Thursday, 29 April 2010

Polpo: An Education

Ah Venice. If only I’d paid more attention when I was there last, I would have known how to drink and eat in a bacaro. This story of ignorance begins years ago, when a radiant redhead and I whisked ourselves off to read Latin in the Venetian heat for our impending Finals, finding Ovid and Virgil indigestible in the wet of England. Every morning we’d down cappuccinos, read 200 lines of the Aeneid before claiming heat-exhaustion and playing for the rest of the day. We ate well - beautifully thin cheap pizzas with courgette flowers or langoustines still in shell laid sculpturally across it, drank bellinis a peach colour you’d never see in England – just the way they’re meant to be drunk, from tumblers in Harry’s Bar.

But I can safely say, so immersed in hexameter were we that we failed to take advantage of the bacari. We noticed gondolas, crazy lace from Burano, glass orchestras from Murano, horny art students... but no Venetian working mens’ drinking holes serving wine in tumblers and cichetti (small tapas/pintxos-eque snacks). So thank god one has come to find us over in rainy Soho. And contrary to my previous experience, this time I did know about Polpo because no one would stop talking about it. And I like Bocca di Lupo, the other nice Italian down the road, and since Polpo has its former head chef Tom Olroyd, I guess it's worth trying.

There was one thing for it...reclaiming the experience I never had. So three ladies rock up to this bit of Venice carved off Carnaby Street. The bar is full of trendy things, chatty things, datey things. It’s all cheeky banter and casual dates jammed in an osteria. The first thing we need is prosecco (almost every meal is improved if opened with good prosecco). And then we order. Everything to share. The girls look to me to do it. Gulp.

“Right. Ahem. The prosciutto, the arancini, salt cod...the parmesan crocchetta, smoked salmon crostino, salami grissini... the er.. mussels and clams, fennel salad..will you tell me if we’re ordering too much?”

“No no – this doesn’t look much at all!” our waitress says brightly.

“Ok..” I soldier on, making up for my inadequate Venetian knowledge. “er.. the flank steak, the zucchini salad, the white beans and wild garlic and erm.. some pork belly. Thanks.”

I look sheepish. The waitress processes quickly. “Yep – looks fine to me!”

And that’s it. Anxiety over. And so to the food, and what I should have ordered in Venice.

Cichetti: from top right, clockwise: arancini, potato & parmesan crocchetta, prosciutto and mozzarella di bufala, smoked salmon with horseradish & dill crostino, salt cod on grilled polenta, salami & pickled radicchio crostino

The plate of cichetti comes quickly. Each piece - a couple of quid. A good juicy wedge of creamy mozzarella with the salt of the prosciutto, warm arancini (tiny rice ball filled with mozzarella) crunchy surface, and yielding inside and satisfying. Smoked salmon and dill crostini? Does the job.

Breather as a bottle of Gavi di Gavi is opened. Pour, taste, lovely...back to the food.

The flank steak is excellent. Already thickly sliced, our medium-rare, slightly bloody plate is adorned with a white truffle cream subtle and perfect with the steak and elicits feelings of naughtiness – white truffle cream. It’s the sort of dish your eyes flit to automatically on the menu and can’t let go. And, blow me! It lives up to its name.

Grilled flank steak, white truffle cream, and grilled zucchini & rocket salad

The steak is superior to the belly pork with hazelnuts which was well-flavoured but slightly tough. The mussels and clams are crunchy with breadcrumbs, garlicky and sweet. We were drinking the clear broth by the end. White beans and wild garlic? Fantastic. Courgette salad and fennel salad with whole crunchy almonds? Again, fresh and faultless. I could eat these five times over.

Fennel, curly endive, almonds, and mussels & clams

Two niggles though. First – polenta. I do have issues with polenta, I’ve only ever enjoyed it with about half a wheel of parmesan cheese in it.

The salt cod that topped the polenta - tasty, the polenta – wet and slimy.
Secondly – the grissini – a tiny breadstick the size of my little finger wrapped with salami and pickled radicchio costing £1.90. This does upset me. That 5 of these breadsticks would cost almost £10 is absurd.

However, we would have ordered the whole menu if we could, but somehow exercise a little self restraint. We’ll have to go back to try the rest. I’m glad a little bit of Venice has come to find us - the best education I've had in years.

41 Beak Street, London, W1F 9SB
020 7734 4479

Happy. Empty plates

Do NOT come here on a Thursday or Friday night, you will not get a table without a horrendous wait. Come for lunch with friends you really like and make it last, order an inordinate amount and go overboard with the mains, share as much as you can, you WILL eat it all.
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