When Polpo first opened in Soho in 2009 it was love at first bite. The reviewers swooned, the media crowd queued round the Beak Street block, the awards soon followed. Deservedly. It was different, great value for London, and delicious.
In no time Polpetto opened too, upstairs at the French House round the corner on Berwick Street. It was just as hot a table. The dressed down look of brick walls, school tumblers of wine and a medley of small plates referenced, in their words ‘a humble Venetian bàcaro’ although in truth it was always more Soho than Venice
Over the next few years, Russell Norman went mega. He opened six more Polpos, three related spin-offs and the trendiest of cook books which also happens to be very good. Then last month in Knightsbridge and Leeds he added two more to his portfolio, housed in that paragon of expensive good taste, Harvey Nichols. So how, I wonder, will Polpo reinterpret the scuffed-up look in shiny Harvey Nicks? Norman says he designs all the interiors himself. In an interview in this magazine, he said that he didn’t want it to look like a film set. With no daylight you wouldn’t know whether you were in a cellar or up on the famous Fourth Floor.
A young, smart, on-the-ball team explain the menu: ‘Small plates, some more substantial than others, we suggest two or three each.’ Prices are eminently reasonable: between £4 and £10. Ciccheti include arancini, fried olives and marinated baby octopus. We order a couple of arancini. They are a hot, crisp rice balls, a mouthful of umami – delicious even with a rather regulation Vermentino.
The main menu is made of larger dishes divided into pizzette, meatballs, fish, meat and salads. It exactly matches the other Polpos and we want just about everything on it: lamb and mint meatballs, fritto misto, duck ragu, pork belly, radicchio, blood orange and walnut salad. Did I read Nutella pizzetta and Aperol sorbet?
The waiter suggests we mix light and heavier dishes. We order three each. We over-order. Everything is larger than we expected, each plate only just smaller than a regular main, certainly much bigger than the common understanding of tapas.
Whipped smoked mackerel is essentially the smoked mackerel pate that I sometimes knock up at home, though not with this crisp music paper bread and feisty pickled beetroot, finely grated, raw and earthy.
A dish of crab and chilli linguine is plenty again for a main course and if the crab and chilli get a bit lost in the cream, it’s still a very respectable dish. A mound of rocket combined with thinly sliced courgettes, grated Parmesan and dressing, makes for an excellent raw salad, fresh and light, tasting of spring and plenty of it.
We still have lamb, cauliflower and pizzette to come, but we are nearly stuffed already. Lamb osso buco with saffron risotto is disappointing. Although it sings of saffron the rice lacks flavour and seasoning. In compensation, the lamb has good depth, tender, rich and unctuous in a soft tomatoey sauce. I’m not sure what I expected of cauliflower, gorgonzola and fontina gratin. It is of course good old cauliflower cheese. The pizzette is a wonderful thing. A paper-thin pizza, the size of a side plate, ie just right. Lovely charring at the edges and lightly topped with pickled radicchio, strips of prosciutto and a slather of scamorza (a mozzarella-like cheese) then finished with oil.
Trust the Italians to invent affogato, a dessert that brings together their love of gelato with their addiction to good espresso. There are more ‘sweet things’ with coffee: esse biscuits, biscotti and ‘chocolate salami’. It’s basically an Italian version of chocolate tiffin shaped into a sausage so that when sliced it looks like salami. Two chunky slices of chocolate indulgence, matched with a glass of Frangelico – a hazelnut liqueur.
Harvey Nichols is about as far as you can get from a back street Venetian bàcaro or even streetwise Soho but prices remain reasonable, portions generous and, with minor reservations, the dishes are still bursting with originality and freshness. Despite the dangers of a growing empire destroying what made it so popular in the first place, Polpo has retained its edge.
• Polpo, 4th Floor, Harvey Nichols, 107-111 Briggate, Leeds LS1 6AZ. 0113 204 8790, polpo.co.uk
Open: Monday 11am-6pm; Tuesday to Friday, 11am-11pm; Saturday 10am-11pm; Sunday 11am-5pm. Price: Approx £80 for two including bottle house wine and service.