Pollen – British chef Jason Atherton’s Gardens by the Bay outpost of his hugely successful Pollen Street Social in London – was always going to be an interesting venture. While Atherton and his partner, boutique hotelier Loh Lik Peng, have always favoured intimate, casual spaces – think Esquina and Cocotte, their other respective local entries – this is two floors and 560 sq m of fine dining in the climate-controlled Flower Dome conservatory.
Given the pair’s previous form, the interior is a disappointment. Atherton said late last year that it would feel like you’re dining in a Mediterranean olive grove – but, well, it doesn’t. Yes, the restaurant uses herbs from the in-house garden, and there is a rockery garden on one side of the dining room – but there’s no real sense of organic earthiness or charm. Instead, the parquet floors and slightly overlit wooden airiness suggest the buffet restaurant of a Hyatt hotel. The clientele is off, too – on a few visits, we saw more than one pair of boardshorts and a Chinese businessman wearing a knock-off Chelsea football shirt. Not quite the hip Esquina crowd, then.
Of course, Atherton and Loh can’t control who comes to their restaurant; and we might hazard a guess that they were limited with their ambitions for the interior (the rest of Gardens by the Bay has something of a MICE feel). But that’s part of the problem – we’re not sure the Atherton-Loh brand fits with that of Gardens by the Bay.
Luckily, the primary product here, much of which is also on the Pollen Street Social menu, is as good as you’d hope. Atherton is a master of innovating with quality ingredients without being too cute – and the seafood-heavy menu, overseen by executive chef Colin Clague, is an exercise in restrained class. The starters from the PSS menu are surefire hits: a perfectly textured baby squid ($18) with crisp piperade (pepper-y) purée, lime zest, sea salt and an optional squeeze of roasted lime; or an exquisite sweet scallop carpaccio ($26) with tangy vinaigrette, cucumber, thin-sliced apple and the intriguing horseradish snow, which has a texture somewhere between talcum powder and thin-grated parmesan. The patatas bravas ($20) is exquisite comfort food, coming with a rich, golden-orange poached egg and crunchy thin slices of chorizo.
Mains are equally stellar. Linecaught John Dory ($48) is seared to a firm bite, with plump minestrone cabaneros and the sweetest baby courgettes – and then the waiter pours in a velvety langoustine velouté. The buttery, succulent 300-day Rangers Valley ribeye ($60) comes artfully presented on pine-tree leaves on a breadboard. On a second plate is fork-tender cow’s oxtail, with the potatoes and eggplants charred to perfection.
Desserts – by pastry chef Andrew Lara, an alumnus of elBulli – are exquisite and blessedly light, and can be eaten upstairs under the Flower Dome’s glass roof. The ‘PB&J’ ($16), for example, takes a tube-roll of peanut-butter ganache and plays it off brilliantly against a faintly umami-tasting yuzu and tart-cherry sorbet. The bitter chocolate banana with sesame ice cream and caramel nitro ($18) is another odd-sounding dish that just works – a mess of bitter chocolate, crisp ice cream, crispy banana bits and traces of caramel. Clichés notwithstanding, this is a party in your mouth.
While the early service seemed a little directionless, that will improve – especially led by an impeccable if lugubrious French waiter who looks like a Ralph Lauren model. The wine and drinks lists are as extensive as you’d expect. But the clear quality of the products on offer can’t quite disguise the fact that this place lacks the charm of Atherton and Loh’s other efforts. Gardens by the Bay is slick, certainly, but it’s not cool – we’re wondering whether it was the right place for Pollen.