It was a day for grazing. I’d been up early as I had to finish work on some proofs and get them into the post. People are surprised that we publishers still sometimes work in the Dark Ages and I do actually read page proofs, as in a great pile of paper pages, to which I take my red biro and bring order and good spelling. They are, of course, rather heavy. By the time I’d taken the bus to Richmond, climbed upstairs in WHSmith to the Post Office and dumped them unceremoniously on the scales, breathing a sigh of relief, it was definitely time for coffee. Or was it? It was nearly midday. A bit late for morning coffee; a little early for lunch. At Taylor St Baristas I decided on a sandwich rather than one of the fabulous homemade cakes, as I was on puppy-walking duty and had to stop off to take Zeph to the park before going home. There’s only so long The Single Gourmet Traveller can keep going without serious sustenance.
I was meeting my friend Lucia in the evening to see the much acclaimed Young Vic production of A Doll’s House, now playing in the West End. Well, there was no way a sandwich at 12 noon was going to keep me going for the rest of the day. More grazing required. I’m in the Covent Garden area a lot and have often walked past Polpo, a branch of Russell Norman’s successful Venetian restaurants, serving small plates, in other words, cicheti, and it seemed a perfect opportunity to try it out. After all, when in Venice what do you have late afternoon? A glass of prosecco and a few cicheti on a plate.
Now, regular readers will know how much I love Venice and that I visit that wonderful and beautiful city often. I’m thus quite fussy about my cicheti. A cafe opened near where I live recently, run by Italians, and supposedly serving cicheti. They should have stuck with the word ‘canape’ or ‘snack’ as their cicheti didn’t have a gram of Italian in them. They were pretty awful. Why do restaurants set themselves up by offering food in a way that suggests authenticity and then fail to deliver the goods? I was interested to see how Polpo would do? Could they make me feel as if I was in Venice?
It was 5.30 when I went in and quiet. Well, it was early and there was no Grand Canal to be sitting by in the sun. The welcome was friendly. I said I just wanted some cicheti and a glass of prosecco. They offered me a stool at the bar, but I said I’d rather take a table and proper seat. I don’t mind sitting at a bar sometimes but not in an almost empty restaurant. A waiter came and poured 2 glasses of water, the other ‘for my companion when they came’. What an extraordinary assumption. I couldn’t help joking, Can you supply me a companion too? I think he was rather embarrassed but I have to say, in all the times I’ve eaten alone before no one has ever assumed I must have company coming. I ordered a glass of prosecco while I looked at the menu.
I was surprised by the glass – a kind of school refectory tumbler. In Venice I’ve rarely been served prosecco in a flute but usually a wine glass; I’ve never been given a heavy tumbler and I didn’t like it. I ordered a cicheti plate for £10. It seemed an easy route but also gave me the opportunity to try each cicheti on their list for a reasonable price. This included, Arancini, Potato & Parmesan Crocchette, Summer Pea & Speck Crostini, Melon, Prosciutto & Basil, Baccala Mantecato Crostini, and Caprese.
They looked good; definitely a touch of Venice here, I thought. But what of the taste? The taste was OK, but none of it exceptional. The melon was slightly under-ripe (a bad mistake). The arancini needed more seasoning. The crostini bread was a bit hard – not noticeably toasted, more slices that had been cut much earlier and dried out. The mantecato serving was not generous enough to counteract the dryness. As a taste of Venice, Polpo was streaks ahead of my local cafe and I liked the ambience and decor of the restaurant but I have to say I was a bit disappointed. This group of restaurants has gained such a lot of press and good talk with supposedly long queues – though obviously not at 5.30, which is actually about the time a real Venetian bacaro will be filling up. The problem is, it is really hard to match the real thing. I’ve stood in one of my favourite bacari in Venice, Osteria Bancogiro in Campo S. Giacometto, watching them cut paper thin slices of the tastiest San Daniele prosciutto and gently fold them down onto a bread slice. I’ve chosen crostini piled high with the most glorious, creamy mantecato and then sat by the edge of the Grand Canal eating it. Polpo touched that experience; it stirred a memory of the real thing and I would go there again, but as for it being just like Venice, no. It didn’t really feel authentic, although it makes a good attempt at trying.