6 Maiden Lane, WC2E 7NA
tel: +44 (0)20 7836 8448
That Russell Norman. He's on a roll. First he opened Poplo in Soho. Crowds flocked for the Venetian tapas (aka cicheti) and it was rammed to the rafters for months. Then Polpetto, above the French House, opened as a smaller more intimate venue to munch on pizzetta, zucchini fries and crispy soft shell crab. Then came the Brooklyn-style diner Spuntino which restaurant critic Jay Rayner dubbed a "shameless act of cultural larceny executed with love." And finally, we get da Polpo. Just opened across the street from my most un-favourite pub in London, the dreadful ode to Canadian stereotypes: The Maple Leaf.
I've been to Polpo; I've been to Polpetto and liked them both very much. So I admit to being a bit skeptical that da Polpo could offer any surprises. All three restaurants share a few of the same menu items. For instance, the pizzetta bianca (£4.50) - a tomato-free pizza baked with olive oil, salt and rosemary - appears at each restaurant. So, what could da Polpo offer that was new and exciting? We decided to put our full trust in our lovely, friendly waitress Carmen and asked her to start us off with some of her favorites.
Out came two grilled fennel and white anchovy cicheti (£2 each) and two arancini (£2.50) - a Sicilian specialty of fried riceballs, coated with breadcrumbs. Between the two, the fennel and anchovies excited my palate most. The saltiness of the fish combined with the sweetness of the fennel made for a tasty little combo. I asked Carmen whether she would recommend the pizzetta bianca, seeing as it was one of their signature dishes. "No! That's boring! I'll bring you something much more exciting." Oh, how I do love an honest waitress.
Enter the grilled mortadella, gorgonzola and picked radicchio pizzette (£6). So yum. The radicchio added a nice vinegary bite which was offset by the creaminess of the cheese and garlic kick of the sausage. The flatbread was perfectly grilled, with a crisp crust and fluffy base. Really one of my favorite dishes of the meal. I only wish I had ordered a whole one for myself.
Another simple, yet stunningly good dish was the heritage tomato salad (£5). Whenever I got to America, restaurants seem to go gaga for it (though they call it heirloom tomato salad) but I don't often see it on this side of the Atlantic. The tomatoes were so ripe, fresh and tasty. From what I can remember, it was served with good olive oil, some sprinkles of basil and sea salt. Simple and delicious.
Now where da Polpo stands out from its sister restaurants - is the meatballs. There's a choice of six different flavors. We went for the lamb and mint. At £5 for three, we were impressed by the portion size. They were incredibly juicy and moorish. After tweeting about them, I got a great tip from fellow food bloggers @donalde and @faerietalefoody. They told me if you can't decide on the array of flavors, you can ask them for a mash-up of different ones. Had I known that, I'd have also ordered the balls of chickpea, spinach and ricotta or spicy pork and fennel. Next time...
It would have been rude not to sample a seafood and meat dish from the menu, so we chose chilli and garlic prawns (£6.50) and the grilled thin-cut sirloin (£8.50). As a gal who doubles the recommended garlic in any given recipe, I was pleased to taste the generous garlic givings on the prawns. The steak, however, was my least favorite dish of the meal. The seasoning was kept very simple, with a lemon and maybe some olive oil. Normally I'm a fan of bare naked steaks, but this needed just a little something else. What? Not sure, but I wasn't blown out of the water.
What did knock my socks off and jolt me back out of my da Polpo pleasure stupor was an affogato al cafe - a tiny scoop of vanilla ice cream or gelato, drowned in a shot of espresso (£2.50).
Had I not insisted on ordering one thing from every category on the menu, I may have had room for the Nutella pizzetta (£5.50) or the pot of tiramisu (£4.50). The good news is, da Polpo is open seven days a week so I can see myself popping back often for bits and bites of chicheti and meatballs. Of the three Polpos - I'd recommend da Polpo for the tasty meatballs, Polpetto for the romantic atmosphere and the original Polpo for a girl's night out and a nip down to the basement for Campari cocktails.