Friday, 24 September 2010

Polpetto, Soho


Battling through the wind and rain last night, it seemed that autumn had finally arrived in London. I'm not usually one to moan about the changing weather - I find things to enjoy about all seasons, and look forward to the crunchy, frosty January mornings almost as much as a sun-baked August afternoon - but I'm afraid I don't look forward to the effect of the shorter days on the photos on this blog. Polpetto is a fantastic place after dark - gloriously atmospheric, cosy, candle-lit, clandestine. But it is absolutely the worst place to try and take pictures of your food, with no flash, on an iPhone. Fortunately, last night wasn't my first visit to Polpetto, and at the risk of being completely disorientating, the following is a compilation of various meals over the last few months in what has become one of my very favourite restaurants in the city.

Though I am personally yet to find a dish at Polpetto that is less than good, it's interesting how some seem to so dramatically divide opinion. For example, one of my favourite things to order is the pigeon saltimbocca, lovely pink pigeon, wrapped in ham and served on a bed of white polenta. I adore it, and can't understand why anyone would not like rich, gamey meat, wrapped in salty ham. But more than one person I've over-enthusiastically recommended the dish to has come back with complaints of unpleasantly "high" meat and overseasoning, and although some of these issues could be inconsistencies in the kitchen, it's more likely that I am just a fan of game wrapped in ham, and they are not. Which is fine - each to their own.


At the other end of the scale, there's a dish called Sarde in saor, cold marinated sardines. I thought it was interesting all right but slightly unnerving - the cold fish and sour dressing was not a combination I'd rush to try again, although I'm assured it's authentically Venetian. My friend, however, whether it was because she had lived for many years in Italy and was used to such combinations or was just less squeamish about cold marinated fish, absolutely loved it. Again, each to their own.



There are some dishes, though, which you'd have to be a fool not to love. The "pickled pepper pizzetti" (try saying that after a few Aperol spritzers) has evolved from earlier versions and now uses spicy, home-pickled jalapenos for an extra chilli kick. "Warm lentils, burrata & basil" is a stunning combination of creamy burrata, fragrant basil and hearty lentils that is not only delicious but unlike anything else I've eaten anywhere else. And the "chilli and garlic prawns" are everything you could hope for from simple Italian food - fresh, juicy prawns, thoughtfully part-shelled, in a cherry tomato sauce shot through with the occasional chunk of fiery red chilli.


And discoveries continue to be made. Last night we tried for the first time a dish of Stracchino, fennel salami & fig bruschetta, the gently toasted bread combining perfectly with the soft, fluffy cheese and salty meat, and the chunks of raw figs adding sweetness. Like so much of what comes out of the kitchens at Polpetto, it was a straightforward, even simple dish that would have fallen flat if each component part was not of the very highest standard. Fortunately, they were.



At the risk of going on and on about every dish on the menu and boring you all silly (if in fact it's not already too late), just two final tips. Firstly, the soft-shelled crab in parmesan batter is fresh and crunchy and a great way of having this delicacy. It may not quite be up there with the Mien Tay offering but that's not much of a criticism - very few things are. And secondly, the osso buco is a generous slab of tender braised veal shank on a bed of saffron risotto which is always superb, especially when you scoop the marrow out of the central bone and spread it on the meat.


So I'm not even going to mention the heavenly smoked swordfish cicheti, or the juicy marinated polpetti or the chicken liver crostino. These you can discover for yourselves. What is worth mentioning though is the Polpetto booking policy - namely, there isn't one. You turn up, and you're either lucky and get a table, or you have to queue. Get there early enough - ie. before 7, and you shouldn't have much of a problem. But towards 8pm the queue can run to a couple of hours, and I can understand why you may consider giving up and going elsewhere. In the past I've been critical of no booking policies, having suffered a couple of aborted attempts at the Anchor & Hope in Waterloo and Bodean's in Clapham Common, but Polpetto try and make the queuing as painless as possible, helpfully texting updates on your table while you wait in a nearby bar. And in a way, the unpredictable nature of table availability seems to suit the covert nature of the restaurant, tucked away in a tiny first floor room above a boistrous Soho bar.


I'm as impatient as anyone when it comes to my food, and of course nobody likes to hang around hungry. But how many times have you called up a popular restaurant that does take bookings only to be told they can only squeeze you in at 5:30 or 10:30 and they'll need the table back within the hour? Irritating restaurant table turning policies aren't just limited to places that don't do reservations. So go early and bag a table, or go late and wait. But if you think Polpetto isn't worth bothering with because you can't guarantee a spot, then you're missing out on one of the great, distinctive dining experiences of London.

9/10

Polpetto on Urbanspoon

15 comments:

catty said...

