Pollen Street Social

Address:  8-10 Pollen St, Mayfair, London W1S 1NQ
Bookings:  Booked
Day:  Saturday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: £££
Rating: 7.5/10

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.46I’m in the middle of reading the late Anthony Bourdain’s career-launching book Kitchen Confidential. Bourdain has some interesting comments on tell-tale signs that a restaurant’s kitchen may not be entirely sanitary, or its cooking particularly artful. For example, he says that if a restaurant’s bathroom is not cleaned thoroughly, then it’s unlikely its kitchen will be. If its front-of-house staff are dishevelled, smell like sour milk, and slump about the dining area like students nursing a hangover, then this slovenliness will also pervade the kitchen, where cooks will leave fridge doors open, not wash their hands, and hang on to fish just a little longer than they should.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.03.02His point is that a restaurant has an ethos, and if it cannot be bothered even to make the visible parts of the restaurant presentable, then the invisible kitchen will likely be the stuff of nightmares.

Now, when I eat out, I pay attention to these things (and I don’t eat fish on a Monday, but you’ll have to read Bourdain to find out why). Pollen Street Social, where we dined out on Saturday evening, passed with flying colours. Its staff were better dressed than most of the clientele. Certainly, better than I was. The bathrooms had the clinical shine of an operating theatre. Staff glided across the well-polished floors.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.38The occasion was my Mum’s birthday, and so the whole clan, plus my partner in culinary crime, were gathered in Jason Atherton’s flagship restaurant, Pollen Street Social, inconspicuously tucked away in a little side road off Regent Street.

The food here is nice. Some of it is very nice. My partner in culinary crime had a portion of lamb from the Lake District, pink and delicate, accompanied by a small mound of peas, broad beans and mint oil, that she adjudged better than the slow-cooked lamb shoulder we ate at Berners Tavern last year. This is praise higher than the Burj Khalifa. As she sat on the sofa this evening, she suddenly furrowed her brow, shook her head and murmured simply, “that lamb though”, as if marking the 24-hour anniversary of first encountering it.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.03Across the table my father was nodding approvingly at a plate of jellied eel, whilst my crab salad was sharp and fresh, a slither of crispy toast a perfect scoop for it. My mum made her way through a rich saddle of Lincolnshire rabbit wrapped in Parma ham.

If I have a gripe with Pollen Street Social, it revolves around portion size and cost. The portions were Lilliputian. I could, if challenged, have eaten my entire crab salad in one bite. My main course, a couple of pork chops, might have required two gulps and a glass of water.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.03.09True, the food we ordered were supplemented by a continual stream of miniature dishes that arrived unannounced at the table. A small tea cup of mushroom soup that kicked things off was exquisite. But still, Atherton is certainly coming down very firmly on one side of the ancient quantity vs. quality debate.

The restaurant is also expensive. The wine by the bottle would make a Russian oligarch blanche with terror, and not only for fear that Putin might have slipped a vial of novichok into it.

Screen Shot 2018-07-15 at 21.02.55No main course on the menu even thought about creeping below £30. That ignominy was reserved for the starters, which sat at around £20 a dish.

Nevertheless, this is a quality restaurant, serving very good food in elegant surroundings. And it passes the Bourdain test so effortlessly that I might even dare to order fish there on a Monday

Happy birthday Mum!


Andina

Address:  1 Redchurch St, London, E2 7DJ
Bookings:  Walk in
Day:  Friday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 7/10

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 20.12.27If there’s one group of people in the world who like raw fish and lime juice more than my partner in crime, then it’s probably the Peruvians. And that’s saying something, because as mentioned previously, my partner in culinary crime eats more raw fish than a hungry basking shark, and gobbles more limes than a sailor warding off scurvy. But the Peruvians love it more than that. They even have a national holiday for ceviche, the 28th June, where they doss off work and eat the stuff.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 20.12.09Certainly, it’s a dish worth celebrating. I was reminded of that last week at Andina, in Shoreditch, part of a small chain of informal little Peruvian restaurants scattered around London. We kicked off the night with a plate of sea bass ceviche, a princely fish marinated in lime juice, served with avocado, sweet potato, goldenberry, red onion, chilli and tiger’s milk. The dish was searingly, bitingly, wincingly tasty, sharp enough to cut diamond, the lime sending lightning bolts of flavour down the tongue. The sea bass itself was plump and fresh, soft as a pillow.

A side dish of some pitch black yawar croquettes had no flavour of their own, but it was almost a relief to have some palate cleansers after the culinary blitz of the ceviche.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 20.12.17Next to slide across our table was a Peruvian corn soufflé, topped with a loin of smoked bacon, an egg and some hollandaise sauce. Peruvian corn bread is wonderfully starchy, absorbent, somehow managing to be both hearty and light at the same time.

