- Cicchetti & Crostini £1-2, Bread Dishes ~£4, Meats Dishes £5-11, Fish Dishes £5-7, Cheese ~£4, Vegetables & Salads £3-4, Desserts £2-5
- For the full set of photos, please visit my Flickr account (Meal 1, Meal 2)
Getting ready for cicchetti
Having just written about another Soho restaurant that offers good value for money, I am happy to be scribbling about another one which I recently discovered. Somewhat to my surprise, I was not the last London food blogger to visit the rather new and ever-popular Polpo. Indeed, it appeared that a twitter ‘friend’ I had communicated with virtually for some time had also not been (I know, the travesty), and it seemed like an apt time and place for a lunch with @KaveyF, the woman behind Kavey Eats.
I had a lot of preconceived notions and high expectations about this place. Firstly, the response from bloggers that I generally tend to agree with had been decidedly mixed. Secondly, having been to Venice a number of times and understanding the bacari that Polpo presumably purports itself to be modelled after, I was cynical about how well they would be able to carry out this concept in central London, without the ethereal magic of the Venetian canals and architecture. (As a side note, it is quite a neat coincidence that Polpo does happen to sit right beneath the plaque marking the spot where Canaletto, the Venetian painter, lived in London – see photo below).
There are very few places in London that offer proper cicchetti (pronounced ‘chi-ket-ee’), and I went to one just after starting this blog, which was a posher incarnation of the concept but wasn’t half bad (just a bit pricey). At their heart, cicchetti are very small plates of simple food that Venetians typically have from anytime in the very late morning through to mid-to-late afternoon at local bars (bacari), and they are normally accompanied by a small glass of wine. From my own experience, they are typically eaten at the bar standing up, or possibly on a stool or outside the bacaro if it is a warm day, maybe overlooking the canal. In fact, the icon that I use for my online avatar is the shop-front of a very nice little bacaro that I happened upon while staying in the relatively quiet and peaceful Accademia neighborhood on my last visit to Venice. It’s mostly frequented by locals and is quite traditional. They sell wine on a retail basis, offer some by the glass and a range of snacks to eat with the small glasses of wine they serve. I love the whole concept and ethos of snacking in Venice, so was hoping that Polpo wouldn’t screw around with the simple and successful formula too much.
Polpo’s proprietor, Russell Norman, was formerly Operations Director at Caprice Holdings (Richard Caring’s dining empire, which continues to expand rapidly…and internationally as of late) and, as such, has a lot of experiencing opening new restaurants and making them successful. He says that his two main inspirations for the restaurant were the bacari of Venice and Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Tribeca and Soho, where he saw a particular type of place to eat and socialize that didn’t exist in London.
The place certainly opened with a bang, and much was made of Russell’s proactive use of twitter right through the time leading up to the opening, and then during the eventual launch of the restaurant. Despite the reservations of some bloggers and critics, I was still excited to see what the place would be like, especially after having looked through the window many times on visits to other nearby haunts – one of my current favorite hang-outs in London is Bob Bob Ricard, which is literally just across the narrow Beak street.
Made for Manhattan?
I arrived at Polpo just about on time, as is my wont. Kavey had already arrived, though, and it turned out she had come prepared. Now I don’t just mean that she had read a few blog posts, reviews and looked at the online menu and therefore had a good idea of what she might want to order. No, the girl had a very large Excel spreadsheet in a very small font size which cross-referenced the dishes on the website ample menu against what some of her trusted bloggers thought of each dish. I was impressed, but also slightly scared 🙂 and we had a good chuckle over it…but it did prove very useful.
The menus were the place-mats, so we didn’t have to undergo the often annoying wait for menus to be given and explained to us. And I have to say, it all sounded very appetizing.
We asked our lovely waitress how many dishes she recommended ordering and I was slightly surprised at the number of dishes she thought we should have (basically a lot). Having said that, my dining companion was happy to go along with it, and I was eager to taste as much as we could, so we went with her advice of 3 cicchetti and four larger plates.
