Tapas-style eating is incredibly popular at the moment, especially around Soho where some of the coolest restaurants opening in the last few years work with the concept that a lot of small plates to share around is an altogether more casual and sociable way to eat good food.
Polpo is one such place. On arriving, you can choose to shun traditional seating arrangements and instead eat at the bar, while in front of you waiters busy themselves delivering food and wine not only to all the seated diners, but to the standing crowds looking on jealously while waiting for their tables. Polpo doesn’t do reservations in the evening. That’s just how casual and relaxed and cool they are. With this in mind you should probably go early, very early. But it just doesn’t feel like the sort of place you should go early to. Over the bar hang naked bulbs; huge things that are reminiscent of an industrial past or a New York cellar bar, and which throw out a grungy light that complements the quiet alternative music hanging in the air. The walls are bare brick. The waiters are casually dressed. The clientele is young and loud and friendly. So maybe it is better to go late, or at least later than you perhaps should, and wait, taking on board a carafe of red wine and a plate of Moscardini, tiny little soft octopuses in a garlicy, slightly spicy oil.
Polpo is an Italian restaurant, or more accurately a Venetian restaurant which, according to the waitress, is important to the dishes that they serve. The tapas sized plates (cicheti in Italian) are big enough to share between two and feel that you haven’t been short changed, yet small enough that you can order a wide selection. We had five dishes between the two of us which, after the Moscardini and before puddings, was a good amount, and with most of the dishes coming in at around six or seven pounds, not too damaging to the pocket.
What is great about these types of tapas-style restaurants is that without big, multi-part dishes to decorate and serve up, the food is completely ingredient led, and each dish has to pack a huge amount of flavour into the few bites that you will have of it. At Polpo, it is the hearty simplicity that really strikes you, and the confidence needed in the ingredients to pull it off. We had a plate of fritto misto; the sweetest prawns, the softest calamari and very fresh whitebait all hugged by a light and salty batter, but lacking a sharp aioli which might have been a nice accompaniment. The garlic came instead from the spinach, parmesan and soft egg pizzetta (as you can imagine, a small pizza) which was bristling with the stuff, but in combination with the spinach laid thickly over the crispy base, it really worked. The Polpette, was a plate of large, slightly spicy and very meaty meatballs in a nice tomato sauce which were delicious, but overshadowed by the duck ragu; the sloppiest, wettest plate of food that you can imagine, sprawling over beautifully light, rustically shaped gnocchi. The duck was in long, slow-cooked strings and the deep sauce was given a kick by whole green peppercorns. Delicious. Accompanying all of this we had a plate of crunchy fennel salad with almonds and a perfectly acidic dressing which cut through heavy flavours of the rest of the meal.
The ambient music turned to the Arcade Fire and we ordered pudding; a panettone bread and butter pudding; a ramekin of buttery sweet custard being soaked up by little cubes panettone, and an orange cake made with ground almonds instead of flour which gave it a dense texture that it balanced perfectly with zesty orange and a slightly sweetened mascarpone.
That Polpo serves its wine in carafe sizes; a third or two thirds of a bottle, means that you can very what you drink throughout the meal, which works particularly well with this style of eating where you can continue to order new dishes as you go along. The service is quick, even when it’s busy.
We had a really great meal. The food is certainly not the most refined, not even among its tapas-style counterparts around this area of London, but it packed a punch with regard to flavour and there was real consistency of quality throughout all of the dishes and courses. But the thing that really makes Polpo a winner is the atmosphere. It’s noisy and bustling and whenever you look across the bar you are confronted by gawky grins on the faces of people usually too cool for wonderment, as another plate of sumptuous goodness is plonked in front of them. With all pretensions well and truly left at the door, you get the feeling that collectively, the whole room is revelling in a simple love of food, served up in an atmosphere more like an underground wine bar than a hearty Italian restaurant.
Two people for tapas plus dessert and wine: £70
Reservations for lunch only, parties usually restricted to 4 people
020 7734 4479