Here's some good news. No, the Olympics haven't been cancelled—I've worked out the best time to dine out in London. It's Saturday lunch times. The advantages of day–off dining are numerous. Fewer suits lend a calmer air; tables are more readily available even at the hotspots; and the post meal bloat can be walked away on a Thames Path stroll in the afternoon.
Best of all, though, are the absurdly good value set menu deals on offer across the capital. Gaulthier Soho has two courses for £18; the esteemed River Café presents the same for £25; and the Ledbury proffers their two–star offering at £30. And not a daily–deals voucher in sight.
Pollen Street Social in Mayfair has three courses for £25.50, which we booked the day before. It's Jason Atherton's first solo venture and opened in April 2011. Fourteen months and one star later, the dining room hummed as we entered. Patrons were abundant, but seemed dwarfed by a legion of starch–white Euro–staff. They zip between the pass and central serving island like mad Vespas.
The decor marries ash wainscot with Chesterfield banquettes and green glass lamps, like a 60s Bond villain's Swiss chalet. The rigidity of the pristine interior is softened by colourful splashes on the walls: Gary Hume and Chris Ofili works are demonstrative of a restaurant that takes taste seriously.
I started with patatas bravas chorizo with and a slow-cooked Burford Brown. The egg had been done in a waterbath which gave a perfect orange yolk but runny, translucent white that undermined the dish. Scallops and cauliflower were just that—two (why not three?) nicely done scallops with roast cauliflower and a purée.
An ox cheek wearing a dainty potato hat was my charming main. More style points were garnered for the accompanying parsley broth, served in a copper saucepan. All just the right side of hearty. Alice's salmon was a sort of endless mêlée of cold pink fish and radish. The radish slices were oddly thick, and the three (why not two?) salmon strips were just a bit too much. More contrast was needed.
Contrast came in the form of dessert—or rather desserts. From borderline pedestrian beginnings the meal flourished into a sweet frenzy. First, a pre-dessert granita to cleanse the palate. Its lively pineapple and lychee zing segued us into the puddings proper. My pistachio financier came decorated with shards, dots and dribbles of strawberry in various forms–there was even the odd whole wild one in the mix. It's a beautiful, summery dish in taste and aesthetic.
The chocolate and orange pavé was another design fit to grace some dame's head on derby day. It's a richer, heavier sister to the financier though, and doesn't quite offer the same breadth of texture and flavour.
The dessert bar at the back of the room is an indicator of Atherton's keenness for pastry, and for us there was still more to come. Two £4.50(!) espressos were the catalyst for an onslaught of petit fours. Mini marmalade financiers, still warm and melded to their plate, were delightfully tart and sticky.
A trip to the subterranean bathroom to loosen a belt notch was required. With front–of–house so keen it's a wonder someone didn't come with. Ornate freesia displays lend a feminine air to the log-cabin rest rooms. Outside, walls of ageing meat and glass surround a central private dining room. The Chinese designers Neri&Hu have produced a beautiful space; one of London's most impressive, confident restaurant interiors.
Back above ground, the fourth wave of sweets were wheeled out by our umpteenth Frenchman. His two-tier chest of macarons and chocolates should've induced feelings of sweetshop glee, but all I felt was the impending pyrosis. We soldiered on bravely—suffice to say it was all frustratingly good.
In the context of a £25 meal Pollen St Social is outstanding. The experience was more akin to a birthday treat than a nice meal on a whim. Surprisingly for a restaurant that describes itself as deformalised, we felt fussed over. One man's boon is another's annoyance though, and the attentiveness can grate. There's a feeling you're being hovered over. It's discomforting to have your glass refilled after every sip and antithetical to the restaurant's mission.
But to be negative about being well–treated would be churlish, so I'll stop. Go to Pollen Street Social. Take someone who rarely dines out. They'll feel all special and it'll cost you less than forty quid. Just be warned that a light lunch this ain't, so leave time to take in the food—and to walk it all off afterward.