Muddy Eats: Polpo, Brighton
I’m not a big fan of chain restaurants. Sure, I’m no stranger to the likes of Strada and Carluccios, but I do find that, on the whole, the bigger a foodie empire gets the more the quality and service suffer.
Despite this, I was excited to hear that Polpo had chosen Brighton for its first restaurant outside London. It opened at the end of last year in the same road as the Theatre Royal and the Dome studio.
The brand has been around for a few years and I’ve eaten at several of its London incarnations. It has fewer than 10 outlets to date and the latest has just gone into Harvey Nicks, which is a pretty good stamp of approval. The concept is Venetian tapas (cue Spaniards rolling their eyes as yet another nationality nicks their idea). Call it sharing plates if you will, or meze, but you know the drill – you order a selection.
When my husband and I finally managed to bag a table in the busy Brighton branch we chose the vegetarian chickpea, ricotta and spinach balls from the ‘meatballs’ section – which proved the highlight of the meal – and moped the tomato sauce up with focaccia. Herby polenta came in the form of a trio of crisp fat chips that had none of that cloying taste that polenta can have.
On a roll with the spinach, we also plumped for a Florentina verison of the pizzette (you’ve guessed it, small pizza) that came loaded with so much of the stuff I reckon I could have taken on Bluto afterwards. The steak knife provided was handy for divvying it up.
Messily shelling the garlic prawns proved worth the effort; they tasted super fresh and I loved the broth they were in, though a fingerbowl would have been welcome. On another occasion I remember Polpo’s mini crab and chilli linguine impressed me, not least for the generous amount of crab involved.
The ‘market greens’, rotate but on our visit were roasted cubed root vegetables (none of them actually green) and I’ve had some great garlicky spinach before. In retrospect one of the interesting sounding salads – like Radicchio, blood orange and walnut – might have been a better offset to all the comfort food we’d ordered, but it was a cold night.
Those of you more meat inclined can tuck into the likes of roast belly pork, duck ragu or flank steak with Portobello and truffle cream.
Even though we’d ordered five dishes instead of the recommended six to eight. We didn’t have room for pudding so I never got to find out what the ‘chocolate salami’ on the menu actually was.
Polpo doesn’t allow evening bookings except for parties of eight or more and it’s invariably packed towards the end of the week, so be prepared to come early or late, or squeeze in where you can. Around 7pm at a weekend we got to perch at a tiny side table with bar stools and there was a row of people eating up at the bar itself.
Our table got pretty crowded and it’s a good job the wine is severed in tumblers, because a stemmed glass could have come a cropper. As we weren’t lingering we shared a small 25c carafe of the decent house white, which at £6 for a glass and a bit each, worked out better value than two individual glasses would elsewhere. Too late did I notice they also do cocktails (£6-8) with an emphasis on Prosecco and Campari. There’s also a selection of spritzers.
As for the restaurant itself, it has simple brick walls and low lighting, including some handkerchief-draped feature lights I was very taken with. There’s a romantic but buzzy vibe and when I was in there was a nice mix of diners from a young family to couples, to friends having a catch up.
THE MUDDY VERDICT:
Good for: Couples and small groups of friends. Pre-or post theatre/gig grazing. While it doesn’t scream family restaurant the tasting concept and mini pizzas could prove a winner with kids – think family get-together over a leisurely lunch (there are also baby changing facilities).
Not for: Banking your evening plans on. Have a plan B in case you can’t get in.
£££ Our meal with a drink apiece came in at reasonable £20 each. Individual dishes (mostly £6-£9 for the pizette, meatballs, fish, meat) were a shade more than your average Spanish tapas restaurant and you could get a full size pizza in a chain for the pizzette price here, but with the quality as high as it was it’s good value in my book.
Polpo, 20 New Road, Brighton BN1 1UF, 01273 697 361 polpo.co.uk