Saturday, 15 September 2012

(Da) Polpo Covent Garden

I'm a huge fan of 'sharing' meals across all cultures and cuisines: tapas, dim sum, mezze, I love them all. Not only do you get to try a bigger selection of what the menu has to offer in a generally very affordable way but you avoid the awful spectre of Meal Envy - when, having dithered over the menu for an age, your food arrives and you immediately and desperately wish you had ordered whatever has just been put in front of your neighbour.

In case you've been living on a culinary desert island for the past few years, Polpo is one of Russell Norman's group of restaurants across London based on the Venetian bacaro - a small, homely restaurant more like an Italian tapas bar, based around small sharing dishes and wine by the glass or carafe. Slightly confusingly, as the family has grown they have been rechristened: the original Polpo on Beak Street is now called Polpo Soho, whereas this one used to be Da Polpo and is now Polpo Covent Garden. A new addition has just opened in Smithfield. There are other non-identical siblings - Polpetto, Mishkin's, Spuntino (and apparently at least one more on the way) but I had set my heart on a Polpo, so Covent Garden it was.

The Polpo restaurants have been criticised for their reservations policy, or rather, their lack of one. Lunchtime tables can be booked, to cater for business dining, but in the evening it's first come, first served - although you can order wine and snacks whilst you wait. Norman himself is unapologetic, reasoning that his regular repeat customers are likely to live, work or play locally so will be happy to just pitch up and hope. In a recent interview with the Observer's Rachel Cooke, he says 'It does confuse me that people rant and rave about this. If you want to book, choose a restaurant where they take reservations. It's that fucking simple!' Read the interview in full here:

Or of course, if you particularly want to eat at Polpo (which we did), just get there early. We arrived just before 6pm on a Friday night and were seated immediately, so it is possible. There have also been murmurings about the appropriateness of such stripped-back decor, bare filament light bulbs and cosy-to-crowded seating in a restaurant that reached number 25 in the National Restaurant Awards last year. To these people I would say just be happy that there is an affordable, unpretentious, top-class restaurant in Central London where people who don't necessarily want starched tablecloths, starched waiters and the muted tinkle of crystal glasses can eat really great food and enjoy themselves. You're more likely to dine along to The Verve than to Vivaldi at Polpo and it fits the relaxed, companionable vibe perfectly.

Greeted and seated by a friendly member of staff, we started with a Caprese Stack and a Summer Pea and Speck Crostino, priced at £3 each. The crostino was pretty much what I had expected for cicchetti, or snacks; a couple of mouthfuls of crisp base, nice fresh pea topping and a decent-sized curl of meat. However, what I had thought might be a garnish actually turned out to be the Caprese stack. One cherry tomato, a single basil leaf and a small piece of mozzarella barely visible beneath said tomato, on a cocktail stick. I'm sorry guys, but seriously? In what possible world can that be £3? We also ordered a cocktail each - a Limona for me (gin, white vermouth and Limoncello) and an Americano for my companion. These were okay, but not wonderful; having said that, the emphasis is very much on wine here (and they did seem to be training up a new member of bar staff) so perhaps I would just go for wine next time - refreshingly all available in 25cl, 50cl and 75cl carafes for maximum choice.

Somewhat deflated, I awaited the arrival (and size) of the Classic Pork and Beef Meatballs with trepidation. I needn't have worried. Three generously plump and juicy meatballs smothered in an excellently-balanced fresh tomato sauce arrived at the table and I have to say they were superb. Great texture, perfectly seasoned, these were as good as I've had anywhere else - Italy and Spain included - and excellent value at £6. If they hadn't been so filling, I might have immediately ordered the Spicy Pork and Fennel meatballs, which sound divine. The Linguine Vongole was about the size you would expect for a starter portion in a standard upmarket Italian restaurant, tasty and with plenty of clams. 

Perking up again, we decided to try the Spinach, Parmesan and Soft Egg Pizzette, a side plate-sized dish more like a topped flatbread than a standard pizza. This arrived generously piled with delicious fresh cheesy spinach and a wobbly just-poached egg; utterly delicious. Wanting to try one of the desserts, and starting to feel quite full, we opted for the Baked Peach with Amaretti Cream; a halved roasted peach served with a respectable dollop of flavoured cream and sprinkled with amaretti crumbs, a perfect end to the meal.

I wholeheartedly recommend Polpo Covent Garden and will be back myself soon for sure. Portion sizes can vary wildly within the same price range but with some judicious choices this is still great value for money, considering the quality of the food in what can be a tourist trap of a location. Definitely worth an early dinner - oh, and I now covet the cookbook badly. 

Yours, sharing nicely,
Girl About Town xx

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