(Another post by CrumpEats other half – who being a student had the time to pop out for lunch today and do some research for me)
There’s another restaurant ending with an -o in town, this time Russell Norman has looked beyond Soho which currently houses Polpo, Polpetto and Spuntino and set his sights on Maiden Lane in Covent Garden. Hidden behind some unfortunate roadworks da Polpo is a long, bright and airy eatery with a beautiful long metallic bar and two dozen bustling tables spread across two levels. The walls are all rubbed down, coated with a haphazardly applied faded cream paint, and adorned with vintage Venetian maps and shelves stacked with Nutella and Olive Oil.
Me and my friend Rich took a perch in the rear of the upstairs section that features a gorgeous red leather sofa that stretches across the entire back wall. Despite being empty we were assured it would fill up, and by the time our first course of complimentary focaccia turned up half the tables had already filled up. We ordered, two pizzettas first and then mains of Fritto Misto and Piadina Smash with Pork & Fennel Meatballs.
The pizza promptly arrived and we sliced them in half to get the best of both worlds. On the right side is Pork Shoulder and Pepper, deliciously meaty, the peppers brought a sharp taste that complimented the flavorful pork and stringy cheese, it was Rich’s favourite. I preferred the grilled Mortadella, Gorgonzola and pickled Radicchio; a divine blend of strong pungent cheese and sharp vinegary radish, though sadly the Mortadella was lost amongst these strong tastes.
Next up were the mains, the Fritto Misto was a very pretty mountain of fried sea-food. The calamari rings were lightly battered and perfectly cooked, and the shrimp were decent, if a little bland; the highlight were the tiny whitebait, each fresh salty crispy bite was something special. The only garnish was a large wedge of lemon, which was a nice addition, but I would have liked an additional sauce or component, like the equivalent dish at Yalla Yalla that comes with crispy fried aubergine and pomegranate seeds.
The meatball smash was proper comfort food, I wasn’t expecting the presentation which I felt was more Mexican than Italian. The meatballs had been smashed together with a rich tomato sauce and plenty of cheese and then wrapped up in a thin crispy pizza base like a tortilla. The meat was great though, and packed a lovely hit of fennel whilst still tasting strongly of pork.
Like our visit to Polpetto, once we’d finished the main courses we still felt hungry, for all of the hype surrounding this group of restaurants there’s no getting away from the fact that the portions are small, designed to be shared and carry prices on the high side. Luckily we were still dining in their ‘soft opening ‘ period so we knew we were going to get 50% off food and to fill us up we ordered dessert. Rich chose the Bellini Sgropino, and after being assured by the waiter that ‘it would be obscene‘ I chose the nutella pizzetta.
When they arrived Rich was instantly jealous – his small glass of icey, fresh and fruity Bellini was nice, but it was essentially a pre-dessert palate cleanser and it was nothing compared to the vast chocolate feast that sat in front of me.
It was probably the highlight of the whole meal, the base was savory and doughy in the center and the edges were crisp and crunchy. The whole thing was covered with thick warm nutella sauce and topped with additional chunks of salty sweet hazelnuts and a powdering of icing sugar. It was a struggle to finish and should definitely be shared between two.
Satisfied we paid up the bill, it was a pleasant £32, but would have been closer to £52 if the food had been full price. Debates about whether this group of restaurants are worth the premium will surely continue, but if you have the money da Polpo is a wonderful choice and a worthy addition for London eateries, especially to the Covent Garden area.
On an aside, my biggest gripe with the place was actually the music, it was awful and totally out of synch with the sophisticated atmosphere/decor. We heard a completely random selection of bland pop and mainstream indie, the sort you’d expect playing at a hairdressers. Nowhere should ever be caught playing Girls and Boys by Blur on a Wednesday lunchtime, no matter how good it sounded in the 90s…