Monday, 23 June 2014
Restaurant review: Polpetto, Soho
This is the year that Russell Normal jumped onto the television screens as the entertaining and fair Restaurant Man. The man all-seeing and all-knowing at the heart of his growing restaurant empire. He could quote how high (to the tape-measured centimetre) every bar was, the distance between each chair and the serial numbers of the light bulbs. He exposed the flaws and naiveties in budding restaurateurs (sic) who looked to make a quick fortune in hospitality having never washed a glass or served a plate in their lives. His likable modesty and calm temperament came as a refreshing change to previous ‘fix the business’ franchises; miles away from those furrowed Ramsay outrages. But in doing this he has put himself on a platform. Upon visiting his establishments you now see the calculations. You can imagine Norman pacing the space in his furred parka, advising his decorating team to stain underneath the wall lamps and talking up the merits of silver cutlery. In somewhere like Polpetto, all intimate with pleasingly mismatched furniture, dim lighting and rustically stripped back walls, the romance is slightly overshadowed by knowledge of the whirring business cogs that lay behind it.
If the expectations raised by the owners profile weren’t enough, the rest was achieved by the restaurant itself. I can’t remember anywhere drumming up as much anticipation followed by such universal praise for a very long time. Top marks from newspapers and a twitter meltdown duly followed. We were excited as we approached on a sunny Tuesday afternoon, with the heady expectation of a damn good feed. The problem with a no-reservation policy is that nightmare of being stuck in an endless snaking queue, but as is often the case, you can sneak in easily enough around peak times. The place was dead in that no-mans-land period between lunch and dinner, but the small space still felt intimate and romantic despite the absence of fellow diners. We loved the silver, mismatched furniture and wall lamps. The menu listed very well.
The day had been hot, very hot, and Soho had been sweating from every pore. Polpetto instantly had us dancing in the palm of its hand at the mere mention of a rhubarb bellini and an Earl Grey iced tea. We were then taken on holiday with an orb of creamy burrata, with sharp and spicy samphire and chilli interrupting only lovingly. Much like at sister-restaurant Polpo last summer, I was impressed that for somewhere so connected with terms ‘small plates’ and ‘tapas’, the portioning was bang on. Tender little chicken oysters swam in an unctuous bowl of gravy and cannellini beans, and we wished that the melting beef shin strozzapreti would never end. Where the food had missed the point at my recent visit to Mayfields, here Florence Knight and her brigade had well and truly lived up to the hype.
But much like an episode of the Restaurant Man, when things were going swimmingly, you were still never far away from some drama. At some point around our main course, our peaceful surroundings were shattered by what can only be described as a chef having a meltdown. A screaming tantrum, quite impressively, came banging through a closed door and up a flight of stairs from the kitchen to our table. A flurry of worried and nervous looking waiting staff ran past. I can’t say whether the unseen woman having a hissy fit was indeed Knight, or whether they had a valid point or not, but whoever it was, it was rather embarrassing, and an awkward moment to be part of. If this had been part of his show, you could almost picture Norman outside talking into a camera, blasting this unprofessional tirade. Thankfully there were a mere handful of tables to experience this ‘entertainment’, but that’s hardly the point really.
Things sweetened up by the time puddings were delivered, thankfully devoid of any blood or broken bone. I feel that it’s hugely unfair to put something called ‘fried pecorino and honey’ on a menu, as however good everything else looks, there’s only one thing that I’m going to order. This is something that I’d seen and read about beforehand, and to say that I was excited would have been an understatement. But I have to say that I ended up a little disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that melting cheese and honey can ever be a bad thing, but I half-expected more. The cheese had lost any defining flavour, the batter was on the thick and chewier side of crisp and it needed a good hit of something salty to combat the honey. It certainly all got wolfed down though. As did Katie’s panna cotta, which was as light as a feather and full of summer fragrance.
For fantastic food in a relaxing and well-created environment, Norman has yet again nailed it. We left with full and happy bellies and I would return in a flash. A few let downs were there; dreadfully inattentive service in an empty restaurant and a kitchen outrage to remember are a little disappointing but hardly unforgivable. And I must say, that little Virginia Wolf quote at the foot of the bill came across slightly arrogant and cheaply unnecessary. But we had indeed eaten well, and for that alone Polpetto was a triumph.