For drinks, Kavey ordered a beautiful little red Italian soda drink called San Bitter Red (yeah, you guessed it, from the folks at San Pellegrino) while I opted for a 1/4 liter of their house white (it literally seems to be bottled for them). The wine was crisp, acidic and refreshing, and certainly wasn’t over complex. I realized I had misread the wine list as I actually wanted the one listed below the house wine (a Trebbiano-Garganega white) but couldn’t be bothered to change as the Pinot Bianco was perfectly quaffable. The wine list is relatively short and all Italian, but the great thing about it is that you can have any of them in a quarter or half liter carafe, in addition to the bottle. It’s clever business also, as they don’t serve wine by the glass so probably take a better margin overall.
The cicchetti arrived and looked appetizing, although I think we were both surprised by how small they actually were, particularly the arancini and grissini. But we didn’t have too much to worry about (literally).
My favorite of the lot was the chopped chicken liver, which was spread across a slice of nice crusty bread. It was rich without being overly irony and the texture was perfectly smooth and moist. From what I understand, the kitchen has a general policy of not having more than 4-5 ingredients in most of the dishes, and here this purity worked well, as the prime ingredient (the liver) came through nicely. 8/10.
The arancini were also excellent, nice and crisp on the outside and nearly grease-less. Inside, there was a creamy risotto center, with enough bite left in the rice and what seemed to be a morsel of melted mozzarella, along with some herbs. Although it was only one or two bites, I enjoyed it a lot and could have probably had 5-10 quite comfortably. 8/10.
The grissini was definitely a bit of a letdown by comparison. Firstly, it was truly a paltry portion for £2, and I didn’t think the ingredients worked that brilliantly together. In fact, although the meal wasn’t that long ago, I am struggling to remember what it tasted like. 5/10.
The terrina was a solid plate of food. The flavors all came together nicely – with the sweetness of the apricot complimenting the slightly gamey richness of the rabbit – and it had a nice spreadable yet chunky texture. It was a good portion size for the price too, and I liked the little side of pickled cucumbers and onions. 7/10.
I was pretty impressed with the fritto misto, which is often done very badly. These were not greasy at all, and very crisp. The seafood all tasted fresh, the prawns were sweet and the squid was moist and not at all chewy. It was a lovely little pile of fried fish and, while it doesn’t compare to the real thing in Venice (my favorite is at Ristorante Fiaschetteria Toscana) or even the excellent version of it at L’Anima, it was very good. 7/10.
The pork belly was somewhat surprisingly my least favorite of the larger plates we had. I found the pork flavor to be too strong, but maybe this is just a personal thing for me (?). I understood what they were trying to achieve with the bitter (radicchio) and sweet (hazelnut) combination, but it didn’t quite work for me. The textures and the cooking were good, but I just didn’t enjoy it all that much and have struggled to put a finger on it, so to speak. 5/10.
The cuttlefish on the other hand was a bit of a revelation. I was always scared of ordering this jet-black dish when in Venice, and when I finally did, it was a horrible rendition that put me off the idea for a long time. I am very glad I braved it on this occasion, as Polpo’s version is superb. I found the sauce to be very delicate despite its rather thick consistency, and the cuttlefish had also been handled with the same care. I found it a bit surreal to be so eagerly scoffing something that looked like a pile of prawn sick District 9 (well, that’s not quite fair, it was ‘pretty’ with the strong black and bright green gremolata contrast, but just not all that appetizing for an uninitiated non-Venetian like me). Anyway, it was a great dish. 8/10.
Another revelation was their roasted potatoes. These were simply and masterfully done, thick and crunchy on the outside, soft, fluffy and flavorsome on the inside, with just the right amount of rosemary hit. A great side of carbs. 8/10.
It kept getting better from there. The flourless orange and almond cake was one of the best cakes I’ve had in a good while, full stop. It was moist and bursting with flavor, and when eaten in concert with a dollop of mascarpone and a bite of the candied orange peel, it was heaven. I think it was those crispy, candied numbers and thick syrup that made the difference. For me, this was the best dessert you could hope for in a casual restaurant like Polpo, and I don’t even usually like this type of thing to finish a meal. It certainly ran circles around a similar dessert I had at Jamie’s Italian. 10/10.
