Spuntino – An Englishman in New York (in London)

Spuntino
61 Rupert Street
London W1D 7PW
Website
Map
Note: no reservations, no phone line

  • As the name implies (‘spuntino’ means ‘snack’ in most of Italy), the menu consists of small plates, all of which are priced well below £10, aside from a dish or two
  • You can view all of the photos from this meal on my Flickr

The latest, smallest & funkiest Soho outpost from Russell Norman, Spuntino has a great ambience & is a lot of fun. They have concocted some great cocktails and the food is simple, satisfying & just that little bit different for London. It is a great place to drop by for a drink and/or a quick bite, but you could easily find yourself there many hours later, even if you came alone.

In search of some comfort

I was in London. I was working. It was late. I was alone. I needed food. I wanted comfort.

Soho’s Rupert Street has traditionally offered a certain brand of ‘comfort’, although I wasn’t in the market for that. Luckily, the same street now offers culinary contentment too, thanks to Russell Norman’s third addition to the neighborhood in less than two years.

Continuing the Italian language conceit – his first two restaurants are called Polpo and PolpettoSpuntino is really not very Italian at all, aside from the name and presumably the kitchen’s pedigree. Russell described it to me as a “diner,” although this is diametrically opposed to those shiny aluminum-clad monstrosities that cater to the elderly by day and drunk college students by night, and have at least 30 pages in their menus. No, Spuntino is achingly hip; lower east side (LES) Manhattan hip. It is self-conscious of this fact, yet not in an annoying or condescending way, which is not very LES.

The bustling bar

Despite the efforts of its raised ceiling, Spuntino is a very small space, and easily gets cramped in the evenings. Ajax, the imposing yet soft-spoken restaurant manager who used to run the bar at sibling Polpo and is the progenitor of the creative speakeasy-inspired cocktail menu, informed me that since they opened the doors, it has pretty much been busy the whole day through (they open at 11am and close ‘late’), every day. On my visit, they had been open for about three weeks and he hadn’t had a day off yet.

Spuntino is essentially one large u-shaped bar, which has a beautiful nickel-like metallic finish. There are 24 stools and a long makeshift corridor along the long side of the ‘u’ that leads to a small backroom, which has a table that seats six. When they took over the space from a non-noteworthy Indian restaurant, they discovered original tiles buried deep beneath the plaster. These, as well as the extra feet of space they uncovered above the previous ceiling, add considerably to the charm of the room, as do other countless little design details such as the choice of hanging lights.

At night, the place is dark, the music is a slightly loud and infatuating collection of mainly American classics, and it is populated by the type of people who tend to know about cool things before others do (present company generally excluded). The staff all seemed to be tattooed somewhere or other, and almost in spite of their appearances also tended to be very professional, especially given that their computer system had broken down on the night of my visit and all the tickets had to be done by hand.

As I was dining solo, and as the bar has an even number of stools, I was seated straight away despite the hulking mass of onlookers who were sipping cocktails and waiting for a spot to sit. Score.

Bramerican bites

As with Polpo and Polpetto, the menus are printed on a stylish thick rectangular piece of paper that serves as your place-mat for the evening. The food is somewhat of a mish-mash of things (sort of like a diner, I guess), but everything sounds appetizing and much of it seems downright naughty if you have any airs about being at all healthy. But this was fine. Given the day I had just had, and the week I was about to, I felt the need, the need for greed.

Sazerac cocktail

Before consuming any food, I decided I should try one of their cocktails, which all sounded interesting. My initial tipple was the Sazerac, which was poured from a silver teapot into a beautifully engraved antique silver teacup – cutely in-keeping with the prohibition-era theme. There was no getting around it, the drink was d*mn strong. In addition to the main ingredients (Sazerac rye whiskey, Peuchaud’s Bitters, lemon peel and definitely some kind of sweetener), it apparently contained a splash of Absinthe as well, so I knew this was going to be a walk on the wild side. Though it was strong, it was deftly balanced, and I enjoyed sipping on it – as I would a cup of tea – while perusing the familiar-looking menu that was full of unfamiliar dishes.

Mug o’ Popcorn

After ordering, they brought me a mug of complimentary popcorn fresh from the little machine they have behind the bar. It seemed sort of incongruous, but the Absinthe was kicking in, so I really didn’t mind.

In yet another social media coincidence, it turned out I was sitting next to someone I follow on twitter but had never met in person, the writer of the beautifully written and carefully considered blog Twelve Point Five Percent, @HRWright. His glamorous companion, who I later realized was @mrstrefusis, informed me that, for her, the food at Spuntino was really there to soak up the potent cocktails, and I think she may have had a point. Thank goodness for everyone that food began manifesting in front of me before I got a second cocktail in me…

Eggplant Chips & Fennel Yogurt

First up was a dish that perfectly illustrated Spuntino’s schizophrenic identity. ‘Eggplant’ (American for aubergine) ‘Chips’ (British for fries) and ‘Yoghurt’ spelled the British way. Despite the cross-cultural spelling, my verdict on the dish couldn’t be clearer: it was great. Perfectly light and crispy, the richness of the chips’ breading and the eggplant itself was balanced by the cool, creamy ‘yogurt’ (I am American so spell that way, except for the occasional unintentional intrusion from Microsoft Word’s spell-checker, which is for some reason permanently set in UK English on my computer). Simple and delicious; ‘nuff said.

