The latest of these to hit the streets of Brighton is Polpo. Created by business partners Russell Norman and Richard Beatty, Polpo, is based on the simple Venetian “Bacaro” style dining. Bacaro is a Venetian word used to describe a humble restaurant that specialises in simple food and young Italian wines.
I for one am all for good simple food, and perhaps Polpo’s appeal has been a result of the backlash against overly complicated cooking. Polpo is also very much on trend with the small plate dining that is sweeping across the city at the moment.
After reading some mixed reviews following the initial opening, I felt it was time to visit and get a feel for the place.
With a fantastic location on New Road, the restaurant has an unassuming exterior and a view of the front bar area through the main window.
As you enter and pass through the red velvet curtain into the bar there is a quiet calm feel to the surprisingly large space.
We are greeted by our friendly and welcoming waitress and led through to the main dining area at the rear.
With reclaimed wood flooring and rustic tiling on the walls there is a homely feel that makes it a nice place to be.
The menu is extensive with a wide selection of dishes to choose from plus daily specials.
We order a couple of cocktails to assist with the decision process; I particularly enjoyed my Aperol sour.
With so much to choose from we set about ordering what turns out to be slightly more than we can eat; the dishes are slightly more substantial than you are probably expecting so be warned.
Round one of our order arrives and we begin to tuck in. Highlights are the wonderfully balanced ham hock and mustard crostini (£4); fragrant and indulgent Jerusalem artichoke, pecorino and truffle bruschetta (£7), and the smooth and flavoursome whipped smoked mackerel, beetroot & carta di musica (£7).
On the other side the spicy pork and fennel meatballs (£6) were let down by an uninspiring tomato sauce, and the spinach, parmesan and soft egg pizette (£8) was pleasant at best.
Next up we had the cod cheeks, lentils and salsa verde (£8); lamb osso buco, saffron risotto (£9); a side of fennel, almond and curly endive salad (£5) and cauliflower, gorgonzola and fontina gratin (£4).
The scallop-like cod cheeks with the zingy salsa verde are the best of these dishes; the lentils add a welcome earthy balance although there are a lot of them. The fennel salad is fresh and crisp and the cauliflower dish is comforting and tangy with cheese – as a gratin should be.
The lamb osso buco is a disappointment, despite the lamb itself being soft and tender. It suffers from being served with what appears to be the same tomato sauce as the meatballs; and the saffron risotto lacks bite and is too subtle for my tastes.
Despite being stuffed I finish with an affogato corretto (£7) – espresso with a scoop of ice cream “corrected” with a shot of grappa. This is the perfect end to a meal and puts a smile on my face in a way that coffee, ice cream and strong alcohol only can.
When it was announced that the London chain was going to open a branch of Polpo in Brighton the news was met with much hype and media buzz.
As a result, there was a lot of expectation placed upon this new restaurant and staff team to hit the ground running.
This is not something that many are able to achieve and I think that the Brighton branch of Polpo still has a little way to go.
They have achieved much in the short time that they have been open, with the restaurant already feeling well established with excellent front of house and customer service.
When it comes to the food there are certainly some aspects that need to be tweaked with the tomato sauce a notable example. The bacaro style is a great concept, but the key to simple food is fantastic flavour and Polpo is not quite there yet. One thing that we have to remember is that this is not a small independent but part of a larger chain of restaurants; and if we can come to expect such quality from all chain restaurants in the future then this can only be a good thing.
This review first appeared in the Brighton and Hove Independent on March 11th.