Saturday, October 17, 2009

Polpo, Soho - a bit of a no-no

The occasion: the award ceremony to distribute prizes from a disastrous food quiz way back in February; the attendees: Helen of Food Stories, Chris of Cheese and Biscuits, Su Lin of Tamarind & Thyme and yours truly; the venue: Polpo, the latest hot "Venetian tapas" restaurant opening in Soho.

While Venice isn't exactly known for its food, our expectations of Polpo were high after its comprehensive media coverage and significant twitter-hype. The restaurant had already achieved 4/5 in Time Out and 3/5 in the Metro, always a good sign. Restaurant magazine recently featured two pages on this new venture, where I learnt that the co-owner, Russell Norman, was previously operations director of Caprice Holdings and the head chef had "a brief stint" at Bocca di Lupo. So far so good.

We eager four arrived at the restaurant, tucked away in a Soho side street almost opposite Bob Bob Ricard. It was dimly candle-lit (hence the lack of photos), absolutely packed and had quite a buzz. While checking in with the waitress, people walking in off the street were being turned away, so busy was the restaurant that night. The stripped down brickwork and brown paper menus developed the rustic theme Russell was clearly looking for. Service was youthful and friendly and the menu looked delicious. A different take on tapas. Our mouths were watering.

So we ordered a selection of plates - 3 or 4 per person seemed to be the done thing although no advice was offered by our waitress. We were intrigued by the pricing - some dishes seeming pretty reasonable but the turnip tops in particular stuck out as being very expensive at £5.80, the same price as the slow roast duck. We decided to order them, thinking they must be cooked in some spectacular, decadent fashion. We also ordered a selection of breads, seafood, meat and veg.

After quaffing a bit of reasonably priced Venetian wine, our waitress arrived with the pizzetta bianca. It was ok. The dough was thin and crisp, and the cheese and onion topping was, well, cheese and oniony. Not spectacular, but not horrendous either. An ok bar snack.

Next to arrive were the arancini, crisped golf balls of risotto stuffed with courgette and stringy cheese. I love risotto, I love cheese and I love crispy fried stuff. It doesn't seem like a difficult thing to get right. But these had absolutely no seasoning whatsoever. Faces were starting to fall around the table. Su Lin got out the salt shaker. We tried to keep our spirits up and held out hope for the next dishes.

We devoured plates of mussels & clams, slow roast duck with green peppercorns, black olives and tomatoes, pork belly with radicchio and hazelnuts, anchovy and chick pea crostini, cuttlefish in its ink, octopus salad, fennel with bobby beans and cobnuts. The duck was bland. The octopus was too salty. The mussels were not all open. The pork belly was just ok.

None of it was delicious, or even tasty for that matter, save the cuttlefish cooked in its own ink which was good. It was as if no-one in the kitchen was tasting the food, no love or care had gone into it. We were truly upset, Helen looked like she was going to cry. We wondered, charitably, if were choosing the wrong dishes, or if they were just having a bad night, but then half the menu can't be wrong - can it?

And then came the turnip tops. It's a real shame that the place was so dark that my pictures didn't come out, but try to imagine this: a small dish of bedraggled spinach. For £5.80. "Aren't turnip tops what you feed to sheep?", asked Su Lin. "Yes", we all agreed, "and they probably get more than one between four". It was truly shameful. The night will forever afterwards be known as Turnip-Top-Gate, if we can ever bear to speak of it.

So we got to the end of this mediocre spread and felt deeply disappointed and also pretty hungry.

Re-reading the Restaurant article today, I discovered that Polpo means Octopus. "The name has no significance at all", says Norman in his Restaurant interview, "it's just a very friendly word that you can't mispronounce." Sadly, the lack of substance seems to goes for the restaurant too - it's a great concept, superficially it's well executed - it looks good and it sounds good, the service is pleasant. But the food just doesn't match up.

Such a shame, we really wanted to love it but instead we ended up skipping dessert and topping up on ribs & wings at Bodeans. So Polpo, if you're listening, it's an easy fix - put some love into the food, season it and taste the blooming stuff before you serve it. All style and no substance does not a successful restaurant make.

UPDATE: Since we visited, the turnip tops have been reduced in price to £3.80
Polpo, 41 Beak St, London W1F 9SB

Polpo on Urbanspoon


Anonymous said...

Thanks again for sorting out the prizes! Shame about the meal but at least second dinner was good!

alexthepink said...

Indeed, and Helen and I finally got to lose our Bodeans virginity!

shayma said...

a shame, perhaps the quality of the food is a bit uneven bec i have foodie friends who rave about this fact, when i come to London in Jan, my friend has already invited me for 'drink at Polpo'; hope it doesnt disappoint the way it did you. sorry to hear about your experience.