Ground Beef & Bone Marrow Slider

I also enjoyed my little slider. Essentially a ground beef meatball, they are apparently cooked in butter and, after they have reached the desired level of done-ness, they mop up the juices in the pan with the soft and slightly sweet miniature buns. The beef itself was a nice consistency, and combined with the remnants of butter and marrowbone, this was a great little bite (or two), with some tang from the pickles steering it away from being too rich and providing some welcome crunch. Nothing life changing, but very satisfying indeed.

Truffled Egg Toast

I had read rave reviews of the simple-looking truffled egg toast. From what I could make out, this was basically a thick slice of decent crusty white bread that had been hollowed out in the center to make way for oozy orange egg yolk, on top of which had been added a generous layer of cheese (which was either all or part Fontina) and a healthy dash of truffle oil. There was a very pleasant and distinct resonance from the truffle oil, and the textures all worked. It was nice, but not quite as good as I had expected given the comments I had seen. Maybe I shouldn’t have expected the world though…after all, it is white bread, cheese and eggs.

Polpo Prosecco ‘08

As I was taking a breather, and pondering what to order next, Ajax decided to make me a follow-up cocktail on the house. This was after I had ordered and began drinking a glass of Polpo’s own-label prosecco, which is supplied by Dal Bello from Treviso, and is particularly nice, with the slightest sweetness to it. The cocktail was also very good, although all I can remember about it now was that it was orange in color and sort of sweet and sour. Like my first drink, it was more balanced than I was becoming.

Duck Ham, Pecorino & Mint

I wasn’t quite sure what to order next, but felt that I needed some enzymes to dismantle the deviousness of my first trio of dishes. Ajax strongly recommended the ‘duck ham’ salad. They make their own ‘ham’ by aging the duck for 10 days in the Polpo kitchen. This might have been my favorite dish. It was a really great salad, with a zippy dressing, and the duck itself was divine. The pecorino gave it that little bit of salty and nutty richness while the mint kept things fresh. Once again, simple but excellent.

Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwich

For dessert, it had to be a peanut butter and jelly ‘sandwich’. The trick here was that the bread of the sandwich was in fact peanut butter ice cream. This was downright delicious, and the size wasn’t too small either. The berry sauce was rich and the heap of crunchy peanuts and toffee made for the perfect topping. I enjoyed every bite. And with this, I offered my sweet surrender.

A diner refiner

While I have enjoyed meals at both Polpo and Polpetto, Spuntino is definitely a bit of a departure. While the décor is roughly of the same ilk – perhaps a bit broodier – and the food is arranged in small plates, it is definitely not Venetian (or for that matter Italian). It is comfort food, up with a twist. This makes it fun, especially when the cocktails are as good as they are.

The little things

Beyond the gratifying food and innovative libations, Spuntino is a vibe, an atmosphere. It is just a really fun place and you can’t help but be in a good mood once you step in from the colorful amusements on the other side of the frosted glass. If I still lived in London, I could see myself coming here a bit too often.

*Note: I have dined at Spuntino once, and it was for dinner*

Spuntino on Urbanspoon

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Best Bites & Superior Sips of 2010

Quite unintentionally iconoclastic in its timing, I am publishing a list of some of the best things I ingested during 2010, now that it’s already 2011. I know, I know…forever behind the times. (The ‘unintentionally’ part – if you happen to care – is because I was stuck in Florida due to the storms in the Northeast of the US and didn’t have access to my laptop with all of my photos and notes).

I have decided against posting favorite meals in favor of the most enjoyable dishes of food and glasses (or bottles) of wine, which gives the added benefit of highlighting some excellent establishments and vintners about which, for some reason or other – call it laziness or busyness – I have yet to post a fuller review.

I have made no distinction between the type of place in which the food was served and have included a few oddballs for the fun of it. I thought maybe it might be easier to digest (pardon the pun) by dividing the list into different parts of the day. I didn’t necessarily have all of the dishes at the specified time of the day (though I mostly did), but assigned them to the mealtime that people would be most likely to consume them.

But without further adieu, Maestro, drum-roll please…

BREAKFAST

Best Eggs Benedict:
The Heathman, Portland, Oregon

Smoked Salmon Eggs Benedict at The Heathman

Well, to come clean, I didn’t actually order this, it was Mrs. LF’s dish. But she swore at the time that “this is the best eggs Benedict I’ve ever had” – no small praise indeed. I tasted it and had to concur – it was pretty darn good, as many things are at The Heathman. Not particularly exciting, but very, very good. I think even Monica, Michel Roux’s sous-chef would have been happy with the perfect hollandaise sauce. 🙂

Heathman on Urbanspoon

Best Waffle:
Original Pancake House, Boca Raton, Florida

Belgian Waffle with Blueberries at The Original Pancake House

Exceedingly light and perfectly crispy, these were the surprise hit of our recent pilgrimage to one of the bastions of my childhood memories. Their famous apple pancake (which is about the size of a small horse) was still largely as I remember it, but I think my taste buds have moved on a bit since I was 10 years old – it’s pictured below so you can get an idea of what it looks like.