As we ate, I was fascinated by the couple next to us, who sat in complete silence for minutes at a time, looking at each other vacantly, before occasionally making small snippets of conversation which were so awesomely boring that they could have auditioned for Love Island, and probably won the entire programme if they hadn’t been overweight. The silent dinner remains one of life’s great mysteries to me, and yet all over the world they occur.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 20.11.54The centre piece of the meal was a braised duck leg, in a butter bean and pumpkin puree. This I found a little disappointing, the meat a little dry, somewhat worn down. It brought to mind a stringy, lanky duck, with a weary set of legs that waddled it many miles. It didn’t have the strength of flavour of the best duck. Perhaps it was a dyed chicken leg.

We finished with a chocolate mousse, topped with a dollop of elder berry and a smothering of pink rice krispies. Berries and chocolate are probably the ultimate dessert combination, and I wolfed this down, spoonful by spoonful, good to the very last.

Screen Shot 2018-06-26 at 20.12.01I had the meal with half a dozen pisco sours, and so probably drank the equivalent of 3 eggs with my meal. Each glass was a sharp, acidic complement to the food, and left me walking unsteadily in the gorgeous summer night.

Andina is fine, fresh and casual, part of a little storm of Peruvian restaurants capturing the hearts of London diners. Give it a try. In fact, why not embrace a little bit of the Peruvian spirit, take this Thursday off (the 28th, National Ceviche Day), grab a sea bass, throw it in some lime juice, and then try not to wince whilst watching England slaughter Belgium in the World Cup that evening.

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Sticks’n’Sushi

Address: 11 Henrietta St, London WC2E 8PY
Bookings: No booking
Day: Wednesday
Meal: Dinner
Price: ££
Rating: 5.5/10

 

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The irritatingly named Sticks ‘n’ Sushi is just off Covent Garden, on Henrietta Street. Apparently it is based on a Danish “concept”, which I think means that the décor is minimalist, and the furniture may or may not come from Ikea.

Either way, the place was bulging with diners on a Wednesday evening, and so we were seated downstairs at the bar, the whir of the kitchen occurring right under our noses. Bewildered by the enormous and chaotic menu (which comes in the form of an album with every single dish photographed), we pointed at the two-person Gala set menu and sat back to sip a pair of diet cokes.

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The Gala menu turned out to be absurdly large. Certainly, it was far too large for two people, unless those two people were a pair of sumo wrestlers bulking in anticipation of a yokozuna title bout. Some of things on this smorgasbord were nice. These included edamame beans, which I ate compulsively, and some delicious scallops with trout roe and miso aioli.

Screen Shot 2017-10-22 at 11.57.32Other dishes were less satisfactory. A plate of beef tataki with smoked cheese, chives and almonds (a fairly disgusting combination even to read) looked so incredibly grey and sickly, so like a corpse in a morgue, that I didn’t even dare have a bite. My partner in culinary crime, showing courage, ate one, and then pushed the plate as far away from her as was possible without actually tossing it onto the floor.

A bowl of tuna tartare was decent, but nothing to write home about. The final dish to arrive was a plate with three pairs of skewered meats; chicken, lamb chops, and duck. These were difficult to eat because they had been smothered in so much salt that each mouthful had to be accompanied by a gulp of water to stop the body rejecting it.

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Compounding this, the Japanese sushi chef who stood in front of us rolling maki and chopping sashimi spent the evening snorting so violently and loudly that I wondered whether he was trying to inhale the entire room up his nose. By the end of the meal I wanted nothing more in the world that to unite this poor man with a tissue and instruct him on how to use it.

Screen Shot 2017-10-22 at 11.44.08The atmosphere in the place was lively and the staff were friendly. A certain sort of diner will like Sticks ‘n’ Sushi, but on balance, we did not.


Temper City

Address: 30 Throgmorton St, 2 Angel Court, London EC2R 7HJ
Bookings: Curry, quiz and fizz booked through design my night.
Day: Saturday
Meal: Brunch – £39 bottomless prosecco for 2 hours, 3 courses and a quiz
Price: £
Rating: 6/10

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Saturday lunchtime found my partner in culinary crime (PICC) and I sat in the City outlet of the open-pit BBQ restaurant Temper. We were there to eat curry, drink ludicrous quantities of prosecco, and partake in a 1980s themed quiz.

