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Polpo review, London

Simon Binns falls for the charms of this trendy Soho tapas bar

Written by . Published on March 30th 2011.

Polpo review, London

There’s a rumour doing the rounds that the new San Carlo venture, Cicchetti, is based on buzzy Soho Italian tapas bar, Polpo.

I’d get on a train from Piccadilly every day of the week for a portion of the duck ragu with green peppercorns and gnocchi if I had the money. But I don’t. Nuggets of pink meaty loveliness alongside plump little Italian dumplings. Heavenly.

To be fair, they could have picked far worse. As I pitched up at 7pm on a Thursday evening, with two friends in tow, the scene was one of chaos. Carefully choreographed, but chaos nonetheless.

The barman told us there was a 40 minute wait on tables. By the time I’d walked three paces to the cute, young but efficiently ruthless girl co-ordinating covers with a clipboard thicker than the Yellow Pages, it had increased to two hours.

So, we decided to sit at the small bar we’d been greeted with as we’d walked in, which gave us a view deep into the eye of the hurricane. Low ceilings, low light, steamy windows, which all added up to a good atmosphere.

It was a reduced menu but certainly big enough (60 or so) and it had all the cicchetti (plates available – this was where my interest lay anyhow.

Ordering as we ate, we started with some cicchetti - an anchovy and chickpea crostino (£1); mortadella, gorgonzola and walnut (£1.70) and potato and parmesan crocchetta, or croquettes to you and me (£1.60).

Neatly presented and packed with flavour, these were all tasty titbits, and although the anchovy and chickpea tapas is en vogue with the London foodie set, I thought it was trumped by the croquette. I could have managed a dozen.

The two bar staff were engaging and up for a bit of chat despite being run off their feet, and recommended a nice, buttery bottle of Gavi. A good choice, which also revealed another subtle stroke of genius. Small glasses. You don’t feel like you’re drinking too much when you’re only topping up mini tumblers, and it adds to the laid-back European feel amid the bustle.

It also makes you tank a bottle of wine deceptively quickly, but hey ho.

Devoured within minutes, it was time to get on to some main plates. The cotechino sausage with lentils and salsa verda (£7) was an absolute delight. Firm, succulent meat was perfectly balanced with the delicately salty lentils and the fresh-tasting salsa. Generous portion too, and enough to go round the three of us.

The chicken cacciatore with wet polenta (£6.20) was tender and tasty, despite looking like meat submerged in pease pudding. Solid if unspectacular, but well executed.

A generous plate of grilled slice flank steak (£8.40) was beautifully pink and juicy, liberally covered with delicious porcini cream. A triumphant dish that would make even a vegetarian jealous, and a victory for simplicity.

I would, however, get on a train from Piccadilly every day of the week for a portion of the duck ragu with green peppercorns and gnocchi (£7.40) if I had the money. But I don’t. Nuggets of pink meaty loveliness alongside plump little Italian dumplings. Heavenly, and deeply moreish.

The overwhelmingly lovely spinach with chilli and garlic and the crispy rosemary potatoes were able sides, but the menu was still bursting with things I wish I had room for.

Desserts all round, before I ordered more duck. The flourless orange and almond cake with mascarpone (£5.70); a hot chocolate pot and cantuccini (£4.30) and the highlight, chocolate salami (£2.60). Yes, salami. Not meat based, of course, more of a tiffin in a sausage shape. Amazing.

We were sat in Polpo for three hours or so – people were still coming in when we left; asking how long, looking at each other, scratching their chins. You could see the fear of missing this particular bandwagon, such is the buzz around the place.

There are plans, I was told by the barman, to open two more London eateries from the same stable this year. Make hay while the sun shines.

With hindsight, eating at the bar was a better decision than waiting – not just because it was quicker but because I think we actually got the best out of Polpo. Yes, the food is good, but the people-watching is entertaining too.

If San Carlo trades half as well as this place, they’re on to a winner. But don’t go to Polpo to compare; go there to enjoy the food and marvel at the atmosphere.

Soho at its buzzy best.

Rating: 17/20
Breakdown: 8/10 food
4/5 service
5/5 ambience (ie 5/5 if you are looking for a noisy night out, 1/5 if you’re not)
Address: Polpo
41 Beak Street
020 7734 4479

Venues are rated against the best examples of their kind: fine dining against the best fine dining, cafes against the best cafes. Following on from this the scores represent: 1-5 saw your leg off and eat it, 6-9 get a DVD, 10-11 if you must, 12-13 if you’re passing,14-15 worth a trip,16-17 very good, 17-18 exceptional, 19 pure quality, 20 perfect. More than 20: Gordo gets carried away

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