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Saturday, 25 September 2010

Polpetto, Upstairs at the French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho

London foodieland can be a pretty competitive place. People are fond of one-upmanship: ‘I know this great place in Dalston, it's like a pan-Asian fusion, but with a great respect for local producers and the farm-to-plate journey’ or ‘you have to try the semolina ravioli at x, they challenge your conception of what pasta is capable of’. It’s like American Psycho, but not American. Secretly, I quite like this kind of thing. It’s good to be in the know, and, on the slightly less psychotic side, it’s gratifying to give someone a recommendation for somewhere you know they’ll love.

I always felt like I had a head start on the more assertive of these bragging types...I could do it for a fair bit of Italy. ‘There’s this great little pizza place I know down the road from Santo Spirito in Florence,’ and ‘well of course, in Gallipoli, the sea urchins are so fresh, they’re literally still urchining when you eat them’ or ‘Matera is certainly of archaeological and historical import, but its culinary traditions demand attention too.’

Unfortunately, Polpetto has rather scuppered that. It’s the kind of place you wish you knew in Italy, but barring (I assume) a handful of places in the Veneto, doesn’t really exist, at least not in my experience. I don’t think I’ve ever been to a restaurant that better deserves the introduction ‘I know this great little place.’

Cosily lit with flickering candles, it squeezes (really) 28 people into a space not much bigger than my living room. The food is mostly for sharing – small plates, tiny plates, and the occasional main-sized plate. We began with a couple of duck and porcini meatballs and some melanzane parmigiano, but stuff tends to arrive more or less when it’s ready. The meatballs were finely flavoured, the rich duck taste preparing the ground for a porcini kick that lingered for sometime afterwards. The melanzane was oil-soaked, cheeky and delicious.

But it got better. Next up was a stunning pork shoulder and pepper pizzetta, on which fatty cured shoulder fought to assert itself against the hot peppers, eventually resolving the whole into something that was both indulgent and kick-ass. Lentils and burrata were salty, but in a good way. I love it when lentils are cooked to that stage that allows you to suck them through your teeth, enjoying all the salty, herby juice while the little pulses struggle to maintain their integrity. I realise I sound like some kind of deviant, but these were brilliant.

Soft-shell crab in parmesan batter was nice too, though the accompanying fennel was the real star of the dish. The crab was pretty standard, if truth be told, if you can have standard soft-shell crab. Pigeon saltimbocca was ambitious, beautifully pink and with some rustic sagey oomph about it.

In contrast, stracchino (cheese), fennel salami and fig bruschetta was mildly disappointing. The bread was burnt-tasting and greasy, the figs were fine but not spectacular, and the salami, while generously proportioned, was nothing to write home about. This was the only real disappointment of the evening.

Next we had a go at some polpette (meatballs - not polpetti, which are little octopi). This was comfort food for grown-ups, with an excellent tomato sauce and lots of fennel in amongst its pork. It was a highlight, particularly when accompanied by beautifully crispy zucchini fries - ideal for mopping up extra sauce.

Finally on the savoury front, we enjoyed cuttlefish with gremolata (roughly, lemon, parsley and garlic). The cuttlefish was great, giving and tasty, while the strong lemon flavour really pushed the dish up a notch. Another triumph.

Desserts were pretty good too. A flourless chocolate and hazelnut cake was very naughty indeed; baked peaches in thyme and cream felt positively healthy by comparison.

We pushed the boat out on drinks. At £27, a bottle of prosecco was slightly regrettable. 500ml carafes of Barbera at £10 each were much better. Four of us paid about £30 pounds each. Were it not for the prosecco, it would have been even better on the pocket.

Polpetto is a fine restaurant. It’s horrifically trendy at the moment and full of people like me – not necessarily a good thing. With a no-booking policy, that means you need to be pretty organised and pretty patient, though early on a Tuesday night, there was no wait to speak of. Once the fervour has died down, I’m hopeful that it will become a Soho institution, one of those ‘little places’ that you return to time and again. I’ll certainly be back soon.

Phil Letts’ take: 8/10

Polpetto on Urbanspoon


  1. Thanks anonymous. Glad you liked it.

  2. Hi Phil. Nice to meet you and Bec last night. I liked your review of Polpetto. I've been wanting to head there for a bit and still haven't got around to it - sounds like I should. Alanna