Pollen Street Social, Little Social

whipped salt cod brandade was like the well-greased flanks of a sailor. Suitably creamy with plenty of rough-hewn saltiness. And as wonderfully moreish as you might imagine

Can it really have been that long ago? I started writing this in, what, February? March? I can’t even remember now. I do recall however that the seismic #blaggergate/#bloggergate scandal had just burst forth on Twitter like the Gilgamesh floodwaters. I know, right? All seven or eight of you were up in arms at the time. Not quite #bingate, but still.

#blaggergate came about when an online-blogger-restaurant reviewer known as Hungry Londoner contacted renowned Soho eatery Gauthier and requested a free meal in exchange for a ‘positive review’. According to Gauthier’s PR man James Lewis this was indicative of “an ugly development in recent times that I call the food blagger…someone who uses the food blog as a platform to gain free stuff under the disguise of a review…It’s a bribe, basically.”

Hot on the tails of #blaggergate came #bloggergate, arising sylph-like from the former and specifically involving the not-exactly-reticent broadcaster and Observer restaurant critic Jay Rayner referring to another online reviewer as an “effin’ blogger” after a rather catty twitter spat (twat?). The issue: whether or not a critic can give an honest and impartial opinion if the meal in question has been comped by the restaurant. Rayner robustly maintains that this can never, ever be the case (he reviewed a place in his Observer column and rubbished it while a blogger was invited to eat there free of charge and subsequently praised it).

So apparently it turns out there is such thing as a Free Lunch after all. All the more so should you happen to be a food writer.

I think we can all give these kind of blogs short shrift, no? It is more obvious than the kimchi in your hotdog when some fanboy or the chef’s brother in law pens a glowing appraisal. But more than just holding up a less than flattering mirror to the integrity, honesty, impartiality – or indeed lack thereof – of reviewing restaurants, these on-line exchanges are in actual fact the marking of territory. All of a sudden the enduring pissing contest between old media and new, professional critic and amateur blogger, just got a little uglier. Generally speaking, the Proper Critics in the broadsheets hate restaurant bloggers.

The reputation of the professional critic does demand more than merely being an enthusiast with a typewriter and an eye for a freebie. They wield influence, their assertions hold weight and they know their stuff. They also get things wrong. But they also know how to remain dispassionate and even-handed when it comes to faddish flights of fancy that periodically flutter by the more outré parts of town.

Adrian Gill of The Sunday Times characteristically treads the line between true iconoclasm and self-parody finer than most would dare. Far more so than any other critic, he hams up the haughty provocation and studied eloquence with Samperish self-regard. You could clearly visualise him composing the line “As a youth I used to weep in butcher’s shops” with a completely straight pen. But when on form there is no better journalistic writer in the country.

The raison d’être of the critic is selling newspapers. Let us not pretend their work is some nobler calling, as gratifying as the prose may sometimes be. Amateur blogs, well this one at any rate, have come about partly out of admiration for writers such as Gill, partly out of a liking for getting bladdered in restaurants. They are anyone with a Twitter account and an opinion. It is simply because that is what is expected of all of us nowadays: posting our ultracrepidarian bon mots for no other reason than it being our god-given right to do so. “There’s a staggering volume of mediocre art being talked up by fools” art writer Jonathon Jones obligingly points out. “The appetite for discussing art is almost as insatiable as the need to look at it.”

the only things you feel might be missing are wreaths of electric blue Gauloise smoke and a Josephine Baker soundtrack

So here we have two restaurants: both new-ish Jason Atherton establishments. First, the eponymous Pollen Street Social is so-called for it being tucked well away down the poky, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it back alley that is Pollen Street, moments away from the decidedly un-poky Regent Street.

Pollen Street Social was Atherton’s coming-out party proper. The long awaited outcome, no doubt, of some Joycean epiphany experienced one day while at work in his old job at Maze (he was head chef there for five years): “If I don’t jump ship now, I’ll never know.” Then from nowhere came Little Social, his second restaurant across the street – as in, literally, directly opposite.

And then barely months later the looser, more laid-back, Soho-ier third sibling Social Eating House opens. Then all of a sudden the opulent Berners Tavern is open. And then East London’s Typing Room. Then breathlessly back on message with the city-boyish City Social. Rumours of upcoming wine bars and tapas joints abound. Frankly any one of these could be Atherton’s Künstlerroman; each one a portrait of the chef as no longer a young man but now one of the country’s most prolific restauranteurs. Oh, and let’s not forget the eight (and counting) places throughout Singapore, Shanghai and Honk Kong. Remind you of anyone?

