had made a mistake and prepared both my remaining courses together. I was given the option of having them both at the same time, or if I preferred, they could make the last course again after I was finished with my third plate. I said to just bring them together.
Cauliflower & squid, clear roasted squid juice was an inventive endeavour, at least visually, using morsels of squid to represent risotto, with thin slices of cauliflower coloured with squid ink to make them look like black truffle . The flavours in the dish, on the other hand, lacked depth. My enjoyment and appreciation of the dish was probably also curtailed by the need to eat it relatively quickly so that the other course waiting for me on the table did not go cold. My main of Rack of Cotswold lamb, braised belly, sheep’s milk curd was actually pretty good, apart from the milk curd that was far too intense.
Of the other dishes that I tasted a bit of, Light cured Shetland salmon, avocado, smoked herring roe cream was unexciting (as is frequently the case with salmon dishes, with the distinguished exception of The Ledbury), Roasted Dingley Dell pork, beetroot, hops, seeds & grains was very dry, and most disappointingly of all Black Angus aged beef with duck fat chips & green salad: Rib-eye 10oz was cooked to medium/medium well rather than the requested medium rare (but chips were good). I find it incredulous that a professional kitchen is unable to cook a piece of steak correctly to order, yet PSS is not the only place guilty of doing so – it happens far too often.
After our final courses, we had to wait an age for the table to be cleared, and a while more after that for the dessert menu to be brought. Despite there being spots vacant, we were not asked if we wanted to adjourn to the 7-seat dessert bar, London’s first. By this time we were too fed-up to ask on our own accord, but had we been offered the choice, we might have accepted.
Maze’s peanut butter and jam sandwich dessert is sensational and Atherton has reprised the concoction at Pollen Street Social. The minute I spotted it on the menu, there was no need to continue reading – a “PBJ”: Parfait, cherry jam, creamed rice puffs for me please. The parfait was excellent - smooth and creamy, with the peanut butter flavour coming through nicely, but, and this was also a problem with the PBJ at Maze, the cherry sorbet that accompanied it was much too strong, and when eaten in combination with the parfait, completely overwhelmed it.
Traditional English rice pudding, hay ice-cream & lime jelly was nice at first, but the lack of balance evident in so many of the plates arriving at our table was to the fore again as soon as the lime jelly started to take over. “Tiramisu”: Hot chocolate coffee was exceedingly rich, and all over the place.
In a nutshell…
I didn’t enjoy Pollen Street Social. The food was generally alright, but not outstandingly brilliant or particularly memorable – there was certainly nothing as arresting here as, say, the famous BLT at Maze. Atherton’s penchant for deconstructing classic favourites was again on view, but with mixed results – the Full English Breakfast was a hit, but still flawed, the Cauliflower & squid, clear roasted squid juice was forgettable, and the “Tiramisu”: Hot chocolate coffee was a complete disaster. A couple of the regular dishes, the pork and the steak were simply poor, the overcooking of the latter especially inexcusable. That the best of the desserts was the PBJ borrowed from Maze also makes me wonder if we have already seen Atherton’s best stuff, at his previous place of work. The experience was further soured by the numerous missteps made, from the table allocation, to the serving of two courses at the same time, to the excruciatingly long wait between courses. Each of these in isolation would have been annoying but tolerable, in combination they made for a disjointed, irritating evening. The waiting, and there was a lot of waiting, was the most irksome aspect – if I was to speculate, I would say the kitchen, and the lack of personnel in the front of house, was more to blame than any lack of efficiency amongst the wait staff – the gentleman who served us was actually very good – quick, polite, and affable, but just worked off his feet. One final point – the atmosphere at Pollen Street Social has been described as “vibrant”, by Atherton himself – if vibrant equals loud (it doesn’t), then he’s right, because PSS was most certainly loud, so loud in fact that you practically have to shout when conversing with your dining companions. Nothing screams relaxed and chilled out like a meal where you have to yell at the top of your lungs to be heard - err no, not for me thanks.
Pollen Street Social
8 Pollen Street, London, W1S 1NQ
Average Price: £50-£60