Am I the last person in London to go to Polpo? It feels that way. When it first opened I waited a little for the hype to go down before visiting. Just under a year later and it still hasn’t so I bit the bullet and joined the queues to get a table. We waited for an hour on a Friday night, but aided by a small carafe of wine (Polpo’s wines are cleverly served in a quarter or half carafe as well as bottles) it wasn’t hard to pass the time standing up near the bar. For the record we drank the Poeta chardonnay which was fairly dry and understated and so good that we ended up ordering a succession of the small carafes. Luckily the pricing does not penalise you for such indecision and a quarter of a carafe is priced as a quarter of a bottle (£6 in our case) and so on.
Broad bean bruschetta
Polpo is supposed to be a Venetian bacaro or wine bar, although I feel that the Italians would not be quite as orderly or as patient in waiting for tables as the British. To be honest, I can’t really remember anywhere quite like Polpo in Venice. Still, I’m not complaining as authentic or not, Polpo is fantastic. It looks like it has been tucked away in Soho, or even Venice for years with water lapping at the pavement and pigeons pestering the pedestrians. There is a worn mosaic floor by the bar, weathered brick walls, beaten metal on the ceiling and low hanging light bulbs dangling by strings. Bistro tables and chairs are packed in closely in the small dining room to try to accommodate Londoners seemingly unceasing appetite for some Polpo action.
There’s a reason for the crowds, the place has atmosphere in spades with a slightly frenetic but relaxed feel, service is personable once you get a seat, the prices are affordable and most importantly the food is fantastic. The menu is your place mat. It is divided into chicheti, the small portions of food served in bars in Venice, then more prosaically bread, meat, fish, cheese, vegetables and dessert. Asparagus spears (£5.50) with flakes of Parmesan and a light brown coating of anchovy butter was spring fresh.
Fried and seafood have to be two of my favourite things so I couldn’t got past the fritto misto (£7). Light and grease free, Polpo’s version did the classic Italian dish proud. The cuttlefish and ink risotto (£6.50) was a brilliant midnight black but the flavour was somewhat muddied. More refreshing was a salad of soft white swirls of fennel contrasted with crunchy leaves of curly endive and flaked almonds (£4).
Making a strong argument for being dish of the night was the broad bean bruschetta (£4). Slices of bright green bean were the perfect complement to creamy ricotta and a hit of mint. Almost as good was the pork belly (£5.50) paired with wilted, bitter radicchio and crunchy hazelnuts, an inspired combination.
Pork belly and radacchio
I really enjoyed Polpo, it reminded me a lot of nearby Bocca di Lupo (where apparently the chef used to cook), although a more casual and inexpensive version. It’s just a shame it’s so popular. Sadly, Polpo’s buzz, cooking and prices means I don’t think there is any chance of it being any easier to get a table any time in the near future.
Details: 41 Beak St, Soho W1F 9sB (Ph 020 7734 4479) Tube: Oxford Circus