Polpetto

[Editor's note May 2012: Polpetto's tenancy above the French House has come to an end. They're moving to a larger venue, still in Soho, sometime in the Summer. Location will be updated when the new address is announced.]

Much has been written about Polpetto. Almost everyone has been very complementary. In fact, I’ve only read one dismissive review.  That was AA Gill. Who I saw the other day wearing a red plaid shirt with light grey tracksuit bottoms. Which is clear evidence that he doesn’t always get it right (in fact, I reckon he’s often mistaken).

So why the hype? It’s just a room with 28 chairs. There are some lead lined mirrors on a bare brick wall at one end and rustic plaster type colouring on the other walls. There’s also a stripped back moulded ceiling, an original wooden floor and the same golden filamented hanging bulbs as at the restaurant’s elder sister, Polpo.

Sounds simple. But together, the design really works. The decor helps create a buzz. The room has got a natural funk. This is probably helped by the fact that (also, as at Polpo) you can’t book for dinner – I reckon this probably makes diners more excitable when they get a table.

What else? I suspect you’ll find the service to be excellent. We did. From the welcome; to asking whether we’d like to move to a better people watching table near the window when it became free; to the timing of each dish arriving from the kitchen (never long before another plate was ready to be cleared from the table, but never long after a dish had been eaten); to the cheery goodbye and everything else in between. The staff are young, cool, friendly and very competent. Strong recruiting and training, Russell Norman.

The menu is similar (in form and content) to Polpo; it’s smaller and there are only a few cross over dishes, but the common theme is that (as well as being on brown paper) it’s broken up into chicheti (small bites); a few breads with toppings; interesting veggie sides; and some larger but still interesting meat and fish dishes. Dishes range from £1 to £12.5 – though most are between £4.5 and £7. On paper, it is all very inviting.

Most of the food we ordered was good in 3D too.

Polpetti was a plate of little baby octopus chaps (is this ethical? Not sure I care) in a tasty chilli vinaigrette. White bean crostino involved a well seasoned pulse mash on top of good toasted bread. Both of these were chicheti and we thought were cheap, clean, simple and smart.

We had to have Stracchino, fig and salami on toast as Mr Norman suggested this to me on Twitter. I thought this was excellent. Rustic but chic. The salami could have been a bit more flavoursome, but the overall combo of the meat, fig, creamy melting cheese and the warm grilled bread was good. Lentils, I think, are always a winner, but I especially enjoyed Polpetto’s warm garlicky ones with creamy burrata melting on top and more than a strong hint of basil. Pork and fennel seed meatballs were tasty, though the meat was perhaps too finely ground and subsequently a bit dense.

We finished with lemon and strawberry sgroppino – a prosecco based milkshake. Refreshing and fruity; there was a tangy but pleasant sourness to it. [btw, I'm not being a tit about the italicised Italian words above, just copying the menu.]

We weren’t keen on everything, mind – our two largest dishes (soft shell crab and osso bucco) didn’t completely float our boat.

The crab was served on coleslaw. Which was ok…but maybe something fresher and zingier might have been better. I have seen in other reviews that the crab previously came with a fennel and lemon salad. I’d have preferred this. The batter was probably a little bit too heavy and soggy too.

The osso bucco (a slow cooked cross section of veal shin, complete with a good amount of bone marrow for slurping) was actually yummy and was served with a well cooked saffron risotto … but the risotto was also the reason why I wasn’t mad for the dish. This was not the restaurant’s fault, rather it was because whilst eating the yellow rice I finally concluded (after years of deliberation) that I think saffron heavy dishes taste like cleaning fluid. Maybe it’s heresy to say this, but I don’t reckon Cillit Bang flavoured rice is that nice.  [Dear Polpetto, please could you modernise this dish, maybe using a simple risotto bianco instead?  Thanks.]

But my thoughts on the crab dish and the saffron risotto should not put you off going to Polpetto. Neither should you be dissuaded by the fact that you can’t book for dinner and will instead need to wait in a nearby bar for a text to say your table’s ready. This is because, unless your dining companians are supremely dull, once you get in, you will have a very good time. The food is not amazing, but meals out are not all about the food. You should also want super service and an atmosphere. Polpetto has each of those in abundance and the food that it does serve is good value, honest and interesting.

Polpetto in 3 words

Great little room.

The Bill

Plenty of food and a bottle of red was £35 per head.

www.polpetto.co.uk – upstairs at the French House, 49 Dean Street, W1D 5BG – 020 7734 1969

Postscript

I’m late to the party in offering my opinion on Polpetto (and there’s not much point adding my view to the Polpo pile … except to say I think that the food was better on a couple of recent visits than how I remember it a year ago; and the atmosphere remains just as awesome). But perhaps I can say something of future value. In most respects, though there are little tweaks and novelties, Polpetto is very much the baby version of Polpo (I could have written “like at Polpo” even more than I did). That is understandable and I do not mean that as a criticism; Russell Norman has happened on a super recipe for creating on trend and atmospheric restaurants and you really should give both a try. However a third instalment in this restaurant family is planned and should be with us soon (to be called Spuntino and potentially to be based in Maiden Lane (WC2)). When it does arrive, there will be fanfares, the bloggers (including me) and critics will be waiting gleefully and Twitter will explode with praise. But I personally hope Spuntino won’t just be a larger version of the other two. I hope that there’ll be a twist and it’ll be a bit different. Polpo and Polpetto are undoubtedly cool (and this is what they trade off); but chains are not and three is a crowd.

Post postscript (March 2011)

Well Spuntino’s not on Maiden Lane, it’s on Rupert St. But it will be a bit different (‘”a downtown New York/Brooklyn feel – American/Italian diner style“). Which is good news. Even smaller than Polpetto (25 covers), expect it to be rammed from the word “Go“.  Which is to be uttered on 14 March 2010. Whisper it or you’ll never get a seat.

Post post postscript (April 2011)

… it seems Maiden Lane will be a Polpo entity after all. ‘Da Polpo’ will be a bigger, more casual version of Polpo, with a few more pizza options for Covent Garden passers by and a special meatball offering. And that, we are told, will be that for the Polpo ‘concept’.

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