Thursday, 13 February 2014

The return of Polpetto

Mussels, cannellini , three-cornered garlic

I knew I missed Polpetto but until today I didn't know how much.  Its original incarnation was Upstairs at the French House on Dean Street in the heart of London's Soho.  I wrote about it soon after it opened in autumn 2010 and by May 2012 it was no more.  An awkward room and too small a space (23 covers) caused owners  Russell Norman and Richard Beatty to find a more suitable location for their spin-off from Polpo.  I doubt they thought it could take this long but the new Polpetto is now a reality, having quietly opened this week on Berwick Street just a 2-minute walk from the original site.   In the intervening period Chef, Florence Knight, has become rather better known through TV appearances and writing a rather good book - One: A cook and her Cupboard. I suspect it would have been easy for her to go the celebrity chef route, had she wanted to, but, no, she's back in the kitchen.  So, has absence made the heart grow fonder?  Or did the passage of time cloud my memory?

Cavolo Nero, anchovy, burnt bread

I soon realised none of that matters.  I'm breaking my rule of at least two visits before giving an opinion because, two dishes into lunch, I was sure I would be coming back again and again, and that's what counts.  I love a chef who's confident enough to use very few ingredients in a dish. Florence Knight does this with dish after dish and flavours sing out with clarity.  It's an admirably short seasonal menu of 11 savoury dishes ranging from £2.50-12, 4 sides £3.50-4, and 5 desserts £3.50-7.

A plate of off-menu crunchy Camone tomatoes dressed with a little olive oil was served for the sheer joy of having such wonderful fruits in the kitchen.  Cavolo nero with anchovy and burnt bread turned out to be young leaves of raw black cabbage given the caesar salad treatment.  Despite the fact I grow cavolo nero I'd never even thought of eating it raw, but I will now.  The little croutons were, thankfully, far from burnt but crisp airy pillows of loveliness.  Sweet mussels came with cannellini beans and three-cornered garlic, the flavours heightened with mild chilli rather than the savage punch of heat all too often delivered.

Scallops, cauliflower, lardo

Perfectly caramelised scallops were on cauliflower two ways - pureed and roasted - and draped with wafer thin slices of luscious lardo.  It was a dish of so much promise I could barely wait for the plate to hit the bar before tasting it.  It did not disappoint.  Hare pappardelle was a deep-flavoured, gamey dish which slipped down far too easily.  Veal cheeks came cooked in white wine with slices of fennel.  The meat's gelatinous quality had melted deliciously into the sauce leaving soft, tender cushions of meat.  So far, so uncritical but there was a minor flaw in the form of a side dish of Wet Polenta.  In my mind's eye I ordered it thinking it was going to complement the veal saucing in much the same way as a buttery mashed potato does for an English stew.  It was too stiff to work as I had hoped, but that's a minor point.

Maple tart

A slice of Maple tart  was a divine, caramelic, custard of perfect wobbliness and a glass of Royal Tokaji paired with it very nicely.

Creamy Polpo house Prosecco and Corvina were good value choices out of a list of wines ranging from House at £18 to £83 for a Barolo 'Brunate' Marcarini 'La Morra' 2008, most also available by 25cl or 50cl carafe.

Anyone who has eaten at Russell Norman's restaurants before will expect attention to detail so no surprise that it's here in spades.  It's a nice space - 70 covers I think, though it feels more intimate.  The basement has four tables.  True they're on route to the loos but on the opposite side of the room you have the theatre of a great kitchen. I certainly won't be turning my nose up if offered one.

Dishes like Burrata, agretti and chilli; Bacon chop, whitty pear butter and walnuts; Milk pudding, rhubarb and rose, will all have to wait for another time.  And there will be lots of other times.

11 Berwick Street
020 7439 8627