Friday, 24 September 2010
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.