Childhood Memories (But No Award): Apple Pancake at The Original Pancake House

It is delicious, but just a little too sweet for me nowadays. It is still a unique and memorable dish, though.

Best Non-traditional Brunch Dish:
wd~50, NYC

Everything Bagel, Smoked Salmon Threads, Crispy Cream Cheese at wd~50

Out of all of the immensely whimsical and delicious dishes on wd~50’s tasting menu when I visited with Brother LF, this was quite possibly my favorite, in no small part due to the presentation. I mean, it does look like an ‘everything’ bagel, right?…but it’s ice cream, not bread! It tasted like one of the quintessential New York breakfasts of nova, cream cheese and bagel, but in a very grown up and refined way. It was a painstakingly and lovingly created reinterpretation of a piece of Americana – in a word: wonderful. I savored each dainty bite that I took. If I would have had Heston’s Nitro-Scrambled Egg & Bacon Ice Cream from The Fat Duck in 2010, this may have beat out wd~50.

wd-50 on Urbanspoon

Best Macchiato:
Stumptown Coffee Roasters, Portland, Oregon

Macchiato at Stumptown

My favorite place for my daily coffee (when I am near one, that is). I also like Joe the Art of Coffee too, and frequent the one in Grand Central Terminal when I commute into NYC…though the West Village one is much more cozy and you can sit down.

Stumptown Coffee Roasters on Urbanspoon

Joe The Art of Coffee on Urbanspoon

Best Cappuccino:
Café Umbria, Portland, Oregon

Cappuccino at Café Umbria

Father LF swore by it, and I swore it couldn’t be good, but in the end elderly wisdom one out. The foam was perfect and the espresso excellent.

Caffe Umbria on Urbanspoon

Best Mocha:
Kaffeine, London

Sorry, no photo for this one, but Mrs. LF swore it was the best mocha she ever had, and from my wee taste, I thought the balance between sweet and bitter was pretty amazing. I love this London coffee-house too – definitely one of my favorites, and the lunch fare is good too.

Kaffeine on Urbanspoon

ELEVENSES

Best Brownie:
Paul A. Young, London

Classic Brownie from Paul A. Young

I’ve tasted a lot of brownies in my time, but this blows them all out of the water. It is at once indulgent and addictive, and it became an expensive yet highly worthwhile habit of mine (at Mrs. LF’s begging, of course) to buy copious amounts of these rich brownies whenever we (she) had a hankering for them in the few months after we discovered them and before we were leaving London behind  us. If you are in London, or if you visit, try one at Paul’s charming shop in Camden Passage in Islington. If you like brownies, there is a very comprehensive review of some of the better ones on offer in the London area on @mathildecusine‘s blog here.

Paul A Young Fine Chocolates on Urbanspoon

Best Cream Puff:
Beard Papa’s, NYC

Classic Cream Puff from Beard Papas

I had read about these oddball cream puff shops somewhere or other and before realizing that they had a location in London (which closed a few months ago), I found one on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. They do what it says on the tin, so to speak – effortlessly light puff pastry gives way to a lovely cream filling – they are also very addictive, so be careful.

Beard Papa Sweets Cafe on Urbanspoon

LUNCH

Best Sandwich:
Bunk Sandwiches, Portland, Oregon

Pork Belly Cubano at Bunk Sandwiches

This cubano sandwich consisted of pork belly, ham, Swiss cheese, mustard and pickles. Let me just say this: it was not only my best sandwich of 2010, it was the best sandwich I’ve ever had. Mrs. LF concurred. Now, maybe I don’t know all that much about sandwiches, but I know what I know. If you ever go to Portland, go to Bunk and try this if it’s on the menu (which changes daily).

Bunk Sandwiches on Urbanspoon

Best Burger (Two-Way Tie):
Shake Shack, NYC
Café of Love, Mt. Kisco, New York

Cheeseburger at Shake Shack

Now I like a good burger just as much as the next guy, but I don’t eat them all that often…or at least I didn’t until I moved back to the New York area. In any case, I tend to like the more fast-food style burgers, and I prefer my patties smashed, thank you very much. Out of the ones I had this year, my favorite had to be Shake Shack, despite how unoriginal this may be and how many moans I may get from the New York and/or East Coast burgerati. But hey, it was just really good. In fact, I couldn’t fault it in any way. Oh, and by the way, my malted peanut butter shake was off the hook too, using the parlance of our times.

Shake Shack (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Grass-fed Beef Burger with Brie, Apple Butter & Smoked Bacon at Café of Love

Having said all that, every now and again, I get the hankering for one of the constantly-evolving offerings within the ‘gourmet’ burger category at more hoity-toity restaurants. In the not-so hoity-toity but horrendously named restaurant called Café of Love near where I live in Mt. Kisco, New York, they had a burger that I just had to try based on the description. Well, it tasted even better than it sounded on this occasion. The beef itself was excellent and had been perfectly charred on the outside and was nice and pink in the middle. The combination of creamy cheese, apple butter and smoked bacon was genius and the brioche bun was the perfect vessel for this mini heart-attack sandwich. It came with its own flowerpot on the side, which contained really good thin-cut frites that were perfectly salted. I certainly wasn’t expecting it, but this was probably the best burger I had in 2010. Now, maybe they can work on their name?!

