In a tribute to writer and food blogger John Underwood, who died recently, we revisit one of his reviews he wrote for the Arb, showing his unique way of making the words almost edible off the page (or, indeed, screen). RIP John…
Da Polpo (‘Polpo’s Place’) is the latest venture by serial restaurateur Russell Norman, whose first restaurant Polpo combined New York chic, Italian cuisine and a masterful command of social media hype to become an instant Soho favourite when it opened two years ago. Since then, Russell’s spin-off Polpetto and stripped-down speakeasy Spuntino have gone from strength to strength – and with three successful Soho eateries under his belt, the time is evidently ripe to expand eastwards and bring Polpo’s Venetian-inspired array of treats to the theatregoers and living statues of Covent Garden.
Sheltering behind a beautiful British racing green façade [which has since been repainted – Ed.] and conveniently situated a stone’s throw from legendary watering hole The Porterhouse, Da Polpo has nabbed the perfect Covent Garden location – tourists will pass by on either side as they meander through the Apple Market or up the Strand, hopefully never realising what’s tucked away on a side street. Not even a glance through the window will give the game away; the décor is cosily minimalist, with shiny bar stools and soft beige hues very much the order of the day. We shared one of two long tables with another couple, whilst the smaller tables and seats at the bar quickly filled up and prompted the one sight common to any Russell Norman restaurant; a small crowd of people waiting by the door, victims of the no-reservations evening policy. In fairness, however, this has obviously been anticipated – a good five metres between the door and the first tables ensures that diners don’t feel jostled or pressured.
While we wait for our starters, a word on the service: immaculate. Although the brand new layout and team prompted a few short delays as the restaurant filled up, our two serving staff were helpful and attentive, taking the time to mark every vegetarian option on the menu and returning to the bar several times to clarify my obtuse questions about the wine. We stuck to an attractively priced Cortese from a wine list which, while (not unreasonably) dominated by Italian options, offered a tempting selection available by the carafe as well as the bottle. The Cortese was light and delicately astringent, cutting through the richer of our menu choices without overpowering the more subtle plates.
Much of the menu at Da Polpo has been recycled from its sibling restaurants – in fact, Polpo’s entire menu is served downstairs – but there have been some exciting additions. Most significantly, the single variety of meatball and two pizzette from Polpo have been given whole sections of the menu each, with pizzetta options ranging from a classic bianco (creamy, herby and very nearly divine when smeared with some of the thick sauce from the meatballs) to a rich and imposing combination of pork shoulder and pickled pepper, which delivered an almighty kick although the intensely sour and salty peppers threatened to obliterate the sweet cured pork. The meatballs themselves are unforgettable – a portion consists of three, each somewhere between a golf and a tennis ball in size and accompanied by a generous helping of mouthwatering, faintly smoky sauce. The half dozen or so options include classic pork and beef, lamb, chickpea and pork and fennel, which I’d already heard people raving about on the foodie scene and couldn’t wait to try. It didn’t disappoint; tender and succulent with a lingering aniseed flavour perfectly balanced by a tiny chilli kiss, I found myself helplessly ordering more focaccia (grilled and oiled in thick slabs, it is the toast of champions) in a bid to eke out both balls and sauce.
Moving on from pizzette and polpette to the Plates section, we shared an impossibly grassy and delicate mozzarella dotted with broad beans and a bowl of fritto misto di mare, which at £8 is one of the pricier options but is very generously portioned. This was probably my least favourite dish, although it would only take some very minor tweaks (a gentler hand on the seasoning and whatever one does to stop batter going soggy) to really make it deliver. Other main plate options include calf’s liver with sage and the wonderfully named ‘a plate of cold meats’, both borrowed from Polpo. We chose a zucchini salad which went beautifully with everything – there’s something very satisfying about trying to wrap a meatball in paper-thin slices of courgette – and spent half the evening kicking ourselves for not going for the delicious-looking heritage tomato salad as well.
Dessert was a small pot of rich and faintly bitter tiramisù, which provided enough of a caffeine boost to help us fight through our gelato cravings. After being pleasantly surprised by the bill we caught up with the amazingly unstressed Russell Norman himself outside; he recommended the Smash (meatballs, cheese and Piadina, toasted and then annihilated before the wreckage is brought steaming to your table), and told us that his biggest challenge had been modifying the Polpo atmosphere enough to allow a comfortable transplant from Soho. He’s done a marvellous job – give it a couple of weeks to iron out the kinks, and this could be the best new restaurant in Theatreland.
This review was first published on 6th July 2011.