(That’s him in the window/ that’s him in the spotlight/ Working the tables/ It’s Russell Norman/The Restaurant Man. Photos taken by NHYM Copyright 2014)
Polpo Notting Hill
126-128 Notting Hill Gate London W11 3QG
Overall: 3.75 stars
Food: 3.5 stars
Service: 3.5 stars / raised to 4 stars for having Russell Norman on the floor
Design: 4 stars
Value: 4 stars because their Pizettes were only at £5 and their plates are very filling
Having read some of the gushing praise of Russell Norman’s, aka the ‘King of Small Plates,’ many restaurants (Spuntino, Polpo Soho, Polpetto, Mishkin’s, and Polpo Covent Garden), and how people actually wait in line for an hour and half for a seat, I was thrilled to hear that one was opening up in Notting Hill. Not one for waiting in line for a restaurant (I’ve left ‘waiting in line’ behind a red velvet rope in my 20s, let alone any restaurant line in Soho), there was no way I was ever going to shlep all the way to Soho, unsure of whether I would have to wait 30 or 80 minutes for a table. Polpo Notting Hill would be the perfect way to try one of this famous restaurateur’s restaurants, without ever having to leave my 10-minute radius. Not quite ready to face the possibility of waiting in line, I took the safe road and booked a lunch reservation (They actually don’t ever close after lunch, which must be great for business).
The Polpo Restaurant concept is about being a Venetian Bacaro serving small Italian plates (the Italian version of a tapas bar). Having been to a true Bacaro in Venice during my ‘Gap/Backpacking year’, which made me think of a dark, smokey restaurant full of students and young trendy things, smoking cigarettes, drinking vino and nibbling on bits (not only the food), while discussing the superiority of Italian men (I was a twenty-something woman after all), I had high hopes and expectations for this establishment.
The original Polpo was created during the recession, and Russell Norman was able to make it a success by making it a relatively cheap, relaxed and cool dining scene. Russell’s background is as a restaurant manager and operations director at Caprice Holdings. He knows a thing or two about running a restaurant and what attracts people to a restaurant. It is not always clearly about the food alone. In the recession, he saw that all the buzzy, cool places were the ones that were packed. So he interior designed all of his restaurants (and is known for carefully choosing all the details from the toilet sinks and lighting himself), to attract the trendy and cool crowd. His staff are hired for their attitude and for being the creative types, rather than necessarily their restaurant credentials, which adds to the cool factor of the restaurant. When I saw Russell Norman working the tables as I came in, being a true ‘Restaurant Man,’ listening to what his clients and staff have to say, seeing with his eyes how the restaurant was being run, I wanted to love it.
When I entered Polpo, what struck me immediately was a slightly damp smell. Perhaps to recreate the summer’s humidity in Venice or perhaps why it shut down for one day (a flood maybe?), 4 days after opening. But then I saw the bar, which immediately made me forget my initial impression. The Bar is Beautiful. I do love a nice bar, and this one easily took me back to my Italian Backpacking days. I was then seated with a perfect view of the restaurant, (which is one of the reasons I always come early to choose my spot before my lunch date arrives). The clientele here is rather eclectic as the restaurant is; beautiful posh British Blondes two tables on my left, two American NHYMs two tables on my right, a family of 4 across from me, older men having lunch, young trendsetters at the bar and two lovely Notting Hill Grannies, one Japanese and one American, next to me. This is what I love about London; all ages, all nationalities and all social classes mixing easily together in an Italian Wine Bar. I can imagine it being great at night with a buzzy atmosphere with cocktails flowing, a few good friends, and lots of laughs.
We ordered small plates on the recommendation of the waitress; a plate of ciceti, the garlic and clam pizzette, classic beef and pork meatballs, lamb caponata, the polpo of course, and the asparagus and broad bean salad. The food was good, but unfortunately not quite as good as I was hoping. There was a slight lack of flavour to the dishes, perhaps a slight banality to them. The arancini and the pizettes were rather good, I liked the creativity of eating a spicy clams, capers and garlic pizzette. The Polpo fell a bit short of my expectations, instead a crispy, browned Italian octopus the way I like them, it felt as if this poor polpo had drifted for days in the Med and somehow landed on British territory, and had become a bit soggy from all the British rain. The lamb and meatballs were just average, and knowing that this restaurant is coming from one of the biggest restaurant names in London at the moment, I was, I admit a tad disappointed.
Perhaps I am expecting too much from a Bacaro, perhaps my expecations were too high and I am a demanding NHYM that should be kept away from Notting Hill Gate. Perhaps these are teething issues which he will iron out over the next few weeks, so I will come back for another go in two weeks, this time at night to capture the buzz. But then again, perhaps this is what Russell is trying to do; cheap and cheerful dishes in a great atmosphere. And maybe, this restaurant was not conceived with me in mind. When I read reviews later on Tripadvisor, I realised that this place is not for earth-shattering, tantalising food, this place is for friends to meet, drink and have a good time in a greatly designed restaurant with a good atmosphere. After all, this is all the Italian students could afford on a budget, so in this respect, Russell is succeeding after all.
p.s. For those also adverse to waiting in line for a dinner table, there are subtle ways of getting a dinner reservation but what’s the fun in telling you how? I will leave it to you to figure it out on your own…