The Social Eating House
The Social Eating House has a classic brasserie charm to impress your social circle with.
First things first: Jason Atherton is a very good chef. At Maze he displayed a level of invention which was uncommon within the drab Gordon Ramsay paint-by-numbers empire. He did more than that damn raviolo of crab with which Ramsay tortured the dining classes for a decade. Atherton’s first solo venture in Mayfair, Pollen Street Social, gathered a devoted fan base and now, a few years later, come two more: a bistro called Little Social, which opened in March opposite the mother ship, and the more recent Social Eating House in Soho.
Witness the talent on the Social Eating House menu: from a list of jars to share comes a silky salt cod brandade under a layer of oily parsley purée the colour of a bowling green, studded with thick-cut salt and vinegar crisps for scooping. It’s a glorious thing. It’s the sort of stuff you get on your knuckles as you dig in unselfconsciously, so that you leave oily stains across the paper menu. At £4.50 it also feels like the act of a restaurant desperately wanting to be loved. As an opening gambit it was effective.
A salad of crab, lettuce and tomato – a little cringingly called a CLT – displayed that most virtuous of cheffy skills: the ability to make ingredients taste intensely of themselves, in this case the tomatoes. They were seared and roasted, sliced and dressed, as sweet and fresh as a spring dawn in a high-class laundry.
The Social Eating House bar, with its wood ceilings, bare-brick walls and brasserie-style mirrors, the specials hand-scrawled across them, is a dimly lit snug in which to hide. It is, they say, a casual dining place, somewhere to put your elbows on the table and get armpit deep in dinner.
The problem with Social Eating House is twofold. First, there’s the kitchen’s attention to detail. A fat raviolo stuffed with a wild boar ragù deserved to be taken home and cherished in a velvet-lined box – slippery pasta, intense meat – but it came on a mess of tomatoes reduced so far as to taste of tinned purée. The advertised “peppered hearts and kidneys”, which made me order the dish, turned out to be the offal first dried, then beaten down to dust and put in a grinder with black pepper. Eh? And what? If you promise me viscera, I expect something gutsy – not piddly, tasteless sprinkles. This was a menu lie.
Both the mains were grand notions – a tranche of hake with an Indian-spiced crust alongside roasted cauliflower; a piece of lamb’s neck with potatoes whipped to within an inch of their lives, and spun through with ricotta alongside lots of garlic and parsley. But both proteins were overcooked, the fish in a way that might have been caused by the scalding-hot plate; the braised lamb neck so that, while soft, it was dry and fatless. I left some. Desserts were mostly whipped things: a take on a brandy Alexander, with crisp bits of this and that beaten into the boozy cream and sugar; a chocolate mousse with a tidy little chocolate éclair filled with salted-caramel ice cream. All these dishes could have shone; at the moment they are merely trying to elbow their way to greatness.
The bigger problem is one of mood. They tell you it’s a casual place, but the irritations of faine daining are too deep in the DNA. I ask a passing waiter if we can order the brandade while we consider the menu. Terrified, he says he must find the waiter responsible for our table; he does not have the authority to take the order. So far, so faffy. We order wine and make the mistake of showing polite interest. Cue sommelier launching into a long speech, failing to recognise the twitch that indicates our eagerness for him to go away. Every dish is delivered with a long, detailed listing of what’s on the plate. And so it goes on. It’s an uptight person’s version of laid back.
Is any of this fatal? Absolutely not. But the Social Eating House needs a little tuning to become the brilliant showcase it could be for a great cook’s food.
***Since this article has been written, the well deserved chef has gained Social Eating House Michelin Star status!***
The Social Eating Poland Street is located at 58 Poland Street, London, W1F 7NS
The Social Eating House London opening hours: Mondays-Saturdays 12pm-19:30pm