After enquiring as to what the Galani Pick-me-up actually was (I knew galani a type of crisp Italian dough, but not much more), and being informed that it was “sort of like a crisp tiramisu with coffee flavored cream and chocolate sauce,” I didn’t hesitate for an instant. I’m glad I had asked too, because this was nearly, if not equally, as good as the cake. The most interesting thing about this dessert was the intenseness of the coffee flavor in the cream. The rich yet slightly bitter cream was the perfect foil for the sweeter chocolate sauce and the crispy fried dough provided the necessary crunch to hold it all together, and to hold interest. The portion was humongous and I did find towards the end that it had become a bit much of the same to eat, but still managed to polish it off, from memory. 9/10.
I needed an espresso before heading back to the office, and it was very good, with a nice crema and served warm and not too tight (condensed). I noticed that they ground the beans each time they made a coffee, which was a good sign, and the flavor of the espresso was nicely balanced between floral and caramel.
I needed another ‘pick-me-up’
Over the last bank holiday Monday, Mrs. LF and I were getting quite hungry and felt like going out for something to eat. We couldn’t decide on where to go, but then she recommended “that Italian place in Soho that you’ve been going on about” and that was that. I knew there was a reason I married the woman – she consistently reminds me of my own brilliance. 🙂
We got there in the middle of lunch service without a booking, but I still couldn’t believe it was so packed on a bank holiday. We managed to get a seat at the bar straight away, though, luckily. The bar stools were very comfortable to sit in and I always think it’s a nice way to eat when there are two of you. Like Kavey, Mrs. LF ordered a soft drink (hers consisted of apple juice, mint and ginger), while I splurged on a slightly fancier wine this time, the 2008 Pieropan Soave, a producer I know well. Although it is their entry-level wine, it is still a good one, and went down well on the sunny afternoon.
We ordered a bunch of cicchetti to start with. The arancini and chopped chicken liver were equally as good this time around. New items included a potato and parmesan crocchetta, which Mrs. LF found to be very “moreish, rich and satisfying – exactly what you want in a croquet.” She gave it a 9/10.
Of the white anchovy, tapenade and egg, Mrs. LF said that “…it was nothing to get excited about. It was basically chopped green olives and an anchovy set on top of a boiled egg. While the egg had been boiled recently, maybe the dish could have benefitted from a different cooking of the egg, with it being slightly runnier, for instance. Also, the tapenade wasn’t a tapenade (as advertised on the menu) in the sense that it was just chopped green olives and didn’t deliver in flavor what a real tapenade could have done. To me, it was kind of a waste of space on the menu as it’s not something you’d come back and re-order, but rather something you order by mistake – and the title of the dish should probably be changed as it can be misleading.” 5/10.
Despite my previous experience, Mrs. LF wanted to order the salami and radicchio grissini. She thought that the combination of salami and the pickled radicchio worked really well, and enjoyed it more than I had on the previous occasion. However, she did agree that for £2 there should really be at least two served on the plate. She gave it a 7/10 for the taste.
I thought I’d include another photo of the lovely arancini as l liked this image a lot. 🙂
We both liked our first bite of the cold mackerel dish. It was definitely more bitter than sweet. It seemed everything had been pickled to some extent as even the raisins, which I had expected to provide the ‘sweet’, were vinegary. It helped that the sloppy little pyramid lay on a base of toasted bread, which lent some necessary contrast to the sharpness of the other elements. The problem for me with this dish was that, after about six or seven bites, it was just too sour and too sharp, and I had trouble finishing it off, even with the bread. While we both enjoyed it to some extent (Mrs. LF more than me), and there was nothing wrong with it, we felt it would have done much better by being served in smaller portions. Mrs. LF said that “It would be great to have this kind of dish as finger food, when you have a little bite now and again over an hour or two. But as a larger dish it’s too vinegary, and you lose interest after a while.” 6/10.
I’ve already commented on the fritto misto above, and it was also good on the second visit, although the squid were slightly tougher than the first time I had them.