Nevertheless Atherton has been dubbed the anti-Ramsay. He’s a Mark Two version comprising a whole raft of updated features and one that it is ok to like. That he cites Ferran Adrià as his greatest influence as a chef is perhaps even more eyebrow raising. All chefs are natural show-offs, sure; however it is still possible (and preferable) to be flamboyant, even wildly so, in an unassuming and understated fashion. The food at Pollen Street Social perhaps best underlines this.

Available menu choices for diners are typique: fixed price, à la carte and tasting. A novel Atherton trademark is the option for guests to create their own extended tasting menu by scaling down several offerings from the à la carte.

An appetiser of pork crackling and seaweed salt served with dabs of apple and mustard compote consisted of chunky, impossibly aerated curls of pig skin not altogether a million miles away from very chewy and deeply bacon-y honeycomb. Wonderful stuff. A whipped salt cod brandade was like the well-greased flanks of a sailor. Suitably creamy with plenty of rough-hewn saltiness. And as wonderfully moreish as you might imagine.

Crab salad with crab velouté, pickled turnip and samphire was all effortful arrangement, vivid colour and melodious counterpoint. One main course dish was herb-crusted pork jowl, polenta and apple, wild garlic, wild cabbage and apple caramel. Aside from pleasing timbres of lavender and cumin there was just too much going on. The meat was unquestionably the star though: caramel-soft with a sultry, deeply fatty flavour. But the puréed polenta with chunks of apple in it was like barf. My initial response was to chuck a bag of sawdust over it.

Other dishes such as the ‘Full English Breakfast’ of truffled slow-cooked egg, bacon and confit tomato and the ox ‘tongue and cheek’ are well-known, and delicious, Atherton trademarks.

And then puds. Cream cheese foam, pear, rum crumbs and walnuts was a brilliantly inspired take on a deconstructed cheesecake. Jagged, ice-like shards of bergamot infused meringue, lemon verbena sorbet, lemon jam and olive oil gel was pure eye candy; a fussy, modernist, melt-in-the-mouth version of the classic lemon meringue. The oil-cum-gel (oh, stop it) was, curiously, rather grainy in texture.

So straight out the door and in to Little Social. Here we have a French-style bistro given an ultra polished, super smart buff-up; a sort of glossied-up Belle Époque. La Vie Boheme, and all that: Art Nouveau – all La Tournée du Chat Noir and Alphonse Mucha. Affected frenchisms aside, few places – heck, few things – in life are as evocative as a Parisian café. Indeed the room is really just a snug bar and some booths with seats.

Whereas ‘Pollen Street’ is all bright and cream, sleek and just so, here it is dark wood and ox-blood, tobacco and leather. The only things you feel might be missing are wreaths of electric blue Gauloise smoke and a Josephine Baker soundtrack.

Here, food is frenchish bistro but with the expected flourishes. There is a salad Niçoise, a steak tartare and confit quail with foie gras. Each of them rendered exactly as you would wish. Generally speaking Little Social serves more robust fare though this notion was dispelled the moment a cauliflower and crayfish risotto arrived. A thing of such delicacy you almost needed tweezers with which to eat it. Cauliflower florets shaved down to ethereal tracing paper wisps came alongside barely-there nubs of crayfish in a gloriously rich risotto.

Halibut BLT (the ‘BLT’ component comprising a smoked bacon chop, grilled lettuce and a racy and sharp bois boudran) was very good indeed. This was a serious tranche of fish cooked to pearly white creaminess. Roasted hake, morteau sausage, peas and girolles was equally as fine. There is of course the customary steak frites: bavette or sirloin of Black Angus with either béarnaise or peppercorn sauce and you can even swap your fries for poutine – that slobbering, street-foody heap of fries, cheese curds and gravy. Only here it is a dainty thing in a little ramekin, all prim and spruce and with added chorizo and jalapeño. Nice idea.

For pud, a chocolate moelleux with salted walnut ice cream was textbook but the indubitable pièce de theatre here was a classic Tarte Tatin for sharing.

