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 will Polpo reinterpret the scuffed-up look in shiny Harvey Nicks? Norman says he designs all the interiors himself. He’s on record as saying 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 explained the menu to us.
“Small plates, some more substantial than others, we suggest two or three each.” Sounds simple enough.
Prices are eminently reasonable: between £4 and £10. Ciccheti include arancini, fried olives and marinated baby octopus. We ordered a couple of arancini – hot, crisp rice balls, a mouthful of umami – delicious even with a rather regulation Vermentino.
The main menu was made of larger dishes divided into pizzette, meatballs, fish, meat and salads. It exactly matches the other Polpos and we wanted 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? I think I did, you know.
The waiter suggested we mix light and heavier dishes. We ordered three each, which meant we over-ordered.
Everything was 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 has a crisp music paper bread and feisty pickled beetroot, finely grated, raw and earthy.
A dish of crab and chilli linguine was plenty again for a main course and if the crab and chilli got a bit lost in the cream, it was still a very respectable dish. A mound of rocket combined with thinly sliced courgettes, grated Parmesan and dressing, made for an excellent raw salad, fresh and light, tasting of spring and plenty of it.
We still had lamb, cauliflower and pizzette to come, but we are nearly stuffed already.
Lamb osso buco with saffron risotto was disappointing. Although it sang of saffron the rice lacked flavour and seasoning. In compensation, the lamb had 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 was, of course, good old cauliflower cheese.
The pizzette was a wonderful thing. A paper-thin pizza, the size of a side plate, that is: 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 were more ‘sweet things’ with coffee: esse biscuits, biscotti and ‘chocolate salami’. It was basically an Italian version of chocolate tiffin shaped into a sausage so that when sliced it looked 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.
Marion Carpentier, group food and hospitality director at Harvey Nichols made no bones about the fact they wanted the restaurant: “We’ve long been admirers of Polpo and so we’re thrilled to be working with the restaurant group.”
In a recent interview with this paper, creator Russell Norman said the concept was all about simplicity.
“Polpo is all about authenticity from its food to its decor. All our Polpos are slightly different as they have to fit in with their surroundings. As with the decor the food is all about authenticity, food that is in season tastes better and is authentic. The whole concept of Polpo is its simplicity, when you only have three ingredients to a dish there is nowhere to hide. It is all about the ingredients.”
Russell Norman didn’t really start out as a foodie. After studying at Sunderland Polytechnic and taking a “disastrous job” in arts administration he jumped in his car and drove back to London. But he had no idea what he wanted to do. After a stint as a bartender, he found his calling.
The cost of the meal for two, including a bottle of wine, was around £80.
Despite the dangers of growing the empire too quickly, Polpo still has its edge.
Polpo, Harvey Nichols
Address: 4th Floor, Harvey Nichols, 107-111 Briggate, Leeds LS1 6AZ
Tel: 0113 204 8790
Opening times: Monday 11am-6pm; Tuesday to Friday, 11am-11pm; Saturday 10am-11pm; Sunday 11am-5pm