Honorable Mention: Cheeseburger at Five Guys

In this category, I would like to make an honorable mention for Five Guys. I had two burgers of theirs before the end of the year and thought they were excellent. Although you can’t specify how you would like it cooked, it comes medium, which seems to work for their burgers. They are very, very good burgers from what I could tell from the two Manhattan outposts I visited. And their fries actually taste like potatoes – no, I mean that. It took me a second to get used to them, because they were clearly from very fresh Midwestern potatoes and prepared with fresh oil: delicious. Just be careful, all you can get there are burgers, hot dogs and fries. Seriously.

This year I hope to try the Black Label burger at Minetta Tavern, The Breslin‘s lamb burger, and also visit Corner Bistro…all in NYC.

Five Guys Burgers and Fries on Urbanspoon

Best Hot Dog:
Gray’s Papaya, NYC

Hot Dog Duo at Grays Papaya

Okay, so I didn’t eat too many hot dogs, but I was resolutely shocked when these turned out to be so good. A New York institution, and in my humble opinion deservedly so, these are exceptionally good hot dogs…

Recession Special is Still On!

…especially with the ‘Recession Special’ that’s currently on – you can save $1! 🙂

Gray's Papaya (UWS) on Urbanspoon

Best Pizza:
Dove Vivi, Portland, Oregon

Sausage Classico Pizza from Dove Vivi

After having my first-ever cornmeal-crusted pizza from Otto in London (see review here), I was eager to try the pizzas at their alleged source of inspiration in Portland, Oregon – Oregon being my home state. We actually ordered the pizza to pick-up, although there is a nice little dining room at the restaurant too. We had two varieties, but my favorite by miles was the ‘Sausage Classico’, which was made up of mozzarella, house-made fennel sausage and tomato sauce. These are actually more like pies than pizzas, but the crust is really unique given the cornmeal content. It is light, golden and crispy, and makes for the perfect base to the hearty toppings. I am now getting a taste for this stuff – when will NYC get a similar joint?

Dove Vivi on Urbanspoon

Best Meatball:
Polpetto, London

Duck & Porcini Meatball at Polpetto

When Russell Norman opened up Polpo in London’s Soho a while back, I was a fan from my first visit. The restaurant’s first offspring, though not originally planned to be by its parent, is the tiny and charming box of a dining room called Polpetto…or as I affectionately call it, Mini-P. Anyway, it was the venue for my last fun lunch in London – and my dining companion @BigSpud wrote about it (sort of) here. We mostly had cicchetti and my favorite of the bunch was this stunning meatball, in all its unadorned glory. Deep, rich duck and punchy porcinis mushroom with a robust sauce made this stand out as much in my mind as it did against its little stark white plate.

Polpetto on Urbanspoon

Best Risotto:
Gauthier Soho, London

Wild Garlic Risotto, Chicken Jus Reduction, Mousseron Mushrooms, Parmesan Tuille at Gauthier Soho

Okay, so it’s a French restaurant, but it’s risotto, so hey.

As I said in my preview of Alexis Gauthier’s new restaurant: “Alexis’ risottos were always a big strength at Roussillon, and this was no exception as his new Soho townhouse. The petite mousseron mushrooms worked well; they had quite a fleshy texture and were sort of like a really juicy piece of meat. The risotto itself was textbook – perfectly creamy, with the rice having just the right amount of bite left in it. The reduced chicken jus had a deep and rich flavor, which held the interest on the palate, and the razor-thin parmesan tuille added a nice contrast of sharpness and crunchiness. A really lovely dish.”

Honorable mention must go to an excellent seafood risotto I had at Fifteen Trattoria. You can read more about that here and there is a photo below.

Honorable Mention: Risotto Ai Frutti di Mare’ with Samphire, Chilli, White Wine, Garlic & Bottarga di Muggine at Fifteen Trattoria

Best Terrine:
The Bar Room at The Modern, NYC

Warm Lamb & Goats Cheese Terrine at The Modern

This dish wasn’t mine, but I got a few bites anyway. Besides its rather arresting beauty on the plate, it also tasted d*mn good. The richness of the lamb was cut through by the tangy goats cheese and the toasted pistachios added not only a note of sweetness and a pinch of saltiness, but also a chewy texture which rounded out the dish. The watercress provided a fresh and peppery contrast. It was original – to my mind – and superb.

The Modern on Urbanspoon

Best Steak Tartare:
Terroirs, London

Steak Tartare at Terroirs

Despite some odd sightings of fresh produce by @DouglasBlyde (see here), Terroirs is a haunt of mine, simply because they have consistently delivered me good and unfussy food that is well executed, plus they have a fantastic array of natural wines, many of which have proven to be very good. Anyway, on my last London meal of 2010 with my good Welsh friend, we ordered the steak tartare. The waiter said to order it spicy, so we complied. Thank god we did. It was one of the best versions of this bistrot classic I’ve had. We were both mesmerized. If it’s on the menu, order it.

