This article was also published in the Financial Times.
Russell Norman is a changed man. Out have gone the smart suits and the sharp, perfectly knotted ties, both emblems of his former roles as General Manager at The Caprice, Zuma and then at The Ivy Club, where his debonair appearance was also distinguished by an inch or more of shirt cuff. Out too have gone the short haircut and the clean-cut features.
Instead, he now wears open-necked shirts and jeans and sports much longer hair and a beard that varies in length from one day to the next. And the smile, which has to be on the lips of anyone who welcomes people into their restaurant on such a regular basis as Norman does, is now even wider. The explanation is simple: Norman is finally in charge of his own place.
For quite some time now, Norman has been scheming to open a ‘bacaro’ in London, his version of the casual wine bars that dot the watery backwaters of Venice. And with singular determination he seems to have finally found the right spot.
Polpo, which opened its doors on Wednesday 30 Sep after several days and nights of previews to friends and family, is located on the ground floor of an atmospheric building on Beak Street between Soho and Regent Street, where Canaletto, the painter most closely associated with La Serenissima, once stayed while in London.
The wine bar/restaurant is long and narrow with a curved bar at the front and rows of simple, wooden tables leading to the servery at the rear, which provides all the cold dishes. This whole area is brightened up by a big glass window on one side of the room as well as a large window in the ceiling. The atmosphere Norman has created is simple, casual and unpretentious.
This approach is carried through into the menu and wine list, both of which are printed on brown, recycled paper.
The menu, which doubles as a place mat, comprises seven headings: chicete and crostini, breads, meat, fish, vegetables and salads, desserts, and coffee, served stylishly, of course, in small glasses.
Chicete, also written as cicchetti and pronounced as chi-ket-ee, are the quintessential Venetian snacks that adorn the city’s bacari in the same way that tapas line a Spanish bar. Here there are chopped chicken livers; sprats in a sour sauce; salt cod; mortadella, Gorgonzola and walnut; and figs, prosciutto and mint. Well priced at under £2 each and, generous in size, they more than whetted the appetite.
We then moved on to share the classic fegato all Veneziana (£5.90), carefully prepared thin slices of calves liver with lots of onion and sage; bigoli, the thick, short pasta with anchovies (£4.20); and squid fried in clean, fresh batter (£6.60) along with a plate of grilled courgettes (£3.50). These main courses were even more satisfying than the chicete. With two desserts, including an excellent honey and walnut semifreddo (£2.80), a coffee and a triangular bottle of the ready-mixed Campari and soda that never seem to escape Italy sadly, my bill for two came to just over £40.
Norman explained that he has imported a case of 48 of these bottles to sell them initially and then, when they are empty, to use them as simple vases for flowers on the tables. As he took me round Polpo with obvious pride he also pointed out various other distinguishing features: the distressed doors and the slightly chipped sink behind the bar, which he had found in a warehouse and combine to cleverly conceal the fact that this is a brand new restaurant; the white curtains that hang from the bottom half of Polpo’s front windows and will be immediately recognised by anyone who knows Venice well as they adorn most of the windows in the restaurants over there; and the fact that the sinks in the lavatories – well, at least in the gents anyway – are deep enough to be able to wash your hands in properly.
These details add to the pleasure of eating at Polpo but Norman also explained that he had initially turned the site down. 'I came to look at it and I just could not see what we could do with the left-hand wall to open the room up at the back', he explained. 'As it was, it was too obtrusive and the gap too narrow for customers to sit on either side and the waiters to pass through the middle. So I initially said No.
But then I came back again to look at it and I started working away at what I thought was this solid wall on the left hand side and I realised it wasn’t structural at all. Once I saw that was the case, I knew I could fit in a banquette down the left-hand side and the whole space became viable. Happily, we agreed terms that night.'
Polpo will prove very popular not just because Norman has put his heart and soul, and a considerable amount of research around the canals of Venice, into it but also because the food and wine are generous and well-priced. There is a genuine air of authenticity about the place.
He has also chosen a sympathetic location with the two branches of Fernandez & Wells, the excellent café, only a few doors away as well as numerous theatres within easy walking distance.
But, most importantly, Norman has followed a very basic but often neglected rule that restaurateurs break at their peril: that what is inside a restaurant’s front door must mirror what is on the outside. Soho will never be as romantic as Venice but the hustle, bustle of its narrow streets make Polpo an ideal watering hole.
Polpo, 41 Beak Street, London W1, 020-7734 4479. Closed Sundays. www.polpo.co.uk
LONDON RESTAURANT FESTIVAL