Polpo in Brighton - restaurant review
PUBLISHED: 15:36 28 January 2016 | UPDATED: 16:06 06 November 2017
Photo: Paul Winch-Furness
After enjoying Italian studenthood, Jenny Mark-Bell found herself turning her back on the UK's versions of Italian food. So would Polpo's Venetian tapas lure her back to a fine culinary culture?
Being a fortunate beneficiary of the Erasmus exchange programme, I spent a year living in Verona as a language student. I have it to thank for many formative experiences, an abiding allegiance to white wine, and a propensity to interrupt Come Dine With Me to bore on about the pronunciation of bruschetta.
However, Italy rather spoiled Italian food for me. Even as a student, I probably ate better in Verona than in any other year of my life, and it was while celebrating a friend’s birthday there that I ate my first and only seven-course meal (and none of this tasting menu nonsense, these were proper courses). But on returning to England I found that the pizza and pasta dishes commonly available here didn’t cut it anymore. After a few too many spongy pizza bases and plates of flaccid spaghetti I just stopped ordering ersatz Italian food. Possibly the last time I had a really good Italian meal was at Polpo in Notting Hill a few years ago.
Obviously, if one remembers where one ate years ago the experience must have been very good (or very bad) so the news that restauranteur Russell Norman was opening his first provincial outpost of the mini-chain was pretty thrilling.
The restaurant, in a buzzy location near the Theatre Royal, had a cool and rather festive atmosphere and was busy in its first week of business. They serve aperitivi in the form of Campari and Aperol spritzes which will surely be popular, but we shared a carafe of the house white, a Garganega, while the hip young waitress guided our order. Polpo is a bàcaro, deliberately low-key and humble, and the idea is that you order several small plates to share around the table. Our waitress advised two or three dishes per head and told us they’d come out as they were ready. Our first choice, arancini, arrived speedily and was excellent: crisp on the outside and oozing with cheesey rice at the first bite. In fact, Mum and I ended up bitterly regretting that there were only two of them.
A brown shrimp, fennel and caper pizzetta was sliver-thin and crisp as old manuscript, the sweetness of the shrimp enlivened by the piquant little capers. Crab and chilli linguine was tasty and al dente and the grilled lamb came on a vast heap of caponata which was swiftly dispatched. A salad of pear, gorgonzola and chicory salad appealed to me as it’s what I ate at my Italian 22nd birthday party. Like Proust’s madeleines, it took me back to that Veronese piazza.
On another visit I will try the Nutella pizzetta but on this occasion the braised figs with ricotta made a satisfying end to the meal.
There has been much anticipation in Brighton for Polpo’s first restaurant outside of the Big Smoke and on this evidence, they are making an excellent fist of it. The proprietor, Russell (read our interview here), came over to say hello and explained that, due to a building delay, they had to delay the opening. They spent the time giving the staff extra training instead, and it showed.
Ben fatto, Polpo – in bocca al lupo (well done and good luck)!