Terroirs on Urbanspoon

AFTERNOON TEA

Best Afternoon Tea:
Hidden Tea Room, London

Ambience & Cupcakes at The Hidden Tea Room

If you live in London and haven’t been to the Hidden Tea Room, do yourself a favor and book it. Aside from having the best and freshest baked goods you are likely to get at an afternoon tea in London, it is also a lovely underground restaurant experience. There is a rectangular table with jovial strangers who obviously share at least one interest with you (food…or tea, I guess); or if you are particularly delicate in nature, you can go with your friends. In any case, Lady Gray’s scones and cupcakes are excellent and Mrs. LF and I popped our underground restaurant cherry here – so it will always hold a fond memory for us. Oh yeah, and there is an excellent assortment of fresh, diverse and exotic teas.

Other excellent afternoon teas we had in 2010 were had at The Wolseley (somewhat surprisingly), Browns Hotel and Bob Bob Ricard.

DINNER

Best Amuse Bouche:
Aldea, NYC

Kusshi Oysters & Lobster Gazpacho at Aldea

The kick-off to my first meal at George Mendes’ Aldea was as beautiful as it was flavorful. I savoured that rich bisque for as long as I could and soaked up even more of the sea with my oyster. It was an extraordinary beginning to a very good meal. You can see and read more photos of our meal here. I was also happy to see that the team picked up its first Michelin star this year.

Aldea on Urbanspoon

Best Tart:
The Sportsman, Seasalter, UK

New Season Asparagus Tart at The Sportsman

Pretty much everything we had at The Sportsman was excellent, but this was the bite that stood out in my memory as the best of 2010. Full stop.

As I said in my review earlier in the year: “This was basically spring arriving on a plate. It was one of the best and most memorable bites of food I’ve had in the last year. The pastry was spot-on, and the texture, temperature and combination of flavors was exemplary. Asparagus, spring onion, red onion cheese, shredded lettuce – it all came together in the best way possible.” It received a very rare 10 out of 10, and deservedly so.

Best Soup:
Arbutus, London

Curly Kale & Potato Soup at Arbutus

After this enjoyable meal with the London Food Detective, I remarked: “I was quite impressed when my soup was brought out: it was a good portion size and it looked very hearty and appetizing. The soup possessed a lovely soft texture, and the flavor of the fine olive oil that had been used in the broth came through subtly. It also surprisingly had a pleasant, gentle heat which sat in the background of my mouth as I ate it. The dollop of yogurt worked nicely, both subduing the slight spiciness and also serving a textural and temperature purpose that added a slight creaminess and also a touch of coolness to the dish. It was a very memorable soup and I really enjoyed every spoonful.”

Most Creative Use of a Bean in Supporting Role:
Viajante, London

Roasted Broad Bean at Viajante

This was one of the more interesting presentations of a plate (or in fact, slate) of food this year. In my review of the meal, I wrote:

“A roasted broad bean was presented on a small square black slab of slate. Inside the beautifully presented specimen lurked a cream of the peeled beans themselves, which was pierced by three square shards of São Jorge cheese with a thin snake-like link of pea shoots residing on top. On the side, there was a dusting of toasted brioche crumbs. It was a beautiful and dainty looking dish and it tasted very good. The peas themselves were just slightly seasoned, allowing their delicate natural flavor to shine, and they had a lovely soft texture. The cheese brought a nice sharpness to the dish, and I ate it with some of the crumbs which added a pleasant crunchiness. This was a very good second amuse, and further illustrated the inventiveness of the kitchen.”

Best Dish Incorporating Goose Eggs & Soldiers (of Toast):
Launceston Place, London

Poached Goose Egg, Somerset Truffle Risotto at Launceston Place

Firstly, apologies for the especially poor photo, but this was taken with my old, archaic and generally not so useful camera. Right at the beginning of 2010, this was nonetheless one of the best dishes I had for sure. My thoughts at the time, which haven’t changed, were: “It was cleverly conceived in terms of the flavors and stylish presentation. Hidden beneath a topping of black Somerset truffles (English truffles…I am learning something new every day) was an unctuous, rich and delicious risotto that was perfect in pretty much every way. I was surprised at how pungent the truffles were and the strong depth of flavor they possessed (I thought English truffles would have been much lighter than their Continental counterparts), and the addition of little toast soldiers was a cute nod to a British breakfast tradition of soft-boiled eggs (the French call it oeuf à la coque).” This was a 10 out of 10 all the way.

Best Vegetarian Dish:
Mathias Dahlgren (Matbaren), Stockholm

Baked Farm Egg from Sanda Farm, Forest Mushrooms, Garlic, Parsley, New Potatoes at Matbaren

I loved my meal at Mathias Dahlgren’s Matbaren and this was the stand-out dish for me of the evening.

As I wrote in my post about the meal: “…for me, it was really all about the mushrooms. They had such a deep, rich flavor and were some of the better ones I can remember tasting. Again, I felt the dish was perfectly balanced, with the soft and creamy new potatoes lending a fairly mellow base (with their crispy counterparts in ‘chip’ format providing both saltiness and crunch), and the garlic and parsley both coming through just enough. I detected the presence of a rich, buttery and unique oil, which I enquired about, and proved to be a bit of a revelation…but more on that later. Oh yes, the egg! You can see below a diagram of why it’s called a 63° egg as illustrated on the menu, and yes, it was very good, yielding a creamy yellow yolk, which added the final textural component to this superb dish. It didn’t look or sound like much, but it sure made up for that in taste!”

