W1’s answer to Venetian charm, unlike the Italian city, is uninspiring and charmless.
Opened in 2009, with the aim of reimagining a Venetian bàcaro – a humble restaurant serving simple food and good, young Italian wines – Polpo has since become a small chain spanning three UK cities. Despite the clear success, I was left unimpressed by my experience. Polpo say that ‘details, including butcher-paper menus and copper ice buckets, hidden behind velvet curtains and low intimate lighting transport the diner to Venice.’ This may well be the case, but the food does not.
The Colombian and I were in the West End and desired an impromptu supper. Initially, we tried the ever popular Dishoom but were unwilling to wait in the biting December cold for an unquantified length of time. Fortunately, the queue for Polpo did not trail outside, for reasons we would soon discover.
After a painless wait at the bar we were swiftly seated by a stony faced waitress, whose enthusiasm set the tone for the rest of the meal. We asked for the Italian classic, Arancini, to nibble on whilst we pondered over the menu. What arrived were deep fried, over cooked rice balls which lacked seasoning and any sort of noticeable flavour. We ignored the early sign of doom and ordered a host of small plates to share – because that is protocol at Polpo.
First to arrive was the fennel salami, artichoke and truffle bruschetta. To the chef’s credit, this dish was actually pretty good. The fennel salami was soft and flavoursome, not overly fatty as some salami’s can be. The combination of these three earthy ingredients made for a pleasant start to our meal.
Just before we had finished the bruschetta, we had two fish dishes rudely frisbee-d onto our table by our morose waitress. These days, I expect risotto to slowly pour from whatever contains it in a slow, smooth wave, however, I was able to stand my fork up in this seafood risotto, it was dry and some of the rice clumped together in stodgy balls. The stuffed octopus that arrived with it, thankfully – given the restaurant’s name – was rather tasty. The chickpeas in which the mollusc sat were expertly cooked and had absorbed the Castelfranco infused sauce.
We finished, contrary to the Italian way, with pasta dishes. Although it is not pasta, gnocchi is often classified with it. We had the fried gnocchi with kale pesto and pecorino which was light, fresh and appetising. The gnocchi was cooked well, it is easy to overcook it to a point it when its’ texture resembles baby food, this was avoided. As for the beef shin ragu, I was unmoved. The beef seemed tired, its’ flavour was dull and the sauce was watery, I’m surprised the pasta-polizia have not reprimanded them for crimes against the proud pasta producing people of Italy. If you would like a plate of pasta that does the Italian staple justice go to Italy, or, failing that, Padella in Borough.
For fear of seeming unfair, I must clarify that there were some good dishes on the menu at Polpo, however, they were hidden amongst a lot of bland ones which are not difficult to get right. Coupled with the apathetic service, Polpo, for me, receives a sub-par score.