In late 2009, mid economic crisis, Russell Norman bravely opened his first bacaro (a Venetian wine bar to you or me) just off Carnaby Street. Three years later and Norman has four more successful restaurants to his name. He’s done well. Very well. And why wouldn’t he have? The concept is instantly likeable: fairly-priced food to share, served in a hip venue. Throw in enough booze and everyone will love it. And indeed they do; it’s very difficult to find a bad word against Polpo anywhere. Until now. Not much feeling up to the scrum that is undoubtedly their evening ‘no reservations’ policy, I set on a Monday afternoon to take out a friend for a belated birthday lunch to see what all the fuss was about. Everything that goes through the door seems to have been ‘distressed’: the walls, the menus, the waiters’ jeans. Me too.
Their short wine list features an interesting selection of around twenty Italian whites and reds, all available by the bottle or carafe at reasonable prices. A wide cocktail selection looked tempting as well. But it’s difficult to go too far wrong with an Italian white and the Trebbiano Nespoli 2011 (£22 for 750ml) was sound; it was light and refreshing with a burst of citric acidity. It might be trendy and ‘authentic’ to serve wine in tumblers – and for cheap stuff at home I have no problem with this – but if I’m paying a 200% markup on a bottle I’d rather have it in a nicely stemmed glass. To me it really does make a difference. Nonetheless, it’s a joy not to have to quietly ask for tap water as you do in so many places; it’s offered uncompromisingly here, and straightaway. The open kitchen serves up food in no particular order. This isn’t a problem, as is the beauty of cicheti, because such dishes stand out on their own. Actually it can be quite entertaining to guess what they’ll bring out. It’s less fun when you wait forty minutes for any food to appear.
Eventually came our pizzette. Cured pork shoulder and pickled pepper (£8), and spinach, parmesan and soft egg (£7.50) served on a doughy slab were, thankfully, worth the wait. The tangy peppers cut through those deliciously sweet pork slices, and the latter in all its yolky-splendour was particularly good. This was pizza at its best with neither mozzarella or a tomato in sight. The sliced flank steak and white truffle cream (£9.50) could have been better. And being the most expensive dish on the menu it should have been. The beef was fine if slightly overcooked, but any taste of truffle was hard to find among the bitter leaves. Less successful again was the octopus and potato salad (£8). A squeeze of lemon, a turn of the pepper mill, and a sprinkle of salt might have saved this rather bland bowl. It didn’t look much either. For those with a nervous disposition look away now. Our final dish consisted of three enormous, steaming veal and porcini meatballs (£6.50). Poor calf, I thought. Then, poor mushroom, as I took a bite. The meatballs were presumably only there to provide some sort of texture for the insipid tomato sauce in which they swam. This put us off any possibility of dessert. That and we were full.
Just in case you missed it, service was slow. When asked, our waiter did kindly explain how many dishes we needed between two, but these were his few words. I can’t recall being asked how the meal went or if we wanted anything more. The whole experience felt a bit like a chain restaurant, which I suppose Norman has now, unwittingly, created. I fear Polpo has probably become a victim of its own success. When it was good I’m sure it was very very good, but when it’s bad…well, you know the rest.
Polpo, 41 Beak Street, Soho
6th August 2012, £69 for two (with service)
Food: 6, Service: 5, Ambience: 7