Best Scallop Dish:
Morgan M., London

Seared Diver-Caught Scallops, Poêlée of Cèpes, Glazed Pumpkin & Nut Biscuit, Butternut Coullis at Morgan M.

You may recall me saying something along the lines of…“This strikingly presented pair of trios was a wonderful beginning to the meal proper, no? Each scallop had been delicately handled and perfectly seared, revealing a fragrant sweetness that was enhanced by the succulent carrots and the crunchy biscuit below, which provided a good crunch in contrast to the fleshy feel of scallop and carrot. The cèpes themselves were excellent – intense, meaty, not at all overcooked – and might just have been the best thing on the plate. I personally didn’t think the butternut squash coulis added that much to the mushrooms (or the scallops for that matter), but it did create certain visual flair in the plating of the dish and represented autumn strikingly well on the plate.”

Best Raw Seafood Dish:
Sushi of Shiori, London

Raw Scallops with Secret Truffle Paste at Sushi of Shiori

Another memorable London meal took place at Sushi of Shiori, a sushi restaurant that accumulated a scale of press disproportionate to its own modest size (it seats about 12 at most). I dined with @LondonEater (see his reviews here and here), and thoroughly enjoyed the food and the company – my mini-review and photos are here. Aside from having the pre-ordered omakase, we ordered an extra course of truffled scallops. I remember exclaiming that this was an actual explosion of flavor in the mouth (so many times, people just use that term half-heartedly). I don’t know what the chef does to his secret paste, but the tiny amount dotting surface of the raw scallops really does explode in your mouth and somehow complements the sweetness of the scallops perfectly. I loved this, and it is quite affordable at about £2 a pop.

Sushi of Shiori on Urbanspoon

Best Chicken Dish:
wd~50, NY

Cold Fried Chicken, Buttermilk-ricotta, Tabasco, Caviar at wd~50

Okay, so nearly everything I had on the wd~50 tasting menu was pleasurably challenging for my senses – both visually and in terms of taste, texture and temperature – but this dish stood out in particular. This dish brought back so many memories of good fried chicken. It was served slightly cool and was absolutely delicious. My favorite part of it was the heat – those little dollops of orange sauce packed some serious power, and this enlivened the whole dish. Playing off against this was the creaminess of the buttermilk-ricotta cloud, which helped manage the spiciness. But the touch of genius here was the caviar, which added an extra element of saltiness on top of the chicken, cream and Tabasco. It was superb.

Best Duck Dish:
Eleven Madison Park, NYC

Lavender Glazed Duck at Eleven Madison Park

I don’t think anyone would be able to question Chef Humm’s ability to cook a whole bird. The even browning of the skin, its crispiness and the juiciness of the duck were outstanding. The lavender glaze gave it an intriguing and subtle flavor, with peaches and other hidden joys dancing around on my palate. While not quite as exceptional as the Canard de Challans a l’Hibiscus I had at l’Arpège last year – which is to date the best duck dish I’ve ever tasted – this was still pretty fantastic. It was an interesting and not unwelcomed contrast to some of the more modern elements during my first meal at the excellent Eleven Madison Park.

Eleven Madison Park on Urbanspoon

Best Dish Incorporating Frozen Foie Gras:
momofuku ko, NYC

But of course there is no photo due to the restaurant’s no-snapping policy – sorry, but don’t snap at me. The following description will be in my forthcoming review of ko, where I dined with @catty.

Shaved Foie Gras, Lychees, Pine Nut Brittle, Riesling Gélee

This was certainly one of the top dishes of the evening, and I guess it is one of the classic dishes at ko. When I got up the gumption to ask how they made the cool shavings, the chef matter-of-factly said: “We freeze a terrine and the grate it.” Basically, you should have known that, it’s so obvious. Well, I didn’t know 100%, but was glad for the confirmation. Anyway, the foie was shaved like grated cheese over the other components. The sweetness of the lychees and the sweet-yet-tart Riesling Jell-O worked miraculously well with the foie shavings, which melted when they ware placed in your mouth and became a deliciously gooey texture. It was rich yet light at the same time (therein lay the brilliance) and, to me, it tasted more like seared foie gras than a terrine once it had melted in the mouth…maybe due to the texture. The pine nut brittle was OTT too, and everything was complementary. I noted that they had also salted the dish well, which is important to bring out the flavor of foie gras properly. This was a really fun and great dish to eat.

I also immensely enjoyed one of our two foie gras dishes at wd~50, but I couldn’t give Chef Dufresne another award, so he gets an honorable mention. There is, however, a half-decent photo below and a full description here. (And yes, I know it’s not frozen in the process, but hey…).

Honorable Mention: Aerated Foie, Pickled Beet, Mashad Plum, Brioche at wd~50

Best Desserts (Three-Way Tie):
The Loft Project with Samuel Miller from noma, London
Fifteen Trattoria, London
Eastside Inn, London

Malt Parfait, Seabuckthorn & Freeze-dried Strawberry at The Loft Project

This was the most memorable dessert for me of the year. Although not particularly complicated in conception, the fresh combination of flavors was nonetheless dazzling.

