The original Polpetto shared many of the Polpo family traits, but was perhaps cuter and (like so many younger sisters) seemed more studious and more mature then her elder brother. This was the Russell Norman and Richard Beatty restaurant I enjoyed eating in the most. Its rebirth on Berwick Street, almost two years after ending its previous tenancy above The French House, is definitely A Good Thing.
Few write-ups of v2.0 will be able to avoid reference to Mr Norman’s excellent television show, The Restaurant Man, which is currently showing on BBC2. The man appears to have the patience of a saint. More significantly, his expertise as a restaurateur is there for all to see, his key principles obvious: attention to detail; the value of good service; and the importance of being in profit. Sitting in the new Polpetto, it was clear that he practices what he preaches.
The restaurant is handsome. The furnishings are evidence of the detail pedantry impressed on the novices on the show, but also of a style that can’t be taught; here are yet more light fittings and quirky ceiling features that others will try to replicate. The dining rooms (one on the ground floor, one next to the below ground open kitchen) have been meticulously planned – providing just enough space for customers to sit, whilst squeezing in as many covers in as possible. You can imagine the pacing and tape measuring that’s been done over course of the fit out.
I hadn’t intended to try Polpetto so soon after it opened, but happily (and predictably), this didn’t feel like their third night. The staff have clearly been well drilled in accordance with a “rigorously detailed sequence of service”: 1. FOH welcomes guests to the table and provides the menu; 2. Section waiter/waitress hovers out of sight until the guests are just settled before filling water glasses; 3. Section waitress takes drinks orders and responds (knowledgeably) to any questions about the menu. Etc. Etc.
Which leaves the third tenet – the importance of being in profit. Well, this Polpetto is double the size of the previous incarnation and should still fill its covers twice over each evening; an aperitivo bar at the front will keep the inevitable queues warm, whilst also lengthening a few bills; and though the prices feel a little toppy, they won’t prevent people from visiting, nor returning. You do the math.
But this isn’t all about The Restaurant Man. Indeed, what’s always made Polpetto different from Polpo(s), is its chef, Florence Knight. She’s developed her own media presence over the last two years and the food is very definitely in her style: simple Italo-English dishes using quality seasonal products. It’s not particularly refined, but it is alluring. There’s a femininity to the menu – little sis’ is now an elegant, confident woman.
That menu reads beautifully. There are about ten feature dishes (small, sharing, obvs) mostly ranging from £6 to £12, four sides around the £4 mark, and five sweet things at £3.50-£7. It’s sprinkled with intriguing ingredients – three cornered garlic, cuckoo flower, whitty pear – and there was very little that didn’t appeal. I would have liked to try the bloater (smoked herring) and fennel; cavolo nero, anchovy and burnt bread; and the hare pappardelle on top of the dishes we ordered.
Highlights include an impossibly creamy wet polenta. It was pale and glossy – almost an emulsion – and not like any polenta I’ve had. I’m guessing it’s made with milk (rather than water) and laced with oil (rather than butter and cheese), but I’m probably totally wrong. I loved the flavourful, sweet and smokey bacon chop, which came with whitty pear butter (think medlar cheese) and walnuts. A pink radicchio salad was a visual treat. Its blood orange and mustard dressing ensured flavour matched aesthetic.
Game faggot with chunks of celeriac could well have been my favourite bite – the braised ball of offal wrapped in cawl fat was just high enough, well seasoned and pleasingly loose and moist. But it felt a little steep at £11. Ditto two medium sized scallops, which were well cooked, sweet, lovingly draped with melting lardo, sitting on a silky smooth cauliflower puree … but also felt a bit pricey at £12 for the dish.
I mention “highlights” as if there were lowlights, but nothing really disappointed. A plate of burrata was, as always, just an assembly of cream and gooey mozzarella, this time scattered with a bit of chilli, agretti and drizzled with oil. The agretti (monk’s beard) didn’t provide quite enough salt, nor the oil enough pepper. Citrus would’ve lifted it a bit. Desserts were decent enough. A milk pudding (a panna cotta in all but fat content) was set nicely, but the rhubarb that came with might’ve been a bit sharper and more plentiful. I enjoyed the subtle and not too sweet maple tart.
In a sense the only slight negative is the pricing. Whilst quality of ingredient is high, portions are small and the cooking relatively uncomplicated. Which means dishes generally feel as though they’re set at 15% more than value. But this is where the magic of the Norman model kicks in: it’s never just about the food. The design of the room, the inevitable convivial atmosphere, the quality of service and details like Sicilian tomatoes brought out with the bread, remove much of the sting from the uplift. Smart stuff.
Polpetto in 3 words
A welcome return
£30-45 pp on food and service. £45-65 pp if you’re drinking.
www.polpo.co.uk – 11 Berwick Street, W1F0PL – 020 7439 8627