Half an hour earlier, we had also been in Temper’s Soho branch, having been somewhat misdirected by my PICC’s socially challenged sister. Discovering the error, and desperate to arrive before the 2pm bell rang on the start of the quiz and the first prosecco cork was popped, we leapt onto the Central Line and dashed to Bank Station, from where we ran the rest of the way as fast as my PICC’s heels permitted.

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 19.53.40The quiz had a solid turnout. I would guess about 20 teams gathered to take part, and our collective appetites were whetted by the announcement of various prizes, including gin tasting and an all-expenses paid dinner at the restaurant itself.

I have to say at this point that the quiz and the liberally distributed prosecco (eventually the waitress stopped bothering to walk round and top us up, instead just dumping a full bottle on our table), were the highlights of the afternoon, the food itself being a little disappointing.

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The selection of starters, consisting of mutton rolls, crab bites and squid and samphire pakora, were nice enough. As on so many previous occasions, I benefited from the fact that my PICC has taste-buds that flee in terror at the slightest sign of spice, and so I was able to hoover up most of her plate as she cooled her singed tongue in a glass of prosecco.

We had three options for a main course: chicken curry, fish head curry, and a katsu egg curry. Between us, we ticked off each of these, and no one was particularly complimentary about what they ate. One of our number had to send back his fish head curry because it was colder than Siberia, whilst my chicken curry had cubes of chicken so pale and so perfect in their geometry that it was hard to believe they hadn’t been processed on an assembly-line far away from any BBQ pit.

Screen Shot 2017-10-08 at 19.53.25This is a shame, because I have heard people of good standing raving about Temper and its full-blooded cooking, and I am sure they are entirely correct, but that was not what was brought out for the afternoon quiz.

Speaking of the quiz, we put up a valiant effort, given that none of us was particularly sentient in the 1980s, and some of us weren’t even born then. We finished bang in the middle of the pack, and staggered out prize-less, but with our heads held high. We went in the direction of The Ned, where more prosecco was drunk, which was anything but free, but that’s another story. If anyone knows of a 90s quiz, drop us a line. Until then, Beat It.


El Pastor

Address:  6-7A Stoney St, London SE1 9AA
Bookings: no booking
Day: Tuesday
Meal:  Dinner
Price: £
Rating: 5.5/10

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 10.52.56I once had delicious Mexican food as a child. Once. Every other Mexican restaurant since has been a disappointment. In vain I have searched for the perfect taco, the delectable burrito, the delightful quesadilla. Instead, I have had to sift through endless portions of wet, greasy, rubber-cheesed stodge from Wahaca and Chilangos. Even La Bodega Negra, the popular Mexican restaurant in Soho, left me unmoved. 

So, when I heard that the owners of Barafina, one of my favourite restaurants in all of London, had opened a Mexican restaurant in Borough Market, I gathered up my partner in culinary crime and headed straight for it, feeling sure that the long voyage in search of great Mexican food was finally at an end… it is not.

As with Barafina, El Pastor cannot be booked ahead of time. Despite it being early-ish, and mid-week, all of the main tables were already occupied when we arrived, and so we were seated on some stools at a little table by the door. 

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 10.52.03These stools felt as if they had been designed by an ergonomic genius to be maximumly uncomfortable. They were also so ridiculously high that I felt myself suffering from vertigo as I sat perched on one, sipping a pineapple juice as I tried desperately not to look down. The problem was compounded by the fact that one of the stool’s legs was shorter than the other, so that each time I shifted my weight the whole thing rocked violently, threatening to send me hurtling down to the floor below.

We ordered up a batch of tacos, half of them chicken and the other half marinated pork shoulder. My partner in culinary crime took a bite of the chicken taco before recoiling in horror, the spicy heat of the thing turning her mouth into an inferno, and sending her diving onto the nearby bowl of guacamole in desperate search of some sort of coolant. 

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 10.52.25This guacamole was, incidentally, the best thing about the restaurant; thick and full-bodied, infused with lime and viscerally fresh, we made our way through 2 bowls, dipping tortilla chips compulsively into the green paste. 

Next to arrive at the table was a greasy little cheese quesadilla. It sat small and plaintive on the plate, a bit of cheese oozing unappealingly out of the corner. The tortilla casing was utterly flavourless, and we ended up prising it off to eat the moderately nice cheese inside.

Screen Shot 2017-09-17 at 10.54.23Lastly, we ate a tuna tostada, sprinkled with lime and sesame seeds. This was nice enough, but by then it was far too late to salvage El Pastor. 

So the search goes on. Did I merely dream it, all those years ago as a child? Is there no such thing as excellent Mexican food? Or are we just looking in the wrong places? To all our loyal readers, point us in the right direction, show us the way to El Dorado.