All things come to he who waits. In this instance that means tapas. Or Venetian tapas, at least.
Tucked up in a small room above a pub in Soho, Polpetto looks like it has been there forever but in fact it opened less than a year ago. They don’t take reservations so, though we got there relatively early, there was an a hour’s wait for a table (we’d forgotten about the pre-theatre crowd). We went round the corner to the Coach and Horses and they texted us when our table was ready.
You start with cicheti and, being a man of moderation, I ordered one of everything. This isn’t as gluttonous as it sounds as they are very small dishes, a couple of quid and a couple of bites each. The best of these were a plump duck and porcini meatball and a white bean crostini which positively glowed with garlic. Less successful was smoked tuna wrapped round lemon and dill ricotta which tasted searingly of lemon as it arrived on the palatte, eventually gave way to dull ricotta and only belatedly gave up a hint of tuna. If the the bean crostini glowed, chopped chicken liver crostino postively throbbed with potency. Astonishingly good value at £1.50 since it would have made a substantial starter all on its own but too much like all out war on a stomach that was just warming up.
And, of course, you can’t go to a restaurant called Polpetto without ordering polpetto. There is something slightly troubling about plunging a cocktail stick into the brain of an infant octopus that has already been drowned in olive oil but once you pop it in your mouth you soon forget about that.
Then we moved onto the larger courses, again designed for sharing and split between meat, fish, veg and bread. Our waitress suggested four or five of these so obviously we went for five (a bread, two veg and two fish). This was more than enough, we stuffed ourselves silly so I can’t fault them on their portion size. What I can fault them on is the actual delivery of the food.
Once our cicheti were cleared, our bread – pizzetta bianca – was immediately served. This is exactly sounds like – a small, plain pizza of garlic, red onion and cheese – and it would have been lovely if it hadn’t been very slightly burnt. Although minor, this unfortunately lent a scorched taste to the whole thing. Even more problematic was its isolation though. It arrived so swiftly that we were at first alarmed that the rest of the mains were going to appear equally rapidly and that they were secretly intent on fattening us up and harvesting our livers. But no. After ten minutes or so we realised the poor bread had pitched up on its own. It looked so lonely that we had to eat half of it. We waited a bit more. We ate the other half. Our mains arrived. Now, I don’t know about you but I never really felt the need for a bread course between the starters and the mains.
And when I say our mains arrived, I mean half our mains arrived. Crispy soft shell crab was perfectly prepared and cooked but came accompanied with horribly claggy celeriac slaw that tasted like nothing than Helleman’s. A salad of fennel, radish, mint and ricotta was the exact opposite but who said I wanted that fish main with that vegetable main? Fair enough, the tables are very small and the kitchen presumably isn’t much bigger but if a meal is only going to be presented in rounds I expect the staff to tell me this and I will modify my ordering accordingly. Even in a Vietnamese restaurant where they serve it as the cook it, they will at least have the decency to bang it on the table as soon as it is ready, leaving the course management up to you rather than artificially imposing micro-courses upon you.
Our second round consisted of cuttlefish in its ink with gremolata and zucchinni fries. So maybe our hosts did know best because the squid ink would have enitrely overwhelmed that delicate little radish salad. At the same time, the fries would gone really well with the grab and N said she could have done with something a bit plainer than the cuttlefish to accompany them and soothe their saltiness. And she is a woman who likes salt. This was my first time with the old cuttlefish and I endorse it; I was expecting squid but it was much more like a firm fish. The ink was surprisingly intimidating – you just aren’t used to your food being that black – and both of us thought it was a bit licorice-y but then immediately wondered if this was psychosomatic. I couldn’t find any gremolata in there but N assures me it was (they also serve osso buco and I was sorely tempted).
After all that, we stomachly sated and orally confused. So we ordered three puddings. The two puddings we ordered individually for ourselves cleaved very much to the old school fruit plus dairy model. They were nice enough (as you may have gathered, dessert is the least important stage of the meal for me). The third pudding – bay leaf ice cream, ordered purely out of curiosity – was absolutely stunning though, a gentle but full and entirely unexpected flavour that worked perfectly in this context.
£46 a head for too much food, service and a bottle of pink wine. No, seriously, that is what they call it on the (very brief) drinks list. We then walked down Charing Cross Road very slowly to my private members’ club (srsly) for a couple of over-priced and inadequate cocktails in the most garish environment imaginable. That’s living, alright.