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Now over ten years old, this Venetian/Mediterranean chain has suffered a drip-feed of branch closures, with only two now trading: Soho and Chelsea. And in August 2020 it parted ways with its co-founder Russell Norman. Fans do still applaud the duo’s “very convivial and fun” formula, but the groups woes have stemmed from Venetian small plates that are often “no better than fine”, and at worst “uncared for” or “very mediocre”. Perhaps it will now finally turn a corner?
Now ten years old, Russell Norman and Richard Beatty’s Venetian/Mediterranean chain faces the well-publicised challenge of a March CVA (Company Voluntary Agreement), amidst a drip-feed of branch closures. Fans do still applaud its “very convivial and fun” formula, but even they often feel it’s “somewhat lost its way”, with staff who can seem “overwhelmed” and serving Venetian small plates that are often “no better than fine”, and at worst “uncared for” or “very mediocre”.
Russell Norman’s “buzzy and very casual” cicchetti cafés still have a large fan club who applaud “very tasty, tapas-style fare”, “drinkable wine served in tumblers” and a “friendly atmosphere”. But the feeling that it “was once original, but has now been bypassed and needs updating” captures the mood of a fair few who “expected more” of the “hit ’n’ miss service” and “uninspired food”.
“Delicious Venetian-style tapas” is still applauded by the big fanclub of Russell Norman’s “rammed-and-noisy or buzzy (you take your pick)” cicchetti cafés, which can still offer “a fun time” without breaking the bank. However there’s also a significant sceptical minority, who nowadays view their performance as “a bit tired” or even “oh-so-disappointing”.
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Have you eaten at Polpo?
A smash hit in the making, this NYC-Downtown-chic Italian offers perfectly judged tapas/small-plate dishes in an atmosphere of old-style Soho conviviality.
We keep reading that this much-lauded Soho newcomer - fronted by Russell Norman, once a bigwig at the Caprice group - is some sort of Venetian snack bar (or, to impress you with our research, bacaro). Has anyone looked at it? This is a New York restaurant, pure and simple. Or, more specifically, a Downtown restaurant.
The only wonder is that it's taken so long for this particular style of deconstructed chic to make the jump from SoHo to Soho: Polpo immediately reminded us a of a particular SoHo-fringe operation, Peasant, which opened as long ago as 2000. Mr Norman readily admits such restaurants (if not that specific one) have provided just as much inspiration for him as anything in La Serenissima, and will even tell you the name of the particular firm of Big Apple architects whose work has inspired him: Avroko.
True to the Avroko spirit, Norman has opened up some beautifully distressed brickwork (heading for three centuries old), and some tiles (we'd guess Victorian) to create an interior which - though on a modest scale compared to many Downtown establishments - has a rather similar vibe. As in NYC, that vibe manages to be trendy but not exclusive. We couldn't help noticing how, in the pretty much full house by 1pm, there were lots of people - yes, even including old people -who weren't classic modern-times Soho lunchers at all. Early days, but the tone may well last.
It isn't just the styling, of course (not generally commented on in the very positive early-days reviews elsewhere) which is responsible for the crush, but also the much-complimented food. Not that the cuisine is in any way astonishing, it's just that it is generally very well done, and amazingly, well, useful. The cicheti (Italian tapas) are very tasty, as well as remarkably economical. The highlight for us (lunching in the singular) was a delicious pile of green tapenade on a piece of toasted bread, but arancini (rice balls) also satisfied. To follow, fegato alla Veneziana, a small but very adequate dish for around £6, was well complemented by a plate of zucchini dressed with olive oil. Add a plate of roast autumn fruits (the best dish, dressed with a sprinkle of crumble), and you've still, with modest wine, had a very pleasant lunch for £25. Which may be another reason the place is already humming.
The obvious problem is that, with value like this, either prices will rise or tables will be impossible to get. Or both. So how long till the successor restaurant? As you've probably gathered, this is not the sort of place where a known reviewer is likely to be able to maintain any sort of anonymity, so we can tell you what Mr Norman told us - start looking out for number two some time next year.
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