If you were playing a game of Restaurant Cliche Bingo (2016 edition), you’d really fancy your chances at winning if you drew the Polpo card. “Share with your mates, it’s ‘Small plates’!” the caller would exclaim, and you’d hurriedly dab off your first square. “Commiserations; it’s ‘No reservations’!” – you’re on a roll!
Eventually the caller would call out food served in novelty sombreros or on reproduction Louisiana street signs instead of plates, and you’d bow out; graceful in defeat. Somebody else in the bingo hall was playing as Arc Inspirations’ latest opening. You never stood a chance.
While it’s very trendy to make fun these traits – not to mention a great way of letting everybody know you don’t have anything more pressing to worry about – there’s no denying that customers react well to them, and they just work. (Except the novelty tableware, my conscience won’t allow me to make excuses for that)
The reason they’re popular is, in part, down to Polpo’s first restaurant on Soho’s Beak Street. It wasn’t the first restaurant to forego a booking system, nor was it the first to shun the starter-main-pudding paradigm, it just happened to be in the right place (an old shopfront in a trendy part of town) at the right time (just as social media was becoming an effective word of mouth marketing tool) and serving the right type of food.
Polpo’s cooking is a world away from tray-bake lasagnas and arrabbiata bogged down in passata associated with typical high street Italian restaurants. There’s familiar dishes of linguine and ragu and pizzette, but with enough exoticism to make it stand out – octopuses, rabbit pappardelle, chicken livers, fontina – without being prohibitive.
All of this attention spawned a new generation of restaurants that had people queueing for hours outside previous retail lots – not even proper bespoke restaurants with custom restaurant kitchens. But now Polpo has brought that blueprint to a new type of plot; the department store restaurant.
The area on the fourth floor of Harvey Nichols that used to house Yo! Sushi has undergone drastic renovation, all of the a bright, white and neon moulded plastic that made Yo! look like a sci-fi pharmacist has gone, and yes, so has the conveyor belt.
As much fun as it would have been to sit by the belt and pick out portions of mobile Osso Bucco, I will concede that it might have ruined the aesthetic that they’ve gone for – comfortable, deep leather banquettes, wooden tables for two that can be pulled together to accommodate greater or fewer numbers, bare brickwork and a super-fresco ceiling, all dimly lit with a sepia hue from candlelight and yellow filament bulbs draped in linen.
It’s all very municipal and rustic, which is jarring at first – from the outside it looks very at-odds with Harvey Nichol’s fourth-floor, with its chrome shelves bursting with bottles of special edition Grey Goose and gourmet Jelly Bean flavours. Just like when Santa’s Grotto appears on the second floor of Debenhams in November – How did that snow settle on the grotto’s roof when it’s firmly indoors? Why is the painted wooden sign of this brand new restaurant so weathered already? (No need to email your answers in, I’m not stupid. I know Father Christmas brings his own *magic* snow with him). Once inside though, the illusion of being in a Venetian bistro takes over – suspension of disbelief is only broken when you glance out the front door at a poster for facial cleanser or Versace aftershave. It’s a real credit to the designers
It’s easy to perform illusions on people when they’re being distracted though; which the food does very well. Brought out a few plates at a time, we ate an impressively soft, runny egg baked into spinach and parmesan on a pizzette, then used the crusts to mop up tomato sauce left over from spicy pork meatballs – a three-pronged barrage of flavour from chilli, garlic and fennel, which made the vegetarian meatballs – with Chickpea, Spinach & Ricotta – seem underseasoned by comparison.
Fritto Misto was technically outstanding, with a crispy, perfectly dry batter getting into every crevice of the al-dente baby octopus, squid and sardines, giving them the appearance of sandy statues in the desert, rather than cloaking them under a gloopy tempura. Milky, tender cod cheeks with salsa verde are devoured after a squeeze of lemon brings them completely to life, but the lentils underneath – overly salty and not much else – gets ignored for the rest of the meal.
Why eat lentils when there’s Linguine with Crab & chilli to be had? A simple bowl of fat, yellow pasta drenched in a liquor so seasidey it could be running through Rick Stein’s veins; deceptively tasty and super satisfying. Or slow-cooked duck ragu with gnocchi? More generous with the duck than with the gnocchi, and even more generous with black olives and green peppercorns that combine to give an anaesthetic, medicinal twang, it buddies up perfectly to the deep mineral oomph of Cauliflower gratin with gorgonzola and fontina.
After such a rich combination of dishes, (not to mention the cocktails, served short, bitter, and strong) the temptation of Nutella Pizzette was all too easy to resist. The only problem with small plates is that it allows people to build their own meal, and sometimes, certain people forget how to show restraint. Instead, the Flourless Pistachio & Almond cake stepped in, mellow sweetness of honey and a light moisture & tang of lemon in the cake made it seem an almost sensible end to the meal.
We briefly considered getting a copy of the Polpo cookbook so we could attempt to recreate it at home, I think I’ll just go back to the restaurant instead.
Of everything eaten here, despite some being better than others, there really was no “star dish”, the one cliche of modern restaurants that it’s justifiable to object to; dishes that look good on Instagram and draw punters in, allowing the rest of the menu to get away with being mediocre. Going for a menu of consistently very good cooking as opposed to a the “wow-factor” might let them down in Cliche Bingo, but it won’t stop them getting a full house, night after night.