Sunday, 13 December 2009


41 Beak Street
London W1F 9SB
020 7734 4479

“Polpo is a Venetian bacaro serving Italian small plates and simple northern Italian wines in relaxed and humble surroundings. Carbon filament lightbulbs, exposed brickwork, an imported tin ceiling, Victorian tiled floors and reclaimed furniture bring some old-school charm to Soho. The menu is inspired by the bacari of Venice offering traditional chicheti as well as modern takes on Italian classics.” So this new (opened September 30th) restaurant in London’s Soho proclaims on its website.

I must confess I have been to Venice several times and never discovered its bacari. I will seek them out next time. The principle is just like a Spanish tapas bar. You share many small portions rather than plough through two or three courses which you keep to yourself. I like this style of eating so I came well disposed towards Polpo. In style the bar/restaurant has many similarities to two other Soho places: Barrafina, a Spanish tapas bar and Bocca di Lupo, also Italian. Each of these is a deep rectangle in shape with a bar at the front, seating at the back. Each offers small plates to share. A difference is that in Barrafina and Bocca di Lupo the food is prepared behind the larger bars and hence it is part of the spectacle, while at Polpo it is brought to you from the kitchen.

Humble surroundings are not quite how I would put it: elegant Soho chic is more the feel: zinc bar, exposed brickwork yes, wooden furniture and the tin ceiling looks like panelled wood. The menu on recycled paper which also serves as your place mat is very right on PC but humble, no.

The wine list is uncomplicated, short and unsurprisingly Italian. The most expensive wine on the list is a Montalcino for £39. Most of the humbler wines are offered by ¼ litre, half litre carafe and 75 cl bottle. I like this: you can try more than one thing and are not forced to drink huge glasses. Better still there is no price disadvantage in drinking less: the price for the bottle is exactly three times the quarter litre. We are sitting at the bar. I ask the waiter’s advice and he suggests the Barbera D’Alba. Its simple, fruity blackberry. I like it. I ask him what the grape variety is (its Barbera) but he doesn’t know. A small complaint: its not that hard for the staff in a wine bar with a relatively short list to know a bit about the wines they are serving. There is a bit of additional clumsiness on the waiting front at the end of the meal when I ask our waitress for the bill. “Ask him” she says pointing at the guy behind the bar “His name’s Ajax”.

The menu is simply divided into Chicheti which are very reasonably priced (under £2) little snacks, then bread, fish, meat, vegetables and salads. These are small tapas style platefuls, large enough for two to share. Most are around £6 and the vegetables and salads less than £4. The Chicheti we have are on rather dry and uninteresting bread but the anchovy and chick pea, all mashed up, is interesting if a bit too salty and the mint in the fig prosciutto and mint makes a classic zing with something a little bit special. The larger plates we order, duck and cuttlefish, are marred by the cuttlefish being cold. The duck with green peppercorns, black olives and tomatoes is simple but lifted by the green peppercorn texture and flavouring.

Where we were sitting at the bar there was an open view through the window straight down Upper James Street which gave a feel of openness in crowded Soho. Altogether is was a pleasurable if not overwhelming (on the food side at least ) experience. It was good value too at £28, though a couple more of the full plates (necessary for a complete meal) and a bit more wine would take the bill up to over £40. For me both Barrafina and Bocca di Lupo have more interesting (and hotter!) food but here’s the rub for all three: they are so popular it’s impossible to get into them in the evening! This kind of chic unregimented snack eating is clearly wildy popular so more please! We arrived at 6pm at Polpo which is opening time. By 7.40pm it was jumping: there was no seating place at all. Bocca di Lupo can be booked way in advance which spoils the casualness but both Barrafina and Polpo which can’t be booked in the evening are so full you would have to wait a considerable time for a place any time post 7pm certainly towards the end of the week, or at week ends.

Polpo on Urbanspoon

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