POLPO: PECKING ORDER
In Spain and indeed in many Mediterranean countries, it's noticeable that whenever there's a drink on the bar there's always a little nibble of some description to go with it. In Britain we don't really like to sully our drink with food. Not until we're actually sitting down for meal that is. Even then you suspect it's just a ruse to drink more booze. I can say this now, as with age has come moderation (except when I’m out with my dining chums Sam and Scott or Gary when I suspect it’s their bad influence that makes me neck fine wines with alacrity).
Encouraging people to eat a little something with their booze is definitely a Good Thing although the number of places offering this facility are thin on the ground – basically it’s only tapas bars. It's nice then to see the opening of Polpo which styles itself as Venetian bacaro whose aim is to be place for drinking and having small bites in a casual environment. Having visited on opening night to sus it out I would say it pretty much succeeds in this aim.
Polpo is a cosy, but bustling little place in Soho which reminded me of similar gaffs in Greenwich Village - all bare light bulbs, candlelight on tables and exposed brick work. The only problem is that the lighting level is so low you can't really see your food - a particular bugbear of mine. But maybe that's just missing the point. To be fair I was offered a place at the (brighter) bar but my decrepit back meant the banquette was a more attractive proposition.
Although there’s a chef who has worked there we’re not talking anything as ambitious foodwise as Bocca di Luppo. Not yet anyway And with any luck there won’t be the same hysterical reaction as there was to BdL precipitated by some good reviews (Dos Hermanos included) which meant they were swamped with numbers they (perhaps) couldn’t cope with. But then this is hardly surprising in London.
If you were in Spain, this is the sort of food, in media ración portions, you would get while propping up a tapas bar. Simple ingredients of decent quality are cooked properly and you're not left with a nasty taste in the mouth. There weren’t any real wow moments but then I don't think there's supposed to be.
Pizzetta Biancha had a light crisp base of good dough topped with a mess of sweet onions and cheese. Spratti in saor was a kind of fishy agrodolce served on toasted bread. Polpette were some sort of über-meatball which came in a rich tomato sauce. These behemoths were nice and meaty although they needed an extra little something (lemon zest, chilli?) to add another flavour dimension (as Gazza Rhodes might say).
The frying is notably good here, both Arancini and Potato and Parmesan Croquette, although not being the most exciting things in World cooking to throw into a deep fat fryer, were crisp and greaseless. Even better was a plate of Fritti Misti which comprised non-chewy Squid Rings, some Prawns and a Sprat.
Not everything worked so well. Calf's Liver was overcooked, a little chewy and, maybe there was a bit of synesthesia at work here, but it all tasted as dark and muddled as the photo I took. Flank Steak with Mushrooms was ok but unremarkable. I don’t know whether it was the dim lighting or that they they didn’t really work as small plates but these dishes seemed out of step compared with the other stuff. Early days though.
Of the other plates, Grilled Zucchini looked a bit of a mess, lacked zing and for a few strips was overpriced even with the discount and although it was a fun touch to serve my Semifreddo in a cone I'm not sure it was an improvement over a bowl of the stuff – all I could really taste was the chocolate cone. I really would have liked a bowl of Ice Cream. But then I always do.
Italian wines are served in tumblers which is in keeping with the surroundings, atmosphere and the more modest wines, although if I was ordering better wines I might want a better wine glass. NB Tumblers don’t work for sparklers either.
As with all ‘small plate’ operations the bill can mount up with a frightening rapidity and although I did order with the enthusiasm of an Hermano my bill without the opening week preview would have been around the £50 mark. I can see a lot of people doing double-takes when they get the bill. Maybe this is where the low-level lighting comes in.
Despite a few misgivings I enjoyed myself at Polpo. Considering it was opening night the service was pretty on the ball and I got everything I'd ordered (it doesn’t always happen). The idea of sitting down at a table to eat small plates always strikes me as a little strange and ideally I’d just like to pop in have a glass or two of wine and one of those Pizzetta. I’m not sure the licencing jobsworths will allow this (oh how London’s restaurateurs must love their local councils). But if they can keep the casual feel to the place it'll be yet another addition to Central London’s steadily increasing roster of decent places to eat.