I'm so slow I haven't even gone to Polpo yet let alone Polpetto! But looks like the garlic & chilli prawns, parmesan soft shelled crab and osso buco are already on my list! Not so sure about game wrapped in ham so I might give that a miss :)

Pavel said...

This place looks amazing I cannot wait to try it...

Martin said...

Oh god, the Osso Bucco, be still my trembling stomach. And the polpetti, jucy and wonderfully marinated, not a bum note anywhere.

Personally, I thought the approach Polpetto took to handling tables was superb. No aggressive turning, very egalitarian, and the text service was just superb, far better than the ugly buzzer and allowed for a few pre-prandials nearby.

For something the size of Polpetto, if they took reservations you'd have to plan a visit months in advance - it's simply not practical - and they do the best they can with the text-update service, so I'm happy to support their policy. I'm of the firm opinion that the food is worth the wait.

Lizzie said...

I'm of the opinion that Polpetto and Polpo (just like the Anchor and Hope) are great places to while away an evening if you've got nothing to rush to or a time limit on anything.

Polpetto has shot up to one of my favourite restaurants. Sure, it's crowded and can be noisy but then I hate eating in hushed, stilted atmospheres. Bring on the rowdiness please!

Greedy Diva said...

Fabulous place and fabulous food - I think I like the food/menu even better than Polpo's. And that's saying something. I'm totally with you on the wonderful pigeon saltimbocca. I do understand frustrations about the no bookings policy - I would go with hordes of friends much more often if it wasn't such a gamble.

May said...

I love the sarde in saor, one of the best dishes to come out of Venice. I love Polpetto for it's casual setting and great food.

Northern Snippet said...

Looks fantastic,would love to try here.On the bookings policy If you are busy enough to do this it's much less problematic than taking bookings as no one is waiting if bookings turn up late,effectively your tables are full all the time so you can maximize numbers.Also no one is going to complain if their table isn't ready or has to wait if previous bookings are late etc.It would be nice to be in this position.

CalzoneCalzone said...

It is surprising that the food blog community has heaped such sycophantic praise on these two restaurants. The food is alright but let’s be honest - it is nothing spectacular. What is interesting is the concept. The no reservations policy and limited capacity creates an “always-packed-look-what-you’re-missing” vibe. When you throw in a savvy PR campaign then it is understandable why these places have a reputation for amazing food in a hip and trendy environment.

This reputation then gathers so much momentum that eventually we reach a point where nobody wants to disagree and say what they really feel. Everyone wants to be hip and trendy and appreciate delicious food, so to disagree with the majority would clearly mean that you are not familiar with what is hip, trendy and delicious - and so more positive reviews get posted and more people go, and on it goes….

This vicious cycle of unfounded fawnery is disappointing because there are plenty of better restaurants out there in the city. Polpo and Polpetto are alright but they get an unproportionate amount of air time and praise and need to looked at with a much more critical eye.

Eva Lai said...

I read your blogpost like a philistine.... I thought I used to be a teenage ad-hoc waitress at nice places on random weekends and that should have got some cuisine terminology/ descriptions into my head... so what happened to my knowledge?? Oh don't use an i-phone to take pictures then, use one of those professional-ish cameras...
When was the last time I had bone marrow though, I cannot remember.

Chris said...

CalzoneCalzone: There's no conspiracy mate, I just happened to like the restaurant.

. said...

So I have to take my wife for a birthday meal and I need help deciding between Zucca and Polpetto.
She's Sicilian and is familiar with good honest Italian cuisine. Thoughts?

Wine Splodge said...

Food looks nice enough but when the finest bar in London is located directly below... who wants to eat?

Monday Chimps said...

your food shots are soo nice! looks really tasty! Nice blog too! very inspiring since I am just starting to blog. I dont even know if people reads my blog or not?! haha

An American in London said...

It's true that it's annoying when "hot" restaurants tell you that only 5 pm or 10 pm slots are available, etc. but in that case, at least you know for sure not to go there!

And I totally agree that Polpetto tries to make the no-bookings policy as painless as possible (with the regular text updates), but the fact remains that it's still painful. Getting there by 6 pm (or whatever time you have to get there to avoid a 90+ minute wait) isn't realistic for a lot of people.

I would add that anyone hoping to get a table there should show up as a party of 2, max.

In any case, as wonderful as Polpetto's food sounds, for now, I'll stick with Polpo. I think it makes a big difference that I can order snacks while waiting at the bar there.

CalzoneCalzone said...

Finally someone who agrees with me:

http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/style/food/Eating_Out/article422810.ece#prev (AA Gill's review)

PS You are back on form with your review of Alain Ducasse