Surprisingly the wine list was somewhat light on French wines though there were some elegantly louche sounding cocktails to be had with names that evoke boisterous Cancan lines, seamy Pigalle cabaret houses and the sleeper down to Nice. I recommend the French Negroni, if only because it is essentially just vodka, absinthe and ice. But If you are up for a drink, I personally would recommend heading back over the road and making extravagant use of the 40-seater cocktail bar.

So really, two sides of the same coin. The same but different. Statement of intent vs relaxing into the role; Atherton-as-promised vs Atherton-with-a-twist; restaurant vs bistro. Both totally polished, both very convivial. And both expensive. At Pollen Street Social mains from the a la carte nudge towards £40 and at Little Social there is an (optional, thank god) ‘black truffle supplement’ at £20 per dish dish, should you desire it.

And if you were in any doubt whatsoever, every item was paid for. Now if only I had a team of sub-editors who, you know, could do all the work for me…

Opinions:
Pollen Street Social 7/10
Little Social 8/10

Details:
Pollen Street Social
8-10 Pollen Street
London
W1S 1NQ
Tel: 020 7290 7600
Web: http://www.pollenstreetsocial.com
Twitter: @PollenStSocial

Little Social
5 Pollen Street
London W1S 1NE
Tel: 020 7870 3730
Web: http://www.littlesocial.co.uk
Twitter: @_LittleSocial

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Maze

serious question, why would anybody pair chicken with orange? Or liver with orange? Why?

Mars Bars, New Years Eve, popular mainstream TV sit-coms, politics, political leaders, Ricky Gervais, genuine fast bowling, smoking, Margate, journalism, The Times, McDonalds milkshakes, the economy, banks, the Top 40, Glastonbury, A-Level exams, cartoons, funding of the arts, drummers, hip hop, snooker, wars, polio, Quality Street.

Clearly, the above is a list of Things That Aren’t As Good As They Once Were. It is by no means a scientific snapshot – it is purposefully flippant and light in tone – but it is pretty hard, I think, to refute the position of any of the above items on the list. At one time or other, the quality of any one of them could justifiably be described as ranging from Very Good to Excellent. And now – well none of them are quite the same, are they? There are degrees of course: some have gone completely down the pan; others, more just a nagging, gnawing awareness of the fact that a certain élan has faded, some characteristic otherness has been lost.

Take smoking as a particularly facetious example. Throughout the decades, cigarettes have variously epitomised ethereal silver screen allure. Light up, and one transforms into Cary Grant, Ingrid Bergman. James Bond, even. Smoking came to characterise completely Left Bank café culture: try and picture Hemmingway, Joyce, Camus or Sartre not wreathed in Gitane smoke at Les Deux Magots.

Smoking was proletariat solidarity. It was intellectualism and the avant garde. It was being a member of the band. The de facto description of the coolest jazz club in town was always ‘smoke-filled’. Non-smokers were always prissy, fussy, uptight and un-sexy. Yet fast forward to now and anyone who still smokes is a social misfit and a pariah of the underclass who carries with them everywhere a carcinogenic miasma of poverty, hopelessness, boredom, dole queues, stupidity and UKIP. Were a bar to be described as ‘smoke-filled’ these days it would sound about as alluring a prospect as an abscess. You don’t suppose it will be long before the last remaining smokers are bricked up in their bedsits for good and left to die the death they deserve.

So there you go: fags – once great, now rubbish.

And variously, political leaders: our game show host-alike deputy admits to wearing a onesie. Snooker: well it’s hardly the Davis-Taylor Final these days, is it? Ricky Gervais: sorry mate, what happened? Quality Street: why are over half of them either the strawberry one or the orange one?

Another thing that might now find itself on such a list is Maze. It really Isn’t As Good As It Once Was…

Maze is in the Grosvenor Square Marriott Hotel and forms part of the stateside television celebrity/occasional chef Gordon Ramsay stable. It was also the home of the very highly-acclaimed Jason Atherton, who, until 2010 was the executive head chef. There are probably few restaurants in London that boast such a grand location here at Mayfair’s periphery. Just minutes away from Oxford Street, the dining room overlooks the mock-Georgian Square’s gardens, that elegant, surprisingly austere and scrupulously maintained 49th parallel across which the American and Canadian Embassies face off.

My first outing to Maze was for dinner some while ago. I went with Charlie for my 30th  and everything, all of it, was a sublime sequence of elegantly assembled Belles-Lettres. The best thing? Just the sheer irreverence and humour on display in such dishes as deconstructed ‘BLT’ and ‘Peanut Butter and Jam Sandwich’, both now Athertonian trademarks.

