How many successful restaurants does it take to build a restaurant empire? Five, ten, twenty, or something in between? Asking someone like Jason Atherton could be a smart move, the man has fifteen restaurants in The Social Company. That sheer number alone would constitute an empire, but then you also consider their locations – London, New York, Dubai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Cebu, and Sydney – and wow, that’s what I call a proper empire. In a climate where opening one successful restaurant in any of those major cities is an achievement, having fifteen under your belt is quite a miraculous feat.
Whether he managed it through sheer skill, hard graft, or dumb luck, I was curious. So where better to start my investigation than Atherton’s flagship, Pollen Street Social, the first of three Michelin star restaurants, in The Social Company. We arrived on Pollen Street to find a refined and much larger than expected dining room, it was well-kitted out but not ostentatiously so; I like that sort of restraint.
On any other Monday night, we might have shown some restraint ourselves and ordered from the a la carte menu (or just stayed in) but we had an anniversary to celebrate or perhaps more aptly, had an anniversary to use as an excuse for our extravagance. We decided to go big, as we had no intention of going home after settling into the cushy surrounds with cocktails and canapés, and went ahead with the eight course tasting menu. With the classic wine pairing. Like I said, go big… this was definitely a Monday night like no other.
The first course was an immaculately prepared Scottish langoustine surrounded by pickled onions, pretty flowers, and finished with a chilled green pea broth. I could eat langoustines on their own all day long but the vibrancy of the broth in both colour and taste really brought it to life! The colour palate of the Colchester crab salad with apple and coriander was far more muted, but the flavours conveyed so much more. It was a well-balanced dish where the sweetness of the crab held its own against all the other elements on the dish – too often they overpower but not in this instance.
When we saw haggis, neeps and tatties on the menu, we couldn’t imagine what they would do with this Scottish staple, but we certainly weren’t expecting a version of spaghetti bolognese. It may have looked a million miles away from the traditional trio stack but that distinctive haggis was unmistakeable. Rich, unctuous and utterly addictive; I think anyone could be a haggis fan if they tried it in bolognese form!
The fish course of perfectly cooked South Coast turbot with caramelised celeriac, chestnuts and black truffle sauce veered back towards the traditional but was no less exciting than its predecessors. For our meat mains, there was a choice – this took us both by surprise as one usually forfeits all right to make decisions once you’ve decided to embark on the tasting menu. Though this additional decision was far from a challenge, it was venison or lamb and we simply took one of each.
A certain someone did the gentlemanly thing and let me choose first, and I did the most ladylike thing of nabbing the venison without a second thought. I do like lamb but often find the richness a little challenging as part of a tasting menu. Apparently not an issue here as the lamb loin and separately served braised lamb neck was given the ‘lick the plate clean’ seal of approval.
I must admit, the blushing towers of lamb loin looked so tempting that I did have a momentary pang of orderer’s regret but the Carmel Valley venison was equally appetising. Chocolate and pear are more commonly found in desserts, but they always work well with a gamey meat such as venison. Both the mains left us incredibly well-sated but by no means too full for the three desserts that were to follow.
Three sweet endings may seem excessive to some people but I can assure you, I am not of them – the thought alone gave me the beginnings of a sugar high. Milk, honey and oats appeared as a whimsical bumblebee shaped quenelle of ice cream while the Eton Mess was nothing like the usual Mess. There were blackcurrants instead of strawberries and all the creamy mess was contained within a perfectly un-messy meringue case… until we smacked our spoons onto it… then voila, Eton Mess.
And finally, there was chocolate. I like the fruity or unusual desserts but nothing beats a chocolate number, especially one that is decadent and beautiful. The last dish of the night was a bitter chocolate pavé, olive biscuit, olive oil conserve and chocolate ice cream. The olive elements raised some eyebrows at the table; I’ve learnt to like these pungent little beasts in recent years but letting them mingle with my precious chocolate seemed like a step too far. Oh ye of little faith I was, the subtle hints of earthiness and saltiness actually tempered the sweetness, transforming it from what would have been a delicious yet obvious dessert to something much more complex and grown up.
By the end of it all, we were a tad tipsy and somewhat giddy – that’s what eight splendid courses with matching wines will do to you. The whole tasting menu was what I would rather pretentiously describe as ‘subtly complex’. To produce this kind of food takes skill and quality ingredients, both of which Pollen Street Social clearly have. They emphasise the importance of provenance and proudly publish their producers, but with every will in the world, even the best ingredients in the wrong hands could be a disaster.
Here though, there were no mistakes and no smoke and mirrors; all the elements were easily identifiable but perhaps weren’t served in a way that was obvious or tasted a way we expected. It was clever, but of course it was – you don’t get Michelin stars and build empires without being clever.
Have you tried any of the restaurants in the Atherton empire? Which is your favourite?