Which came first, the restaurant or the PR campaign? An odd but pertinent question in today's socially networked times. In the case of Russell Norman, the Twitterverse was alive with his 140-characters-or-less chatter in the run up to last year's grand opening of his first solo restaurant project, Polpo. What started as simple tweets about the ongoing development of a restaurant gradually grew, and a sizeable band of eager followers soon ensued. Unsurprisingly, Polpo opened to a flood of acclaim from critics and rapidly became a darling of the blogosphere. Polpetto is Polpo's younger (more attractive?) sister that Norman opened this summer, also to much blog-fuelled acclaim. So when I was in London recently I wanted to see what all the fuss was about for myself.
Polpetto is located above the legendary bohemian French House pub in London's Soho. I wasn't actually sure I'd come to the right place at first, but then a glance upwards revealed a sign bearing an image of an octopus and the restaurant's name in small, neat script. I guess this must be it then. We entered the unmarked door and proceeded up the narrow staircase to the dining room, which was as small as it was charming, seating just 28 covers. Exposed brickwork and unadorned light bulbs hanging from the ceiling give the place a relaxed, urban feel to it, which is softened by flashes of wood and a large plushly upholstered banquette at one end of the room. The overall atmosphere of the place is very warm and intimate – a wonderfully cosy place to while away a couple of hours over lunch.
Like its elder sibling, Polpetto is loosely based on the bàcari of Venice, where small plates of tapas-like chiccetti are washed down with glasses of spritzer or wine. The menu here features a number of tempting dishes, small and large, that are just begging to be shared.
We started with a couple of small dishes of polpetti (£3.00) and melanzane parmigiana (£2.00). The polpetti – baby octopuses – were served whole and had been marinated in olive oil and vinegar laced with flecks of red chilli – they had a lovely chewy bite to them while still being quite tender. We didn't realise that the melanzane is served as an individual piece so we only ordered one of these, and as a result the solitary wrap of aubergine looked a tad lonely on the plate. It was, however, delicious.
This was followed by some simple, but good, grilled focaccia (£2.50) drizzled generously with olive oil. Alongside this were prawns cooked in chilli and garlic (£6.50). The prawns were accurately cooked and the sauce they came in was pleasantly spiced, without being too overpowering. I particularly liked the small cherry tomatoes in the sauce that were just bursting with flavour. Needless to say, every last drop of the sauce was mopped up with the bread.
Next were some polpette (£6.00), dense meatballs of pork spiked with fennel seeds that were served in a simple, but punchy tomato sauce. This was accompanied by one of the single best things I have eaten this year – zucchini fries (£4.50). Thin batons of courgette had been battered and fried to an ethereally light crispness. There was hardly any trace of oiliness, just a satisfyingly crunchy crust that gave way to a powder soft interior. Just amazing. We greedily mopped up the sauce from the polpette with forkfuls of the fries and chortled with pleasure.
Osso Buco is one of my all-time favourite dishes and at just £8.50, Polpetto's version is somewhat of a bargain. Supremely tender veal shank sat atop a pile of velvety saffron risotto; the veal having that melt-in-the-mouth quality that only long, slow cooking can achieve. The crowning glory was a centrepiece of rich, wobbly marrow to be scooped out greedily and spread across the meat. If you're not full by now, then this dish will finish you off for sure.
However, dessert is my Achilles heel, and I couldn't resist ordering a pannacotta (£6.00) to share. The soft, vanilla folds of the pannacotta were cut by the spiced fruitiness of lightly stewed plums. It was a delicious way to end the meal.
The total bill came to £58 including wine and service, which was efficient and pleasantly informal. Although I understand the reasons for it, I'm not a big fan of some restaurants' policy of not taking bookings, and Polpetto doesn't take dinner reservations. I don't know about you, but I like the certainty that reserving a table gives you. We all lead such hectic lives these days, and if I've planned to eat somewhere at a certain time I'd like to know that it will happen, without me having to wait an inordinate amount of time for a table that may or may not materialise. I was there at lunchtime, when they do take reservations, so for me that's definitely the way to go.
I really, really adored Polpetto. It has charm and energy in spades, and the food was divine. Often, a restaurant never lives up to this amount of pre-opening hyperbole. But in the case of Polpetto I'm pleased to say it exceeded all my expectations. OK, the food might not be the most refined in London, but it is honest, no fuss cooking served in such congenial surroundings. Polpetto is a breath of fresh air in the capital's already eclectic dining scene and I can't wait to come back for more.
Food: 8 / 10
Service: 8 / 10
Ambiance: 9 / 10
Upstairs at The French House
49 Dean Street
London W1D 5BG
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 1969