Monday, 28 September 2009
a quick review of Polpo, Soho
Why a quick review?
Well, because I seem to have way too many things to do at the moment, and simply not enough time in which to do them all. I also didn’t take any photographs which will, I know, deter some of you from reading on...
Wot not photos? Why didn’t I take any? I think it’s just rude, to be honest. Call me a prude, but I really don’t wish to spoil other diners’ meals. The lighting in Polpo was very low indeed (without the candle on the table, I think I would have failed to read the menu at all - must be getting old), and to take any photos would have meant using my flash. I, for one, would rather not have a flash going off near me every 10 seconds - given the tapas-style dishes at Polpo - while I’m trying to enjoy my dinner with my nearest and dearest.)
So. Polpo. Set just off Oxford Street, and just on the edge of Soho as it is, this is clearly a place with ambition. I dread to think what the rental figures must be like in a location such as this, but I’m sure they’re sufficiently lunar to ensure that every potential new eaterie owner here needs to think long and hard before signing on the dotted line. And they need to have ambition. Lots of it.
Clearly, Russell and Tom (the chef) do. They made several trips to Venice to make sure they recreate the essence of a Venetian bácaro (a kind of Italian equivalent to a Spanish tapas bar) as faithfully as possible. Recipes were tested and tested again. Russell signed up to Twitter to help spread the pre-opening word, which is how I got to hear of it.
The ‘decor’ (or lack thereof) involves a lot of exposed brickwork – but not in an ostentatious way, somehow) – and tiles, wooden floors, mismatched tables and chairs (reclaimed from churches, by the look of them), bare light bulbs complete with glowing filaments, and a faux stucco ceiling. Fun, low-key, warm, and suitably atmospheric. Oh, and it’s pretty intimate. I doubt there’s room for more than 40 covers here, so space is at a premium. We were fortunate enough to bag the one alcove, so bear in mind if you’re not the social sort.
It means the emphasis is on the food and drink, which is just as it should be. The menu is printed on your table mat, so you can easily peruse while you’re sipping your (very good) Campari spritzer and nibbling at the accompanying pizzette.
It’s divided into 6 short sections – cichetti, breads, meat, fish, vegetables/salads, and desserts. Each section offers around half a dozen choices, none costing more than £6 or £7. Cichetti and crostini are, for once, properly priced – all around the £2 mark or less. As Russell says, they’re trying to ‘keep it real’. Good to see. (You can also buy wine by the glass, 50cl or 1l or bottle, the latter starting at £14 to the most expensive at £36 –another welcome move.)
It was hard to choose from such an array of tempting-sounding food, but choose we did, aided and informed by the ever-helpful Russell. He’s conscious that not every dish is as perfect as they would like it to be yet – but then, that’s what preview nights are for.
So, as though we were on Countdown, we ordered 3 from the first section of the menu (please, Carol), then 2 from the third, 2 from the fourth, and 2 from the fifth (thank you, Carol). And 50cl of Cortese.
Onto the verdicts. I can’t ever get terribly excited about crostini, but the fig, prosciutto and mint version here was good – generous with the meat, with a perfect slice of ripe fig and a leaf of mint to complement it all. The salt cod on grilled polenta divided us – I liked it, but The Other Diner didn’t so much, saying it tasted as though it had mayo in with the cod (it didn’t, BTW). I’d add that the combination of textures might not be to everybody’s taste but, like I say, I liked it just fine. The arancini? Ah. Never arrived.
Next up, the meaty goods. The slow roasted duck, with black olives, tomatoes, and green peppercorns was a stunner. The meat was perfectly tender, the sauce lip-smackingly unctuous. The addition of peppercorns to the mix lifted the whole thing just a notch. I could have eaten quite a few plates of the stuff.
The calves’ liver was equally pleasing. Moist, with a near-melting texture, and served with gently caramelised onions, this was another winner. So far, so good, and another plate licked clean.
Our fish choices comprised that Italian standard, fritto misto, with another (less standard), cuttlefish in its ink. Gotta love a place that chooses to serve up a dish that looks like bits of tubing in dense, pitch-black tar. Is anywhere else in London serving it? If not, Polpo is where to come to satisfy your cuttlefish cravings. The fish was cooked just right – tender, but with a bit of bite. The ink was as black as you like, fishy, and rich and slightly piquant. It’s not one for the faint-hearted, but if you like this kind of thing, you’ll love it here.
The veg/salad dishes we ordered were really to accompany the rest rather than to have in their own right, but they’re still worth a mention. The grilled polenta was just as it should be – light but sufficiently firm, with tasty streaks of char. The real showstopper, however, was the fennel, green bean and cobnut salad. The fennel was sliced as thin as you like, carpaccio-style, and tossed in a delicate olive oil with a little lemon juice, with a few of the slenderest green beans you’ll ever see, and a scattering of beautiful, milk-sweet cobnuts.
Desserts (2 from the last section, please, Carol) didn’t disappoint, either. Ciambella with chocolate sauce was extraordinarily good. Subtly lemony, fluffy sponge, surrounded by a more crunchy outer layer (think doughnuts, which is what a ciambella cake traditionally resembles), dribbled with a fine chocolate sauce. Double yum. If you don’t think that lemon goes with chocolate, think again. Our other dessert was a honey and walnut semifreddo, served in a lovely, biscuitty cornet – again, given those all-important Italian touches with a coating of chocolate around the rim of the cone, and also about an inch filling the very bottom of the cone. The semifreddo itself was wholly pleasant, if not outstanding, with the flavours failing to materialise much above that cornet.
Finally, coffees were as good as you get in Italy. Served tiny, in little glasses. Like.
Other pluses? All the waiting staff were generally pretty efficient, polite, and friendly, and all passed that vital litmus-test – when asked about a dish, they were able to describe it properly, and even offer recommendations. Check.
Gripes? Well, not so much gripes as minor glitches. Like I said, the arancini went AWOL. The Cortese could have been quite a bit colder. The service was, at times, just a leetle on the slow side - but only a little, and they were very busy. It certainly didn’t become a watch-watching, finger-drumming issue, or anywhere near.
By the time the night was over – their third preview night – Polpo had been visited by 5 restaurant critics. When they open their doors for real, on 30 September, I think they can expect a good few more, along with several legions of the food-loving public. So go now before it becomes impossible to get a table. I, for one, will be amongst those you’ll have to scrap with for the rights to a seat.
Actually, that wasn’t a quick review at all, was it? Oh well. Better luck next time.