Jason Atherton has a reputation as one of the hardest working chefs in the business. His restaurant empire has veritably exploded over the last few years, with 18 institutions and counting part of the Atherton-brand. I visited Pollen Street Social last year (see post) and was suitably impressed, so I was keen to try out another of his ventures, this time his Little Social – which is situated just over the road from its more glamorous and decorated big sister.
The Ambience and Setting
As you walk in, the restaurant immediately has that French bistro vibe going on. The interior has a rather dark wooden panelling feel, with chalkboards, French posters and photographs, chic lighting units adorning the walls and some rather snug booths. It reminded me of a slightly upmarket version of the Brasserie L’Orleans (see post) that I visited in Bordeaux in June. The effect is certainly welcoming with a convivial, simmering hubbub greeting you as you walk through the door. As I perused the menu I opted for a gin martini (as I am wont to do at the moment); the menu reinforces the French theme, although it showcases some wonderfully British ingredients at the same time.
The Starter: “Eely, eely good…”
I plumped for the Warm Smoked Eel with Beetroot, Horseradish Cream and Watercress. Smoked Eel was something that I first fell in love with at L’autre Pied a couple of years ago and I was excited to see it on the menu here. As the plate arrived I felt that my selection had been vindicated. The plate was prettily dressed with that artistic smattering of beetroot sauce splattered Jackson-Pollock style. The watercress was placed delicately atop the elements on the plate to cap off a very visually-impressive dish. The smoked eel was delightful, soft and juicy with a lovely texture to it. I felt that I would have liked a touch more heat on the horseradish cream, as it was (to my palate) too much cream and not enough horseradish. The beetroot had that pleasing combination of sweetness and acidity to it, that worked very well with the eel – all in all I was very pleased with this starter.
The Main – It’s Cottage Pie, but not as we know it…
On to the main course and we opted to go for one of the Little Social’s sharing plates – Cottage Pie “Bourguignon” with Slow-cooked Ox Cheek, Smoked Alsatian Bacon, Champignon de Paris and Caramalised Onions, served alongside Honey-Glazed Carrots and Broccoli. Being a Brit, I have had plenty of Cottage Pie in my time and I was keen to see how this French take on it would compare… this was absolutely the most decadent Cottage Pie that I had ever eaten!
The top of the pie seemed to be creamy, cheesey, potatoey smattering of deliciousness – it just oozed butter and calories in the very best of ways. It looked like it had been finished off under the grill to give it some colour. Underneath the filling of ox-cheek, bacon, mushrooms and onions had been slow-cooked down to a deep, intense soup. There was the occasional chunk of bacon or mushroom, but by and large the dish was mostly verging on liquid. When it arrived I didn’t think that it would be big enough for the two of us, but the richness of the topping and the depth of the filling proved me wrong. To go alongside this we had some rather splendid heritage carrots and nicely crisp broccoli. If the starter was pretty and delicate this was hearty, wholesome and decadent. This was a dish that was very bad for you – in a very, very good way.
My wife was treating me to this meal, so I wanted to pick a wine that would please her. I went for the 2012 “Incredible Red” from Peachy Canyon (Paso Robles, California, USA) as Zinfandel is one of her favourites. I was hoping that its boldness (and often brashness) would be able to stand up to the might of the Cottage Pie and I was not disappointed. This had all the sweetness, fruit and power that one hopes for from a Californian Zin. Like a lot of Zins I found this pleasing in the “it does what it says on the tin” front, but lacking in secondary or tertiary complexity. Still, given the richness of the main, any complexity may have been lost – so all in all this was a very good match (if I do say so myself).
After the decadence of the previous course, I was starting to flag. We decided to split a pudding between us, choosing their Maple Glazed Doughnuts with a Baked Bramley Apple, Cinnamon and Port filling, Crème Anglaise and a Cinnamon Sugar – as if we hadn’t put our arteries through enough! The doughnuts were light and airy, as you would want them to be, with the filling being fruity and spicy. It was a joy to dip them into the creamy, vanilla custard and add the cinnamon sugar on top. We were presented with three, but could only manage one each as we were so full – if anyone can seriously polish off three of these on their own after a whole meal then I would be very impressed (and equally concerned for their health and waistline…!)
I really like what Jason Atherton does with his restaurants. They are set up with particular themes and audiences in mind, which allow you to aim at the restaurant that suits what you’re after – want fine dining, Michelin-starred cooking? Go to Pollen Street. Want some hearty and homely French bistro cooking that leaves you smiling? Go to Little Social.
Now I just need to go to all of his other restaurants to try and complete the set…!