Having read extensive praise of Russell Norman’s, aka the “King of Small Plates”, many restaurants (Spuntino, Polpo Soho, Polpetto, Mishkin’s, and Polpo Covent Garden) and how people wait in line for an hour and half for a seat, I was thrilled to hear that one was opening up in Notting Hill. Hot off the heels of a soft launch, I dragged my friend to fashionable Polpo’s latest venture for its 50% off opening.
Since the first opening in September 2009, Polpo now have 11 branches – even one in Brighton – but it doesn’t remind me of a chain. Polpo is a bàcaro, or a hip Londoner’s version of a bacaro. This Venetian word describes a humble restaurant serving simple food and good, young local wines – in other words, the Italian version of a tapas bar. By making his Italian tapas very geographically specific – and by using all the proper Italian words – he has created an air of authenticity around his new restaurant. And the influence of Venice at Polpo is remarkable; I’d even recommend watching Russel Norman’s video on their website in which he explains the inspiration of this wine-bar-cum-café whilst touring the island. Yet Da Polpo fuses Venetian influences with hip New York West Village eateries. Inside, Polpo has a rustic, cheap-as-chips feel, with a black-and-white tiled floor and exposed brick walls. There’s a beaten metal ceiling and guttering candlelight even in daylight. Brown paper menus and chunky tumblers for wine glasses underline the sense of squatter chic, as does sharing small plates of unfussy food. It’s very New Yorky.
The clientele here is rather eclectic as the restaurant is; posh British Blondes two tables on my left, a family of four across from me, young trendsetters at the bar and two lovely Notting Hill Grannies, one Japanese and one American, next to me. This is what I love about London; all ages, all nationalities and all social classes mixing easily together in an Italian Wine Bar, enjoying the buzzy atmosphere with cocktails flowing and lots of laughs.
For me, tapas has never been hipper than at Polpo. Over at Beak Street, head chef is Tom Oldroyd, who used to work at Bocca di Lupo. Whilst Bocca is more experimental and casts its net across all rural Italy, Polpo is pure homage to Venice. With the waitresses’ advice, I ordered a selection of dishes. And they were all small bowls/plates, bursting with flavour.
For veges, I’d recommend the Arancini (£4) and the Chickpea, spinach and ricotta “meatballs” (£6), which were incredibly rich and flavour-packed, served with a tasty tomato sauce. The little fried riceballs, meanwhile, were deliciously moreish and melt-in-the-mouth. I also tried the Fennel, green beans and cobnuts (£4), which was a revelation — the fennel had been sliced so translucently thin that it changed its taste from the usual aggressive aniseed to something altogether subtler and sweeter, that went so well with the cobnuts and fine green beans, all judiciously dressed, making a really refreshing salad. I’m keen to return to try the Griddled herbed polenta (£5).
Although very busy, the plates came quickly out of the kitchen. Modest as these prices may seem, though, you could end up with quite a bill if you order lots of small plates…
Apparently, the word restaurant comes from the French word, “restorer” – to restore. And for Russell Norman, this is exactly how restaurants should made you feel: better than when they did when they arrived. With its warm and friendly ambience, informal décor, an un-pretentious setting of old chairs and tables, and delicious Italian ciccheti, you do leave feeling relaxed and welcomed.
Polpo, 126-128 Notting Hill, London, W11 3QG / 3 Cowcross Street, London, EC1M 6DR