Friday, 16 October 2009
Purely in terms of a concept perfectly pitched to the jaded, trend-chasing diners of London, Polpo appears to have everything going for it. You've tried tapas before, sure, haven't we all. But what's this - Italian "tapas", based on a Venetian bacaro - bitesize (often literally) portions of Italian food, each little more than a couple of quid and presented with a shockingly reasonable Italian wine list. The room is romantically lit (ie. you can barely see your hand in front of your face) but whereas in other restaurants this only serves to annoy, in Polpo it seems to fit with the clandestine Venetian style, like you've discovered a hidden gem of a bar near St. Mark's Square. You almost expect to hear the gentle lapping of the canals beneath the buzz of the crowd. Polpo has everything going for it, then. Everything that is, apart from the food.
First to disappoint were the arancini, deep-fried risotto balls. Bland in colour and taste, these weren't so much under seasoned as completely un-seasoned, and were like eating wet plaster of Paris. My crostini of chicken livers was just a slice of toasted baguette with what for all the world could pass as a supermarket paté - uniformly smooth, timid of flavour. And I wasn't just unlucky - the other crostini had similarly poor feedback from my friends at the table last night, a "horrible" cheap black olive in particular spoiling an otherwise OK salt fish and polenta offering.
The larger dishes were similarly cack-handed. Octopus salad had the opposite problem of the arancini, being unpleasantly salty; pork belly with raddicchio and hazelnuts had some fine flavours but the inedibly chewy rind on the meat itself was distracting; slow-roast duck with tomatoes was boring, under seasoned yet again and with none of the flavoursome fat that duck can offer; only a dish of cuttlefish cooked in ink was worth the asking price - rich in flavour and balanced with a pleasant tang of the sea.
By this point we were becoming thoroughly dispirited but ploughed on gamely through another handful of boring dishes. Mussels and clams were yet again under seasoned, not very fresh, and a good half of the mussels were closed (albeit smashed apart). Turnip tops flavoured with chilli and garlic were not bad I suppose but at nearly £5 for the bit of the turnip (hardly an expensive vegetable anyway) you normally throw away is extracting the Michael somewhat. And I have here in my notes "Fennel, bobby beans, cobnuts" but can't for the life of me remember eating it. Which probably tells you all you need to know.
What's even more frustrating about my meal last night was how much I was looking forward to it, based on the opinion of many people whose opinions I implicitly trust. It's baffling - perhaps last night the usual chef was ill or otherwise unavailable, as I came away with the distinct impression nobody was tasting any of the food leaving the kitchens - nearly everything was incorrectly seasoned. But still, part of me really wants Polpo to work. Despite everything, it's still a gorgeous little spot for a very reasonably priced drink, and the service and welcome from all the staff was perfectly friendly and professional. Sort out the problems in the kitchen and you're onto a winner. Until then, I'm staying away.