Here’s what I said in my review of the amazing evening: “A dark brown rectangular log of malt parfait was dressed with freeze-dried strawberry crystals and micro herbs, with a side smear of havtorn purée (yellow-orange Scandinavian berries, which I believe are also called Seabuckthorn). The parfait itself was so intensely malty it almost had a charred or burnt flavor about it – much different from the sickly sweet ‘malt’ flavors to which most people from the UK or US would be accustomed. But there was a slight underlying sweetness that kept it balanced.  The sweet, acidic and sharp notes of the English mustard colored purée perfectly offset the rich and slightly bitter intensity of the malt, with the dry strawberry granules adding crunch and further bittersweet fruit to the mix. It all worked together perfectly and it was one of the best desserts I’ve had in recent memory.”

Vanilla Pannacotta, Raspberries & Homemade Biscotto at Fifteen Trattoria

Not too long ago I had a simple dessert that the kitchen knocked out of the park, as we say in America. It was the best pannacotta I can remember having and got the fabled 10 out of 10.

In case you didn’t read it, and care to, here’s what I said: “The quality of the pannacotta itself was just mental. It was so creamy, so full of delicate vanilla flavor, and so delightfully wobbly while at the same time retaining its form when shaken or portioned up on our plates. It was the best example of the dessert I can recall. I would have been perfectly happy having that by itself on a drip for a few hours, but it was very well paired with some surprisingly sweet raspberries (not the ‘raspberry compote’ that the menu advertised, by the way) – my hunch is that they were from Secretts, but I didn’t ask – and a really wonderful homemade pistachio-laced biscotto (not the biscotti that were promised on menu). In short, Italian food heaven on a plate.”

Araguani Chocolate & Tonka Bean Ice Cream at Eastside Inn

Unfortunately, I never got to properly review the ‘bistrot’ side of Bjorn Van der Horst’s Eastside Inn before it sadly closed towards the end of 2010. However, I vividly remember the intensity of chocolate that was perfectly paired with a memorable tonka bean ice cream. As always with Bjorn’s food, it was also stunning to look at.

Weirdest Dessert:
(Note: that doesn’t mean it was bad!)
Il Baretto, London

Fried Aubergine, White & Dark Chocolate, Pistachio, Red Berries at Il Baretto

When I had some time to digest the experience (and the dessert), I reflected: “It sounded so strange, we just had to try it. Yes, if you read the caption for the above photo, than you heard it correctly folks, it was an aubergine (eggplant) based dessert! It was certainly very pretty, at least in my estimation. Three discs of fried aubergine had been layered with white chocolate cream between them, and on the very bottom lay a hidden dark chocolate base. Leaning against this delicately balanced brown and white striped trunk was a branch of tart red berries. The whole thing was dusted with pistachio crumbs finished off with a dash of powdered sugar.

At first bite, the taste of aubergine was too prominent for my liking; however, when portioned up with an adequate amount of the white (and darker) chocolate and a berry or two, I could understand the rationale of its creator…it was actually strangely very good. In fact, I found myself liking it more and more and then suddenly, as fast as it had appeared (okay, it didn’t appear *that* fast), it ‘twas gone. I ended up really liking it, and bonus points for using an ingredient I would NEVER associate with dessert.”

LUSCIOUS LIBATIONS

Favorite Gin:
Sacred Spirits, UK

Favorite Vodka:
Chase Distillery, UK

Favorite Martini:
Dukes Bar, London

Martini at Dukes Bar

If you follow this blog, you will know my hands-down favorite martini is at Dukes Bar in London (see here and here), when it is served by the ever-affable and supremely knowledgeable Alessandro Palazzi.

Favorite Restaurant to Order Wine:
Bob Bob Ricard, London

A Glass of Pol Roger Brut Reserve at Bob Bob Ricard

Not only do Leonid and Richard have the now ‘soooo 2010’ Champagne buttons at the booth-seating-only tables at this fabulously individual creation, which could have only resulted from the marriage of Russian and English (business) partners, they also have the lowest mark-ups I’ve come across of some really excellent fine wine. This means you can (better) afford to indulge yourself in a special bottle or glass of wine when going out on the town. And the food is generally very good across the board too. For a peek at their current wine list, click here.

FYI, @gourmetraveller also has an excellent BYO guide for London restaurants here.

Bob Bob Ricard on Urbanspoon

Favorite and/or Most Memorable Wines:

This list is from across the board…glasses and bottles I remember that I particularly enjoyed and/or found memorable. I have probably missed some out, but I hope not. They are listed chronologically and then alphabetically within each vintage.

Sparkling

  • 1999 Pol Roger Blanc de Blanc
  • 2004 Duval-Leroy Champagne Blanc de Chardonnay, Brut
  • NV Charles Heidsieck Champagne, Brut Réserve
  • NV Henriot, Brut Souverain
  • NV Sainsbury’s Blanc de Noir
  • NV Thiénot, Brut
  • NV Vincent Laroppe, Cuvée Alfred Laropp

