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Chicheti at the Bacaro anyone?

Polpo is the hottest of hot tickets, even during this year’s extreme weather events there was a queue of hopefuls enduring the no booking policy and edging their way towards the inside and the bar. It is amazing how a restaurant can go from zero to hero in a few short weeks. Some places are just intrinsically trendy. Polpo is the brainchild of Russell Norman, who has made the transition from suited and booted maestro at the Caprice Group to harassed owner driver of a small but mobbed Italian resto with considerable success. He is the man who rounded up Tom Oldroyd (a chef with the equally successful Bocca di Lupo on his CV), and his is the vision that set up a bacaro in Soho. I have to confess that before Polpo stormed the newspapers, I had no idea that a bacaro was a Venetian bar known for excellent nibbles, or that those nibbles were properly called chicheti.
Glossing over the downright cleverness of calling the venture a “bacaro” (it’s very hard for us to say how good a bacaro Polpo may be as we have never been to another one) the idea of “small plates” of well-made Italian food at wallet-friendly prices, served by relaxed waiters in an informal setting is pretty much a blueprint for how to succeed in troubled times. But it should be noted that Aperitivo, the former occupant of this site, slowly ground to a halt despite serving small-plates of Italian food, so Russell Norman may have the Midas touch.
The success of Polpo may in part be due to gold – the chicheti and crostini cost between £1 and £2.10 each; there are some breads (£2.40-£4.90) ; meat dishes (£4.80-£6.90); fish dishes (£5.40-£6.70); vegetables (£3.50-£4.50); desserts (£2.60-£4.90).
It’s true that if a couple of good trenchers pile into the menu and have a bottle of wine you can still end up paying £45 per head, but somehow it seems like a bargain because of the large number of dishes you get to try. A tad less greed and this place could be positively economical.
From the nibbly bits list, the arancini are notable, being golf ball sized you get a grand ratio of inside to rice – any larger and there is a real risk of dullness. The pizzetta bianca is delicious – this may be the perfect bar food. From the serious dishes the cuttlefish in ink with gremolata is astonishingly rich, almost sticky and very very black indeed. The dish of pork belly with radicchio and hazelnuts also stands out – congratulations are due to anyone who can think up a change of pace for pork belly. The Cotechino sausage with Savoy cabbage and eye-watering mustard is worth a detour. Simple things like the crisp roast potatoes with rosemary, and the spinach with garlic, are a joy. The wine list is succinct and not too greedily priced. The staff are jolly. The place is buzzing. It may even worth the queuing.

Charles Campion

Polpo, 41 Beak Street, W1 (020 7734 4479 www.polpo.co.uk) Open Monday-Saturday noon-3pm and 6-11pm

Charles Campion - Monday 29th March 2010

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