Since moving to London I have often asked for recommendations on places to go when in town, and Polpo has always come out near the top. So when planning my dad’s birthday recently with my sister, as soon as dinner there was mentioned we knew we were onto a winner. Dad always gets given cookbooks, but he was particularly pleased when he unwrapped the Polpo one at Christmas. Brimming with beautiful plates of Venetian tapas I had full on book envy, and knew that he would love the real thing as a birthday treat.
Over the past few years the Polpo empire has expanded with a number of sites in central London, and has become a true dining institution. You cannot look at Twitter for five minutes without someone raving about. Like many of the trendy new ventures in town, Polpo operates a no-booking policy, and I was wary as to whether five of us would be sat at all. Would we end up in sad looking chain full of disappointment. This wasn’t a million miles away. Greeted by a large queue and long wait at the Soho branch, my heart sank. However, I was quickly informed that the next, and bigger branch was just a short hop away in Covent Garden, so we set off with haste. Often in these situations you feel like every other member of the public is heading to the same place, and this was no different as I set about racing shoppers and barging small children to try and avert a repeat performance.
There was another queue. Of course there was. But there was also a pub opposite, and a 45 minute wait over a pint didn’t seem like the worst option. Even after the brief doorway impressions I was excited; the dimly lit, beautifully rustic room was heaving, and carried a buzz radiating off every table. The menu reflected this, the sort where you could easily order every item. I couldn’t wait to get in.
Prosecco, arancini, scallops and peas, the dishes were empty moments after getting to the table. Light, delicate and bursting with flavour. Dad’s a good cook, and every meal gets the critique to the standard of his home fare, but here him and mum were relaxed, happy, overwhelmed. Food, drink and service flowed in harmony as we recalled stories of Venice holidays, fish markets and ripe tomatoes. Beautifully refreshing mozzarella with new season broad beans and perfectly crisp light fritto misto followed, and were downed with as much gusto.
Tapas is a funny thing. Some love the mouthful of everything that you get, whilst I am in the opposite camp. I am the Chinese takeaway stick in the mud. I like my choice and will pick something that I want to eat. All of it. So I was hesitant at the thought of five of us sitting round scrimping from the small plates. I was surprised. Despite the numbers, each plate provided a good amount, even room for second helpings. My sister is a vegetarian, but unlike the lazy afterthoughts seen at other restaurants her choices were fought over. The simple sounding spinach, parmesan and soft egg pizzette was one of the tastiest things I have eaten in a while, packing a real depth of flavour from such humble ingredients.
The big guns emerged in the third round, charred soft lamb and spiked caponata and the real star calves liver. I never order liver, but something swung me that evening and it was just amazing. Tender, deep and unctuous. Just delicious. I was a convert, and vowed to get blogging with some recipes of my own.
There was just room for a couple of desserts, a fragrant moist almond cake and a dinky cup of foamy tirimisu. We were plump, rosy cheeked and satisfied.
AA Gill wrote last year about the emergence of restaurants serving food that 30 years ago would have been cooked at home. He said this disparagingly, but I think that this can be a celebration in some scenarios. At Polpo the food was great. It didn’t blow me away with technique or new flavours, it just tasted really good. The rustic presentation and setting gave the meal that homely family gathering feel, and in this situation it was perfect. I would rather this than sitting in a mindnumbingly dated Michelin hotel restaurant any day.
There was one thing that I hated though, and it wasn’t the food. It was the music. I understand that it’s trendy and young, but I never want to be having a lovely meal to suddenly hear Catatonia booming from the walls. Justin Timberlake followed. It just threw me. Where did this all fit in with authentic Venetian food and an intimate atmosphere. This all got gently louder towards the end, and just didn’t really have a place. If the cleaners were rearing to get going and wanted to clear the place then I applaud the tactics.
But that was all. If you are into dodgy 90s music and good food then this will be heaven. If you are into good food then this will be heaven. Just hum loudly.