Polpo is unusual in London, insofar as it’s what’s known as a ‘bacaro’. An eatery specific to Venice, it’s a form of working mans pub where small plates of snacks, known as Cicheti are served. Think Venetian tapas and you wouldn’t be far wrong.
The restaurant is also unusual in another way. There is a ‘no booking’ policy in the evening, which I found to be quite refreshing – upon arriving, you can stand and have a drink at the bar whilst waiting for a table to be vacated, it’s all very pleasant and means that rather than plan an evening days in advance, you can just drop in on a whim. Superb.
Arriving on a Saturday evening Polpo was visibly busy, buzzing and packed with the general hum of happy diners conversing. Making my way to the bar, I enquired about a table and was told, there would be up to a thirty-minute wait. Fair enough. Putting my name down on the waiting list, I ordered a Moretti, and “E”, my dining companion ordered a Campari spritz. (Which, she proclaimed to be excellent).
Exactly eight minutes later, we were approached to tell us our table was ready. Not bad going at all on a Saturday night. Threading past the bar and other tables, through the beautifully distressed (white Victorian style tiles, exposed brick, bare light bulbs), into the extremely dimly lit restaurant proper, mood lighting with the emphasis very much on mood.
Sitting down at a small table for two, it was cosy…. very cosy. Our neighbours being mere inches away. Looking down our table produced the optical illusion that made it appear, rather than sitting at individual tables, my fellow diners and I were sitting at a long communal table. Which is fine by me, in my opinion it all adds to the atmosphere.
Ordering a carafe of wine to share, we quickly decided that as the ‘Cicheti’ section of the menu was so reasonable £1 - £2 per item, we’d order everything, the lot…. just to try it. Along with this, we ordered some rather nice bread, cured ham and split pea risotto from the Meat section. Mussels and clams from the Fish section, grilled zucchini and rocket salad from the vegetable section …it all looked so good…. at this point our waitress stopped us and said “Actually guys, I think that’s enough”. Foolishly we listened to her ill advised, but well-meant interruption and stopped ordering.
After a short wait, up came our ordered Cichetti – all of it on one plate.
Prosciutto, mozzarella di bufala
Rocket and walnut pesto crostino
Chopped chicken liver
Anchovy and chickpea crostino
Salt cod on grilled polenta
Potato and Parmesan crochetta
Salami and pickled radicchio grissini
White anchovy, tapenade and egg.
Small but perfectly formed tasters - no more than a couple of bites each, most of the proffered snacks were seriously lovely, the Arancini in particular were superb, as was the chopped chicken liver. The white anchovy tapenade and egg, was a favourite of ‘E’ which in her opinion packed a real flavourful punch for such a small bite. I wasn’t keen on the Salami and pickled radicchio grissini, I couldn’t discern much apart from dry grissini to be honest. And the salt cod on grilled polenta consisted of tasteless salt cod on unpleasant fridge cold, grilled polenta, utterly bland due to being over chilled.
But, despite a couple of duff Cichetti – there were many more hits than misses and both myself and ‘E’ were more than happy with what we’d tried.
The larger plates we’d ordered arrived. My cured ham and split pea risotto was incredibly good, unctuous and rich – exactly as a decent risotto should be.
‘E’s Mussels and Clams, were also excellent – with some incredibly large meaty Mussels filling the shells.
From the vegetable section, the grilled zucchini and rocket salad was superb. Coated with fried breadcrumbs the whole dish was delicious.
Ploughing our way through that lot, the waitresses earlier warning of our gluttony whilst ordering came back to haunt us, but probably not in the way she expected. We’d eaten everything ordered, were still hungry and could happily eat more. What to do? Order more savoury dishes or move onto the desserts…. and order three to share?
Honey and Walnut semifreddo arrived in a novel manner, scooped into an ice-cream cone. The initial taste was loaded with honey, but subsequently it was less flavoursome. It was the least successful of the three desserts we ordered.
Flourless orange and Almond cake with mascarpone was altogether more pleasing, light, moist and tasting strongly of orange. Very nice indeed.
But, saving the best till last – the Hot Chocolate pot and ‘esse’ (Italian ‘s’ shaped biscuits), was gorgeous, so, so good. Rich, creamy and decadent. It was everything a good dessert should be.
Coffee’s arrived, and at this point the needle zips across the record. My espresso was fine. ‘E’s Americano was bloody awful, so strong it was incredible, it tasted like the equivalent of six espressos…the accompanying small jug of milk wasn’t enough to dilute it to a drinkable level, we had to ask for more – and it was still barely drinkable. Not entirely sure what went wrong there.
But, turgid coffee aside, I absolutely loved Polpo. I had a great meal and really enjoyed what I ate. I tried a lot of different food, with a lot of exciting different flavours and that’s the beauty of it. With small plates and portions, you can roam around the menu easily, a bit of this,... a bit of that. Perfect to share.
Looking at the menu now, next time I visit (and there will be a next time), I’d order in a different manner – ignoring the Cicheti and perhaps ordering a couple of the main dishes with some of the vegetable side dishes.
Sadly, I didn’t order the Cuttlefish in its ink, gremolata dish and there were collective groans of horror from foodies on Twitter upon hearing of this oversight, it being something of a signature dish. But, it gives me another reason to go back, so I’m not too put out.
41 Beak Street
Telephone: 020 7734 4479