Soon after Ramsay’s newest venture opened its doors in 2005 Atherton found himself le nom célèbre du jour; his carte at Maze the hottest ticket in town. He has an internship at Spain’s holy of holies El Bulli to his name, where, as you know, instead of a menu they had a surrealist manifesto. In place of courses, a series of hypnagogic non sequiturs. The toilsome drudge of mere eating was elevated to a Dali-esque realm where mechanics, states, flavours and forms were stretched beyond reason. El Bulli marked a kind of gastronomic endpoint. Where does one go from there?

Maze quickly became the most popular of Ramsay’s venues as Atherton’s training appeared distinctly unRamsay-like in every conceivable way. Ok so he wouldn’t be blindsiding diners with edible punctuation and nor would their menu choices be performed on Moog synthesizer to them. What he did bring with him was technical nous and creativity.

The food is ostensibly modern European with pan-Asian influences. “Uh-oh, it’s a passé fusion joint”. Luckily though, it is (was?) nothing of the sort. You choose several courses, between five and eight, that come in roughly tapas-sized dimensions. The idea being that you create your own tasting menu. While there may not be the traditional demarcation between starter-main-dessert, and all dishes are the same size, the menu is fashioned so that you start with lighter plates, progress through more robust fare and finally have as few or as many puddings as you can fit in.

…But the main conceit of this review remains: Maze is Not As Good As It Once Was. There is the palpable sense that something has gone awry. A recent lunch only served to confirm this.

Some rather fundamental questions arose relating to a pressed chicken terrine and parfait with orange and hazelnuts. Why would anybody pair chicken with orange? Or liver with orange? Why? Fridge-cold liver parfait was sandwiched between slices of pressed terrine – which to be fair was good and probably should have arrived on its own – then accompanied by a tangerine segment cut into a single wafer thin slice. No really, why? Experimentation is one thing, but I fear putting liver with orange is a clear violation of the Nuremberg Code.

A pork dumpling, daikon and wild mushroom broth was a far more harmonious affair, a love affair to be precise. Pork slow-cooked in just enough anise, five spice and ginger and reduced to inky stickiness got seriously good once the dumpling slowly melted into the delicate yet muscular broth.

Blade of beef, pomme purée and shimeji mushroom which, though perfectly fine, simply served to emphasize again the mis-match between what was on the plate. The braised beef, neatly and impressively fashioned into a perfect square was meltingly soft and the pomme purée quite wonderful. Shimeji are teeny-tiny Japanese micro-mushrooms, and oh-so delicate – the pixies of the fungus world. And so they found themselves not just drowning but utterly engulfed under a burly, brawny beef and potato tidal wave. The faintest barely-there dusting of piquant Japanese togarashi spice proved equally as futile.

Similar thing with pudding of apple terrine with rhubarb and custard ice cream. The terrine was like baby food; all saccharine, gummy, stewed apples. The ice cream was utterly fabbo in a zingy, summery afternoon sort of way.

But I did enjoy a very respectable indeed New Zealand chardonnay. An area where Maze has always scored well is its excellent selection of New World and by-the-glass wines. Here, you know that should you opt for a Californian Pinot Noir (I have, it was one of the best wines I’ve ever drunk – 30th birthday, see above) or a Chilean Riesling you be well catered for.

So the killer question. And pretty much in the same way you would ponder to yourself after stumbling upon an old lover you haven’t seen for years and who has aged really, really badly: “What on earth has happened?”

The point we are labouring over is that Maze is not as good since Atherton’s departure. It is less interesting, lacking that spark of true inventiveness. The kitchen is simply not as good or as experienced. And less fun. Therein is the nub. Maze needs to be a fun place to eat, it needs to rediscover that something that makes you exclaim “oh wow, look what they have done here!” when your food arrives, and not “oh my god, what the hell have they done here?”

The tasting menu idea still feels unique, so kudos for that. Here’s hoping that Maze doesn’t end up as a directionless, noughties Ramsay nostalgia act – ‘that passé fusion joint’ – at a time when the capital’s restaurant scene is as exciting, original and fast-moving as it has ever been.

Opinion: 6/10

Maze

10-13 Grosvenor Square

London

W1K 6JP

Tel: 0207 107 0000

Website: maze@gordonramsay.com