An education, by way of Venetian bàcaro

When I first moved to London I was given a list of restaurants to visit. At the top was a little Venetian bàcaro called Polpo, which became the first restaurant I visited and the start of my London food education.

That meal, which I can still remember, was the first that got me really excited about what restauranteurs were doing in the capital. I told everyone I knew about Polpo and then Spuntino when I discovered that, and then Mishkin’s when my friends needed somewhere fun to eat out…

From following the rise of Florence Knight at Polpetto, to sipping beetroot martinis in Mishkin’s and devouring truffled egg toast at Spuntino I am unashamedly at the forefront of the Russell Norman fan club.

So, it was with much excitement that I recently visited the two latest additions to the group, the re-opened Polpetto on Brewer Street and the three-storey public house, Ape & Bird, in Leicester Square.

Polpetto was actually the only one of Russell Norman’s restaurants that I had never visited, despite hearing great things about the food and of course Florence Knight at the helm.

Like Polpo, it is described as a bacàro, “a Venetian word to describe a humble restaurant serving simple food and good, young local wines”. Typical to Norman’s other establishments, Polpetto’s menu is made up of a number of small dishes using a variety of seasonal ingredients.

We ordered several dishes from the menu including the Bloater & Fennel, Scallops, Cauliflower & Lardo and Beetroot, Goat’s Curd & Sorrel, all of which were beautiful. Alongside this, we chose the house white wine, which I’ve always found exceptional at Polpo.

(Recently I was told that you should always order the house wine at a restaurant as the most time and care is taken in choosing that bottle.)

With doilies in the windows, small tumblers for wine and bare brick walls, not to mention the gorgeous food, I hugely enjoyed our meal and would recommend it to anyone as a lunch or dinner spot – that’s if you can get a table!

(Here’s our menu, which changes regularly)

photo 6

Ape & Bird, on the other hand, is a whole different ball game. Norman’s first pub, a big, dark expanse on the edge of Leicester Square, is buzzing with all of the media-types who work round the area, creating a debaucherous and fun atmosphere. My first visit was solely to the dive bar on the lower-ground floor. The cocktails are reasonably pricey, so we stuck to the house white (it was a couple of days before payday after all).  For a Friday night, and only a week after it opened, word had already spread and it was packed. I even bumped into Stephen Merchant having a beer.

Initially, I heard that the food wasn’t anything to write home about, but a change of chef later, (Alex Windebank was brought in in February) I thought I’d check it out for myself.

The website promises “comfort classics”, but with dishes such as Pigs Trotter, Potted Crab and Stichelton Custard Tart on the menu, it’s definitely at the ‘gourmet’ end of the pub scale. With aperol spritz in hand, I ordered a dish of black pudding (and some other lovely bits I can’t remember, it’s not online anymore) and my friend had an incredible-smelling grilled haddock. The food was fresh, inventive and I’d certainly eat there again, never mind pop in for a post-work drink.

Since filming The Restaurant Man, Russell Norman’s profile has rocketed and many people have been querying whether the Polpo model will become an ‘identikit’ restaurant that every struggling restauranteur will try to emulate. Having said that, I’m excited to see what comes next. Rumours are always rife, but I hear that the next stop will be a Polpo in Notting Hill. West Londoners, get ready to be educated.

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