Lunch service can be the best way to sample the food at top restaurants without having to pay an arm and a leg. Set menus sometimes have the reputation of dragging up the scrag ends of the kitchen, but in the better restaurants you can get amazing value for money. This was recently highlighted by seasoned blogger The Critical Couple, who compiled a review of seven places offering special lunch deals. It showed a mixed bag of results, but by far the restaurant that jumped out at me was The Social Eating House. This is Jason Atherton’s new venture in Soho after rave reviews for the Pollen Street Social and Little Social in Mayfair. I have long been a fan of Atherton’s cooking and attitude to food, but the really striking thing was the value for money. I needed little encouragement as it was, but at £21.00 for three courses it looked an absolute bargain. You could spend more than that in Cafe Rouge. Venue set, and a Saturday lunch date was booked.
The day of the lunch was one of those sultry dreamy types just perfect for strolling around in town. Soho was crammed and buzzy with tourists, and the seediness had a few hours left before leaking out. The name Social Eating House implied an informality, yet we still didn’t quite know what to expect. The restaurant was about half full yet the small space still had a bustle about it and was welcoming, and interesting with the mirrored ceiling modern distressed walls. What was also noticeable was the total cross-section of diners. They were all there; Made In Chelsea in one corner, lad’s lunch over there, poshy date on the next table and the obligatory couple who hate each other at the end. She spent the whole meal on the phone. The man with the backwards cap and sunglasses meant that any notion of being underdressed was quickly dispelled.
Our waiter was kind, despite us feeling apprehensive about being the cheapskates ordering the set lunch and tap water. As is often the case, a glass of prosecco in and the nerves set to relax. Set menus in their very nature don’t offer much choice, but despite the few options it took some time to decide on our order. None of the items were what we would normally pick, with ox tongue, stone bass and lamb breast all billed. But I feel like these kind of restaurants are the places to jump out of comfort zones and try something new, so was excited to educate my palate.
Jay Rayner and The Critical Couple both recommended the starting jars, in particular the salt cod brandade with parsley sauce and thick salt and vinegar crisps. The jar was just that, a jar, and in it again something I never tried before. But after a scoop of the smooth fish and herb sauce we were instant converts. The flavours were balanced perfectly, with the subtle cod standing up to the garnishes. There was just enough too, leaving a lovely taste yet enough room with three more courses to go.
A beautiful plate of tongue. A sentence that I never thought I would write, yet what was put in front of me was just that. A thin slither topped with delicate pickled mushrooms, crouton and a sticky onion puree danced together and was visually stunning. Despite this I still managed to have food envy, as Katie’s starter was incredible. Pea, mint and ham soup - a trip back to the 80’s surely? Not in this case. A delicately poached hens egg sat daintily in the bottom of the bowl, surrounded by crushed peas and topped with shards of brittle, salty ham. The silky yet intense pea veloute was poured around and was just spectacular. This was no thick and clumsy soup, it was delicate, each taste pinging in your mouth. That one little bowl will remain in our minds for quite some time, and will always trump my homemade favourite.
The mains had a lot to live up to. Again my stone bass was stunning, and possibly the best way that I have seen cous cous presented. It was a true summer lunch dish; perfectly cooked fish, ripe tomatoes and pepper. It didn’t make the world move as much as the starters, but was delicious. Katie’s lamb breast with nicoise garnish fell apart at the mere suggestion of a fork and was rich and flavoursome. It is such an underrated cut of meat and certainly inspired me to give it a go at home. Two courses, and the best part of a bottle of prosecco down and we were (drunk) happy bunnies.
The dessert options caused me a few issues. I have a complicated nut allergy, meaning that some nuts are fine, but others are not so good. In the past I have been rather blase about it, but after a slight scare following my meal at Polpo the week before I thought it best to ask our waiter. In describing my needs I managed to confuse the poor man, but eventually it was determined that none of the options on the set menu were suitable. Instead I was kindly offered to select one from the a la carte menu, which I was extremely grateful for. That said, I was also jealous at the sound of Katie’s coconut and chocolate dessert which sounded divine.
It looked it too, quenelles of sorbet, aerated chocolate and a translucent tuile were swiftly demolished without the slightest taste from me. However, this time it was my turn to be dealt the memorable dish. My jar, yes another jar, of homemade yoghurt topped with strawberries cooked a number of different ways was frankly incredible. Granita, sorbet, poached and jellied all gave a different sensation. The sheer amount of strawberry flavour that the chef had managed to extract was ridiculous. I’m not normally a dessert person, but I would happily eat that again and again, and would return just for that.
The table next to us had managed to consume an impressive amount of cocktails during their meal, each one housed in a different ornate or intriguing glass. So we though it rude to not have one before our departure. The drinks menu had fun, if not slightly cringe-worthy names, and it felt slightly embarrassing to ask for two ‘dill or no dills’, but they lived up to their appearance and were seriously good. Often cocktails can seem too sharp or alcohol heavy, but these were a joy to drink.
We stumbled out into the busy hazy Soho Streets with that funny amazement that you get when leaving the cinema and discovering that it is still light outside. But we were also amazed at the food we had just eaten, especially considering the value. The skill of the chef is to use humble ingredients and make them sing, and this had been a masterclass. Simple pea soup, old-fashioned tongue and forgotten pieces of lamb all the polar opposite. Certainly another astounding success in the making for the Jason Atherton team, and I look forward to visiting his other restaurants for food that good.