Social Wine & Tapas: Great expectations… (July 2015)

Being famous can sometimes be a problem. People ‘expect’ things of you and wonder whether your latest restaurant venture can possibly be as good as the previous one. Jason Atherton is a great chef and an astute businessman. Furthermore, when Pollen Street Social opened, it was undoubtedly one of the most exciting new ventures on the London dining scene for some time, justifiably lauded. However, it is a brave move of Atherton’s to compete not just on one, but one two crowded and competitive fronts with his latest venture. As the name would suggest, his James Street outlet focuses on wine and on tapas. In the first respect, places such as 28:50 and Vinoteca have established themselves firmly as purveyors of good wine in pleasant locations, while with regard to the latter, Barrafina and Tapas Brindisa (among others) show how tapas can and should be done in London. Overall, Social Wine & Tapas is good, but by no means excellent, particularly in the context of an already crowded market of comparable peers. We loved the atmosphere, laid-back with a relaxed soundtrack and friendly enthusiastic staff, but the food did not wow and our first choice of wine was unfortunately unavailable. Atherton’s take on tapas is to combine Spanish classics with stalwart English favourites. In other words, a Cornish Yarg cheese may sit alongside a Monte Enebro from Castilla y Leon, while also, for example, Norfolk suckling pig may be cooked in sherry caramel sauce. The benchmark test for any establishment claiming to offer Spanish fare must be its ‘pan con tomate’, a deceptively simple dish comprising bread topped with tomatoes, garlic and olive oil. A recent visit to Barcelona reminded me how successfully the Spanish execute this, yet our trip to Social Wine & Tapas also served to highlight how hard it is to replicate well outside Iberia. Our version lacked punch and was disappointingly bland. On the positive side, the suckling pig did deliver, as did a delicious concoction of roasted sea bream with piperade (tomato sauce with pancetta) and coriander. Less encouragingly, the Szechuan fried chipirones (baby squid) were more about batter than fish, while our selection of cold meats bordered on the greasy. Maybe our expectations were too high, but we were left feeling slightly underwhelmed and far from wowed by the overall culinary experience. You won’t do badly coming here, but you may do better elsewhere.