Tuesday, 10 September 2013
Pollen Street Social, Mayfair
While nobody has ever come to this blog for the visuals, and I imagine there's more than a few deliberately avoid it for the same reason, it would have been silly of me to reject a chance to improve my photography skills when given the opportunity. And so a few days ago I attended an iPhone food photography masterclass held at Lima restaurant, in Fitzrovia, eager to see if professional advice could magically transform my, let's face it, grainy, badly-composed shots of mystery lumps of dark matter into something vaguely resembling food.
Lima was presumably chosen quite deliberately for the purpose. The back room is blessed with a vast amount of natural light, and at 6pm the late summer sun was illuminating the already quite pretty plates of food emerging from the kitchens with the kind of soft, diffused glow that food photographers must dream of. So, yes, even I managed to get a few shots that looked like they could grace the pages of a reputable food publication, and enjoyed some very nice food into the bargain.
But the professional (in this case the very able David Griffen's) advice on how to take passable shots of dinner when you're not enjoying a meal in what is essentially a photography studio with dining tables, was a little more involved. "You could use one of these," he told us, brandishing a 12" circular reflector sheet that looked like something you'd see attached to a car in the hard shoulder of a motorway, "and don't be afraid to ask the restaurant to alter the house lights", adding quickly when he spotted our reactions - "maybe only if the restaurant is quiet".
So here we have the problem. I could take better photos of food, but I'm not prepared to make a nuisance of myself or embarrass my dinner date to do so. Many people think taken even quite surruptitious shots of a meal is unforgiveably antisocial - God knows how they'd react if I started brandishing an offset flash and standing on my chair. A polite request for a table near a window and a nice early booking is as far as I'm willing to go in search of a better shot, and if that means that the pages of Cheese and Biscuits are apparently illustrated with slides from a particulaly distressing medical journal, then I'll live with that. It's certainly not put too many people off so far.
With the apology for the terrible food photography you're about to see out of the way, then, I can finally tell you about a meal at Pollen Street Social. With head chef Jason Atherton's attentions torn between the startling number of new places he's overseen in the last couple of years here and abroad (Little Social, Social Eating House, and the upcoming Berners Tavern in London, and a good handful of others in Singapore, Hong Kong and Shanghai) it's all the more impressive he's found time to refurbish and revamp the menu at the Mayfair flagship. This was my first visit, so I can't tell you if the dining room(s) - pleasant and clean if only slightly lacking in character - were an improvement on before or not. Still, it's not a bad place to be for a couple of hours.
Amuses came in a great big box, which was a fun idea, and were largely good. Some powerfully herb-encrusted crackers were our favourite, followed by a cheesy biscuit topped with a kind of tomato-anchovy paste ("it's like a Mini Cheddar" my friend sagely observed). But I'm afraid a lump of pork crackling was so heavily grease-sodden it was like eating an old sponge soaked in cooking oil - not the kind of thing you'd want (or indeed expect) to kick off a meal in such a place.
Starters were, fortunately, much harder to fault. "Pea velouté, pea sorbet, cirtrus crème fraîche" was a beautiful display of summer colour and flavour, and with that irresistable command of contrasting texture that made my dish of the year so far (the pea and celery at Dairy) special. My own quail "brunch" (Atherton has also been known for his playful take on the "Full English Breakfast" in the past) came in a box of hay smoke, with a little brioche topped with a perfect chicken liver parfait and a glorious rich game consommé in a little teacup. It was, all of it, fun and flavoursome, exactly the kind of thing I'd hoped to be eating.
What a shame, then, that two 'extra' courses sent out next served only to demonstrate that not everything from the menu is as successful. I deliberately didn't order the crab salad with pineapple as a starter because it sounded weird, and weird it most definitely turned out to be, sweet and soggy and difficult to enjoy despite a nice presentation. And scallop carpaccio with tiny frozen nuggets of sour pink grapefruit didn't do much for me either, serving only to remind of a similarly underwhelming raw scallop and pomelo starter from Hutong at the Shard a few weeks earlier.
And then, bewilderingly, both main courses were superb. A bright white slab of perfectly-tooked turbot, skin crisped-up just so, resting on earth bulgur wheat and cardamom purée, was nigh-on irreproachable. And my own curried monkfish, moist and meaty and exact, won similar praise. Steer away from crustaceans and towards the fish is my advice - these guys know what to do with the stuff.
"Nuances of red" was attractive alright (you'll have to take my word on that) but there was too much bitterness from a rather unripe pear, and not enough of interest elsewhere. That'll teach me mainly for ordering based on a silly name and not the list of ingredients; I would say I've only got myself to blame but then I don't see why I shouldn't blame Pollen Street Social as well for serving bitter raw pear. Much, much better was "70% chocolate ganache, banana ice cream", a name which goes no way to describe the simply extraordinary 'coral' of banana and chocolate ice cream which formed the bulk of my friend's dessert. As well as tasting incredible, it dissolved in the mouth like cold candyfloss, and was quite unlike anything either of us had ever tried before. And surely they deserve extra marks for that.
So there are, undoubtedly, many reasons to visit Pollen Street Social and many ways of ordering yourself a fantastic meal. But there are also enough duds lurking around that ordering yourself a fantastic meal is by no means a given. And when you factor in the very Mayfair prices (£15-£20 starters, £30-£40 mains), I'm afraid it pushes the overall score to just below what I would consider high praise.
But that said, we did enjoy ourselves. And for every misstep to linger on there was always that pea starter, the hay-smoked quail, the fish main courses and that incredible banana and chocolate ice cream dessert to rest happily in our memories. So I'll have to leave it up to you to decide whether you think Pollen Street Social is worth your own hard-earned. As for me, there's just space to apologise once again for the bloody awful photography, and as the evenings rapidly close in, to warn they're likely to get much worse before they get better. In the words of Ned Stark:
I was invited to the Lima photography masterclass, and to Pollen Street Social