Wednesday, 16 March 2011
The wildly popular Polpo, Russell Norman's first venture, has 60 covers. Polpetto, opened last year and also impossibly busy from day one, has 28. And now there's Spuntino, nestled amongst the peep shows and sex shops in the seediest part of seedy Soho, with seats for just 26. Skip forward a few years and I imagine I'll be posting about "Spunketto", an uber-trendy Italian snack bar in the basement of a Frith Street brothel that seats one person per day. They'll still be queuing down the street.
There's a reason why they're all so popular, of course. If you liked the candle-lit, gently illicit atmosphere of Polpo and Polpetto, you'll find even more to enjoy about Spuntino, which is blessed with an even more impressive space - all glazed bricks and mosaics, original and uncovered purely by chance during the build apparently. The bar, stainless steel surrounded by custom built bar stools and highlighted softly by caged bulbs hanging from the high copper-tiled ceiling, is a gloriously louche space in which to spend an evening, and is stocked with the familiar Polpo(etto) range of Aperol and Campari and Venetian wines.
And then there's the food. More New York-leaning, more experimental perhaps than the more traditionally Italian fare served up at the other restaurants, it contains eye-catching items like "Egg & soldiers", "Farm-house cheddar grits" and "Steak & eggs". First to arrive though was a bowl of eggplant (no, not aubergine) chips (no, not fries), which I think contained fennel seeds in their crispy breadcrumb coating and had a sharp fennel yoghurt to dip into. They were lovely.
House pickles were amongst the best I've had in anywhere. Not too sweet, not too vinegary, rather than all blending into a homogonous pickle flavour they actually all tasted commendably of the original vegetable, particularly the brilliant fennel pickles and the sweet strips of celery.
"Egg and soldiers" was great fun - a whole crispy-coated fried egg, sort of like a meatless Scotch Egg, and some buttered toast to dip into it. At first I thought it was under seasoned, but then realised you were expected to season the opened egg as you would a normal boiled egg at home. It was perfectly timed inside, too - solid white and wholly runny yolk.
Lardo on toast suffered only slightly for not having the greatest pig in the world - you can see why they splash out on Iberico at Le Cafe Anglais - but the toast was nicely charred to provide that important bitter counterpoint to the soft, rich pork. Two generous slices too, for £4.50, and a handful of sharp caperberries.
The food had been hugely enjoyable but not yet thrilling, until the arrival of this guilt-inducing, heaving, filthy masterpiece - the truffled egg toast. Thick crusty bread topped with an oozing layer of melted Fontina cheese, a soft-boiled egg yolk and truffle oil, it drew gasps of amazement from all who tried it. The pungent cheese and heady notes of truffle was a match so addictive it's a wonder you don't see it more often, and the moment when you break through the centre and the yellow yolk softens the bread base is something to be cherished. As good as it was for dinner though, I have a feeling it has the potential to be the greatest brunch in London.
Though nothing could top the truffled egg, we still had room for a duck ham salad, perfectly seasoned and fresh, and a spicy sausage and lentil dish which was hearty and contained generous amounts of sausage. We also tried a portion of those cheesy grits, which was as good an introduction to this dish as I could hope for, although I'm sure people with more experience of Southern US food will give more informed opinion.
The only dish that didn't really do much for me was the soft-shelled crab, which despite being deftly fried in a thick batter and looking the part was let down by the not-very-Tabasco-ey Tabasco aioli. Perhaps I should have asked for the bottle and drowned it all in the stuff like I usually do with my cheese on toast at home.
Desserts were no afterthought. Liquorish ice-cream with pineapple wasn't anywhere near as weird as you might think, and the Carpaccio-style wafer-thin slices of fruit were very cleverly done. Even better though was the "peanut butter & jelly sandwich", actually cherry (I think) jam sandwiched between two thick slices of peanut ice-cream, topped with crunchy sugared peanuts.
So yes, Spuntino is very good indeed. A winning match of unique and tasty comfort food served with a smile in stunning surroundings, it's yet another perfectly conceived and expertly executed concept that is sure to drain my wallet and steal away my evenings in much the same way as Polpo and Polpetto have done. It's also, I'm certain, destined to be just as maddeningly popular, but if the hordes that snake down the stairwell on Dean St or spill out of the door on Beak St are anything to go by, that won't put many people off. Hell, for another slice of that truffled egg toast, I think I'd queue forever.