Mrs. LF had ordered the flank steak, which came grilled and sliced on a bed of rocket and was dressed with a white truffle cream. She said: “It had a really good steaky flavor and had been cooked to my specification (unfortunately, medium as I am pregnant!). However, the meat was a bit tough and I had to chew it for a long time to break it down before swallowing the steak. The white truffle cream was absolutely delicious and made a perfect accompaniment for the red meat and salad. I must say that the rocket leaves themselves were very fresh, especially for a bank holiday Monday. I am always slightly suspicious and paranoid about salad leaves not being washed properly in restaurants, especially on bank holidays, and also hate when they are soggy and/or old. For example, on the last bank holiday, I ordered a Caesar salad at a well-known small burger chain in central London and the leaves were brown, soggy and clearly not fresh – but my fears were allayed straight away at Polpo. The dish was really good, apart from the meat being a little too chewy.” 7/10.
I had to have the orange and almond cake again as I had been dreaming of it some nights (literally). Mrs. LF was not let down either, despite my copious amounts of hype. She said it was “…amazing, such a memorable dessert. In fact, I can still taste it now if I close my eyes and can feel the texture in my mouth.” She said that the next time we have a dinner party she’d like to go into the restaurant and ask if they can make a whole cake for us! I wouldn’t stop her, it is bloody fantastic. My only quibble was that, on this occasion, it was severely lacking in the crisp, candied orange peel bits that had been sprinkled generously around my previous slice a few weeks before. These are really important to the dessert, so I would urge them to ensure they are consistent in this department.
I was tempted to have the Galani Pick-me-up again, but after remembering how big it was, opted for the more modest affogato al caffé, which provided roughly the same flavor combination (sans the chocolate) in a pretty little package. There’s not much to say about it; it was a perfectly fine affogato, though I would have preferred a smidgen more ice cream, but hey, I’m greedy. 6.5/10.
Getting ‘it’ right
After sampling a number of dishes over two long lunches at Polpo, I must say that really enjoy being in the place. They have gotten a lot of things right. The atmosphere is vibrant. The design is funky and spot-on, with loving attention to detail evident through features, such as the choice of hanging light-bulbs and the little sink behind the front bar. The service is relaxed and friendly yet at the same time attentive, informative and professional. And, for a very busy restaurant, the staff are remarkably efficient, keep their energy up and don’t seemed phased by anything. The food is generally very good also. I didn’t have any truly ‘dud’ dishes on either occasion (though some could use some tweaking), and some of the food was downright spectacular – in fact, Mrs. LF and I have been getting hungry looking back at the photos as we write this post.
I think it’s very important to remember that this is a casual Italian eatery serving very simple food and, on that basis, I think it succeeds marvellously. It is certainly better than what you’ll get at other places in London serving similar fare within the same price bracket, and the fact that it has a sense of individuality, purpose and integrity about it makes Polpo stand out for me against other such offerings. Speaking of integrity, it is certainly not a true Venetian bacaro as it is primarily a sit-down restaurant that has a lot of thing besides cicchetti on the menu, and in truth, the design does lean more towards the Lower East Side of Manhattan than the backstreets of Venice, although there are some Venetian features which have been sympathetically rendered.
Oh, one more thing, it’s not very expensive either. My lunch with Mrs. LF ended up being £26 per head, including one of the pricier carafes of wine (£10 for a 1/4 liter), and my lunch with Kavey came in only slightly higher at £29 per head. In the latter lunch, we had three cicchetti, four larger plates, one side dish, two desserts, a soft drink, a carafe of house wine and an espresso (and this included service) – not bad in my estimation.
It’s no surprise to me that there are plans to open a second restaurant in a similar vein in the very near future. It is to be called Spuntino and you can follow the developments on twitter or on the new place’s blog.
If you haven’t been to Polpo, I highly recommend it for a nice casual place to go and have a good time. But don’t think it will be more than that and don’t expect complicated, nuanced, high-end food – that’s not what they’re there for.
Wine: a small but carefully chosen little all Italian line-up, and as mentioned above, the best thing about it is that everything is available by the quarter or half liter, as well as by the bottle.
For more about my rating scale, click here.
*Note: I have dined at Polpo twice, and both times it was for lunch.*