May 27, 2011 10:51 pm

A high Pollen count

A classically trained chef decides to strike out on his own with Pollen Street Social restaurant in Mayfair
 
Jason Atherton

Jason Atherton

Pollen Street Social

At 3.15pm an elegant, silver-haired woman was leaving Jason Atherton’s recently opened Pollen Street Social restaurant in Mayfair.

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Nicholas Lander

She spotted Atherton talking to his manager, came over to kiss and congratulate him on the lunch she had just enjoyed and added, “It’s good to have you back, Jason.”

Atherton’s years as head chef at Gordon Ramsay’s Maze on nearby Grosvenor Square generated a following he knew he could not afford to squander. Once he finally decided to strike out on his own, 20 years after he started cooking at his mother’s guesthouse in Skegness, he knew he had to stay in Mayfair.

“[It] is a very particular village,” he explained. “Although I looked at other parts of the city, I knew that it would be much easier to get started here than anywhere else.”

The return of loyal customers is one of the reasons the chef, his bank, his wife Irha and Mavis Oei, a family friend, felt confident enough to invest £3m in morphing a former Pitcher & Piano bar into Atherton’s new professional home.

As a gifted chef with a tendency to put one more ingredient on each dish than is strictly necessary, Atherton recognised that his solo venture should take a casual approach. So PSS, as he continually refers to it, is divided into a 60-seater restaurant, a dessert bar with good views of the kitchen, and a 40-seater tapas bar. Atherton added the word “social” to bind all this together, with another nod to his northern roots.

 
A serving of salmon, avocado and herring roe cream

Salmon, avocado and herring roe cream

But a year of planning was not without its frustrations. It has obviously been a painful period. When I asked him about it, he mentioned “so many sleepless nights” and the fact that he “could never rest until his partners and the bank have been repaid”.

The experience might have been easier with a restaurateur’s input. Atherton has poured countless ideas into PSS without anyone there to question him or to insist that some could wait until the first year’s profits are in the bank.

There is, for example, no need to have the restaurant staff dressed by Nick Hart from nearby Savile Row. The gastronomic quotations expensively etched on to the glass panels seem another unnecessary luxury. As do the mail boxes at reception that dispense a present to those departing from each table. This money would have been much better saved or put towards the issue his architects have most conspicuously ignored, that of a low ceiling leading to harsh acoustics.

But the most obvious example of how Atherton came to confuse his customers and staff – and the reason for my four test meals, albeit each one enjoyed more than the last – is that he tried to include almost every trick of his trade in the opening menu. He sensibly abandoned this within a week.

The initial four pages included a set three-course menu; more than 20 dishes that customers could turn into their own tasting menu; then a list of à la carte first and main courses with the desserts on a separate menu. “I just assumed everyone would get it,” Atherton confessed, “but the negative feedback was immediate.”

When Atherton sat down with his staff to explain the new, much simpler menu there was, he told me, a unanimous reaction. “Thank heavens,” they all said, although I imagine that the exact phraseology was somewhat blunter.

Now that the brigade has to prepare far fewer dishes, the cooking is more confident. My last meal with a young, aspiring cook involved very enthusiastic comments as we passed backwards and forwards barbecued mackerel with cucumber chutney; an escabeche of quail with chicken liver cream; cod with lemon peel and English asparagus; and halibut with sprouting broccoli, mussel stock and an intense Catalan paella served in a shining copper pan.

We then decamped to the dessert bar for a vanilla cheesecake with rhubarb and ginger and another copper pan, this time filled with warm rice pudding. Atherton’s French sommelier has cleverly sourced their own superior white and red from the Loire, both served by the glass.

“PSS” is another example of a classically trained chef moving into more relaxed surroundings – Dos Palillos in Barcelona, Passage 53 in Paris and Relae, Copenhagen are others. This one, I feel, will owe its eventual success to a combination of talent – and northern grit.

nicholas.lander@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/lander

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Pollen Street Social

8/10 Pollen Street, London W1, 020 7290 7600; www.pollenstreetsocial.com

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