Another Italian tapas bar has landed in London to general acclaim. Tom Vaughan investigates the key to Polpo's success.
An Italian tapas bar opens in Soho. Critics drool. Punters stream in. Operation deemed an all-round success. Ring any bells? It should do. Cast your mind back nine months to the launch of Bocca di Lupo, and its trendy little plates of Italian food, and you've got a neat precedent for the launch of Polpo, a new Soho restaurant courtesy of former Caprice Holdings operations director Russell Norman.
It's themed on a Venetian bacaro (wine bar) and the tapas-style dishes they specialise in, with a menu created by head chef Tom Oldroyd, who arrives at the restaurant from - surprise, surprise - Bocca di Lupo.
Less than a month after opening at the time of our visit, the restaurant was already turning tables more than twice to bang out 140 covers a night from 65 seats. Based in a former Soho townhouse, there are touches inside that seem so simple - the stripped-back walls that expose vast swathes of 18th-century brickwork, the ancient butcher's tiles - and bits that obviously came at some expense, like the imported tin ceiling, which presides from above like a big bar of Galaxy chocolate.
The rear of the thin site holds an open kitchen - called the Pantry - then there are rows of refectory tables and burgundy banquettes before you get to the sleek, metal bar at the front.
The concept has certainly been tried and tested in this area. Barrafina and, more recently, Tierra Brindisa are cases in point that show Soho is a natural home for bar dining - entertaining as it does such great hordes of passing trade, quick-fix theatre-goers and post-work get-togethers. The speed with which the food arrives galvanises the concept. You can quite easily be in, out, sated and watered within the hour.
And it's the prep-heavy, service-light nature of Oldroyd's menu that enables this. Starters are simply a list of easy-construct crostini and cichete (£1.10 to £2.10 each) - salt cod on grilled polenta; fig, prosciutto and mint; or the more Tuscan-influenced chopped chicken liver.
"Everything can be so simply executed," says Oldroyd. "You can walk into a bacaro in Venice and point at a cichete in a glass box. I didn't want them [displayed] like that but I wanted it to be as quick."
Most of the small, mix-and-match main course dishes also spare the stove much arduous work during the service, which is lucky, with just two chefs in the kitchen and upwards of 500 plates going out each service. Aside from the calves' liver, onions and sage, and the grilled, sliced flank steak and flat mushrooms, everything else has been slow-cooked during mise en place.
Slow-roast duck with green peppercorns, black olives and tomatoes is by and large a stew that arrives with the duck meat cooked down to small strands; cuttlefish in its ink with gremolata (£6.20) looks, as Oldroyd describes it, like it has been dredged from the floor of a Venetian canal but is deep, autumnal and hearty; while the popular pork belly with radicchio and hazelnuts (£5.50) Oldroyd discovered while on a week's recce in Venice.
"They have a way of cooking radicchio in pig fat. So we serve it with pork belly and pour over some of the confit juices so it wilts down," he explains.
For the fish dishes, Oldroyd wanted to stress the freshness they savour in Venice - where raw prawns, raw tuna and raw langoustines are all popular dishes. Hence the exemplary mackerel tartare with cucumber, horseradish and thin bread.
Desserts maintain the same simplicity and speed of service. A honey and walnut semifreddo (£2.80) or warm autumnal fruits and Amaretto (£4) are dispensed from the kitchen within minutes.
A couple of crostini, a pick of two or three main courses, a dessert and a carafe of wine - served by the quarter or half litre - really does take no time at all, hence the ability to turn tables so swiftly.
Despite the similarities on paper, there is so much that differentiates Polpo and Bocca di Lupo. In fact, the whole atmosphere at Polpo, including the crowds drinking and waiting for a table or space at the bar - they've now dispensed with reservations - makes it feel much less of a restaurant and more the informal bacaro Norman hoped for. Soho is certainly big enough for these two places. In fact, roll on more.
41 Beak Street, London W1F 9SB
Tel: 020 7734 4479
WHAT'S ON THE MENU
- Potato and Parmesan croquette, £1.20
- Tomato and tapenade pizzetta, £3.90
- Wild mushroom piadina, £4.80
- Roast pumpkin, prosciutto, ricotta, £6
- Fritto misto, £6.60
- Mussels and clams, £5.80
- Cantuccini e vin santo, £3.90
- Ciambella and chocolate, £3.50
- Gorgonzola and pear, £4.90