White

  • 1992 Haut-Brion Blanc
  • 2001 & 2009 Soula Blanc, Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
  • 2004 Lafon Meursault
  • 2005 Huët Vouvray Sec, Le Mont
  • 2005 Les Plantiers de Haut-Brion
  • 2006 Domaine Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc
  • 2006 Domaine Sylvain Loichet, Ladoix
  • 2006 McHenry Hohnen, 3 Amigos
  • 2007 Casa Lapostolle Chardonnay, Cuvée Alexandre
  • 2007 d’Arenberg, The Hermit Crab
  • 2007 Domaine Gauby Blanc
  • 2007 E. Guigal Condrieu
  • 2007 Felton Road Chardonnay, Block 2
  • 2007 Olivier Leflaive Bourgogne Blanc, Les Sétilles
  • 2007 Sauvignon Blanc, Quarz, Terlano
  • 2008 Benmarl Riesling
  • 2008 Beringer Chardonnay, Private Reserve
  • 2008 Domaine William Fevre Chablis, Champs Royaux
  • 2008 Trimbach Riesling, Reserve
  • 2009 Adair Cayuga White
  • 2009 Arietta “On the White Keys” (Semillon)

Red

  • 1964 Haut-Brion
  • 1985 Haut-Brion
  • 1990 La Mission Haut-Brion
  • 1998 Bahans Haut-Brion
  • 1998 Château Haut-Bailly
  • 1998 Château Pichon-Longuevile Baron
  • 1998 Château Lafite-Rothschild
  • 1998 Poliziano Le Stanze
  • 2000 Château Vieux Chevrol
  • 2001 Château Musar
  • 2001 Château Palmer
  • 2001 Château Pavie
  • 2001 La Chapelle de la Mission Haut-Brion
  • 2005 Montes Carménère, Purple Angel
  • 2006 Domaine La Tourmente, Syrah, Chamoson
  • 2006 Herdade do Arrepiado Velho, Arrepiado
  • 2006 Neyen Syrah, Limited Edition
  • 2007 Ridge Lytton Springs
  • 2007 The Sum, Seventy Five Wine Company, Cabernet Sauvignon
  • 2008 A to Z Wineworks Pinot Noir
  • 2008 Domaine Gramenon, Côtes du Rhône, Sierra du Sud
  • 2008 Monty Waldin Vin de Pays des Côtes Catalanes
  • 2008 Mullineux Syrah, Swartland
  • 2008 Ponzi Vineyards Pinot Noir, Tavola

Sweet

  • 1999 Château Coutet
  • 2003 Château Rieussec
  • 2006 Inniskillin Vidal Icewine, Gold Reserve
  • 2006 Leduc-Piedimonte, Ice Cider
  • 2007 Ben Ryé Passito di Pantelleria, Donnafugata

In the coming year, I am aiming to develop a better understand of grower-producer Champagnes (i.e. ones that are terroir driven by the people who grow the grapes), deepen my cursory knowledge of some major European wine countries – namely Italy, Spain and Germany – and, of course, get a better handle on the domestic North American wine scene…as well as becoming more familiar with countries such as Chile and Argentina in South America.

#   #   #

So that is the end to a wonderful year of food, wine and friendship shared over the two. Here’s hoping 2011 will be even more exciting and enjoyable. I look forward to sharing with you what I can from the shores of America – or wherever else I may be lucky enough to travel – with an exciting review coming up very soon.

Thanks for putting up with me, and a very Happy New Year.

All the best for 2011!

Polpo – Sohopeful, So Good

Polpo
41 Beak Street
London W1F 9SB
Website
Map
Reservations are taken for lunch: +44 (0)20 7734 4479

  • 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)

A Venetian bacaro meets Lower East Side Manhattan bar, Polpo has a lovely buzzy atmosphere and relaxed but professional service in the middle of London’s Soho. The food is simple, with most dishes employing five ingredients or less, and is executed very well on the whole, with some real standouts. It’s also not overly expensive if you can reign yourself in from the tempting offerings. I really wanted to like Polpo, and after two long lunches there, am pleased to say that it is a place I really enjoy being at, and intend to frequent in the future.

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).

It may not have Venice’s canals, but Polpo does reside below Canaletto’s plaque

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.

Polpo, Inside n' Out

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.

The menu of the day – loved the font and crinkly brown paper

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.

2008 “Polpo” Pinot Bianco (Valle) & San Bitter Red

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.

Our plate of cicchetti

Our plate of cicchetti

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).

Arancini, Chopped Chicken Liver, Salami & Pickled Radicchio Grissini

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.

Rabbit, Sage & Apricot Terrina

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.

Fritto Misto

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.

Pork Belly, Radicchio & Hazelnuts

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.

Cuttlefish in its Ink & Gremolata

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.

Roast Potatoes & Rosemary

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.

Flourless Orange & Almond Cake with Mascarpone

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.

Galani Pick-me-up

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.

Single Espresso

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. 🙂

Green Apple Juice, Mint, Ginger & 2008 Pieropan Soave

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.

Our selection of cicchetti: Arancini, Salami & Radicchio Grissini, Potato & Parmesan Crocchetta, Chopped Chicken Liver, White Anchovy & Tapenade Egg

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.

Arancini

I thought I’d include another photo of the lovely arancini as l liked this image a lot. 🙂

Bittersweet Mackerel, Pinenuts, Raisins

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.

Fritto Misto

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.

Grilled & Sliced Flank Steak with White Truffle Cream

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.

Flourless Orange & Almond Cake with Mascarpone

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.

Affogato al Caffé

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.

Rating

Ambience: 8/10

Service: 8/10

Food: 7/10

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.*

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