This is not the intended restaurant review, since on the Friday night in question my friend Elaine and I had intended to dine at the excellent tapas bar Barrafino. The problem, since you ask, was that Barrafino does not take bookings and we had chosen to visit the National Portrait Gallery before our pre-Opera dinner, so by the time we got to said restaurant, it being a Friday night, the queue for a table or place at the bar was around an hour – an hour we did not have. Great shame, since Barrafino looks to have the WOW factor and to be authentic to prime tapas from top notch ingredients as Bocca di Lupo is to regional Italian dishes.
So we wandered towards Covent Garden to find a place to eat. Had to be a rapid turnaround and easy eating, which is a shame. My preferred dining is always to explore the menu and take time to appreciate its virtues slowly and in a relaxed atmosphere, but with the 7:30 deadline looming we did not have any such luxury. Everywhere seemed to be totally heaving, such that conversation was always going to be an effort and digestion would be rushed. Needs must!
Having been turned away from a BBQ diner due to lack of immediate tables (I assume, since I could barely hear the waitress), we chanced upon Polpo. Not a huge establishment but at least they found room at the Inn – or rather, sitting at the bar in the basement. Even then, that space filled rapidly, but better to take the offer and enjoy while we could!
But before we delve into the Polpo experience, a few words from its slick and polished website:
The first Polpo opened on Beak Street in September 2009. It is a lovely and remarkable coincidence that the building was once home to the Venetian painter Canaletto. There is a blue plaque on the wall to commemorate this. Polpo Covent Garden opened on Maiden Lane in June 2011. Polpo is a bàcaro. This is a Venetian word to describe a humble restaurant serving simple food and good, young local wines. When it first opened, this is what people said about it:
“Polpo is the hottest table in town”
– Marina O’Loughlin, METRO
“This is simply the best value in the West End”
– AA Gill, Sunday Times
– Jay Rayner, The Observer
“This one’s a winner for sure”
– David Sexton, Evening Standard
“It is inspiring when done this well’
– Rose Prince, Daily Telegraph
“One of the most exciting eateries to open in London”
– Richard Vines, Bloomberg
Really? You know how words can be taken out of context on movie posters, but sometimes hype can be overblown, to the detriment of the restaurant and the speaker.
Here you have to take stock and realise that Polpo is one mini-chain (there are now five Polpos plus a Polpetto), in the empire of Russell Norman, a restauranteur with a gift for self-publicity to the extent of joining the trend started by Gordon Ramsey for hosting a TV series advising those establishing or running their own mama-and-papa restaurants, adroitly titled The Restaurant Man.
Norman is not a purist. By comparison with Barrafino, Polpo is not steeped in authenticity, being an English approximation to Ventian cuisine owned and run by people who are not Italian but have a keen eye on marketing. The “Venetian bacaro” theme of Polpo is not matched by siblings Mishkin’s (a New York Jewish deli-styled eating house) or Sputino (American BBQ comfort food).
Razzle-dazzle factor notwithstanding, Norman made his name and reputation by getting the core service operations in each of his restaurants spot on, which ultimately is the critical factor; decor is skin-deep, but if the service delivery and value proposition is wrong, the punters won’t return. That they did in droves, says he must have done something very right, so judging Polpo on its merits seems fair – and equally to apply a critique based on high standards not unreasonable.
Having been seated in a tight spot at the bar with minimal lighting, we were shown the menu and drinks menu by a perky barmaid/waitress (combining both jobs with aplomb.) She had command of a state-of-the-art provisioning system, whereby the orders tapped into the till whizzed directly to the kitchen and were returned with a speed that took the breath away. I mean, we’re talking fast food here, a Ventian equivalent of McDonalds!
At first sight prices appear low, but our waitress explained that the portions were small-to-medium – which probably makes some of them a tad high for bijou tapas dishes. Case in point from the drinks menu, which also seems to inherit the tapas style: from the list of martinis I ordered Elaine an elderflower version and myself the aperol variant, £8 apiece. These were served as perfect miniatures – very good but not especially strong on value, unless you take the Covent Garden factor into account.
Would the same apply to the food? In the rush we ordered a stack of smallish dishes, though for some reason not the trademark meatballs. This was possibly because our waitress recommended the “pizzette” – which was in truth more like a warm wafer topped with cheese, meat and pepper – pleasant but insubstantial, and at £8 a price more typical of a full-blown pizza. We tried the sample plate of cicheti, thus:
CICHETI Crab arancini 4 Potato & Parmesan crocchette 4 Chopped chicken liver crostini 4 Fried stuffed olives 3 Spicy ‘nduja & ricotta crostini 4 Cicheti plate (one of each) 9
There was not a bad one among these – all delicious and once again perfect miniatures. Certainly not sufficient to satisfy but tasty all the same. I’d have happily had more crab arancini, and was pleasantly surprised by the chicken liver crostini, which somehow defied gravity by being both light and packed with flavour.
So on to not so much mains but marginally weightier dishes. We ordered three in the limited time available: Ox cheek, pickled walnuts & wet polenta; prawn risotto, samphire; roast potatoes, rosemary, garlic.
No doubt whatever in my mind that the ox cheek with wet polenta was the star here, to the extent that we could have eaten a full plate rather than just four tiny morsels of meat. They were moist, tender as you like and very moreish, with the polenta and walnuts playing more than just a supporting role.
Prawn risotto was OK but not as good as my home-made version – a benchmark few restaurant risotti can ever hope to meet. Problem is that they are cooked in advance and rarely if ever leave the rice al dente. Flavours of prawn and samphire not at all bad, but maybe this is a dish that could be improved. Unlike the potatoes, which were stupendously good in every way!
And that was that. Not that we did not want to sample more dishes, but time ran out. For what was a pretty light and rapid meal £61+ including the added 12.5% service (this is in my book bad practice for any restaurant unless there is a table full of people) seems more than the dinner warranted, though on the whole we came away with a good feeling. Barrafino would have cost more, but then I expect Barrafino would have offered higher standards. Value is, after all, a relative concept.
Polpo comes out as being neither one thing nor the other, though clearly fits well with the current trend towards grazing rather than full-scale dining. I have no problem with small plates, though maybe that is appropriate since Polpo was way too crowded and noisy to sit and enjoy a relaxed dinner.
Could be that a rushed pre-theatre dinner is Mr Norman’s chosen concept, since it keeps the tills ticking over – and certainly speed of service indicates a desire to keep the punter turnover rates high. He wants diners in and out in a flash, because that way he makes money.
The foodie in me finds this a sad state of affairs, but since we were on this occasion in the same boat of requiring a fast getaway I can hardly complain… but I will anyway. Dining out is an experience best savoured, so wolfing down a collection of snacks is both bad for the digestion and the obverse of the purpose of social dining. Fast food meets fine dining is an unhappy union of uncomfortable bedfellows.
But nonetheless, it is a success – well done, Russell Norman, you fill a niche, but hottest table in town? Sadly not. A touch of humility might serve you better.