Polpo is modelled on a Venetian “bacari” i.e. tapas style bar. There is a bar area at the front and a long, narrow dining area further back. The décor is suitably rustic, with exposed brickwork. The restaurant, contrary to reports elsewhere does take reservations, but only at lunchtime (yep, beats me too; I can understand taking no reservations, or taking reservations, but why at one sitting and not the other?). However the bar seats are always available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Your table mat is your menu, and you are encouraged to have perhaps five or six of the “cicheti” i.e. tapas dishes. The menu seems almost deliberately obtuse at times e.g. a chocolate hot pot comes with “essi”; what obscure Italian delicacy might that be? “A biscuit in the shape of a letter s”. The short wine list starts at £15 a bottle and has examples such as Lageder Pinot Grigio 2008 listed at £36 for a wine that costs around £9 retail, Dolcetto d’Alba at £37 compared to a shop price of around £11, and Hofstatter Pinot Bianco at £33 for a wine that will set you back around £12 in the shops. The chef Tom Oldroyd is from Bocca di Lupo.
Crostini of prosciutto with buffalo mozzarella was pleasant, with good quality ham and cheese (13/20). Spratti in soar is crostini with a topping of marinated salted sprats and onions, which tasted better than it sounded, the strong taste of the onions working well with the fish (13/20). Wild mushroom piadina was a dish involving a pizza flour base that is fried instead of baked, filled with a variety of nicely cooked wild mushrooms. The base itself was slightly overcooked, not burnt but not far off in places, while the mushrooms were too salty even for me (11/20).
Slow roast duck was more successful, the duck meat tender and in a rich tomato sauce with green peppercorns and a few black olives; here the seasoning was just right (13/20). Pumpkin risotto was a rather dull affair; I am not sure what stock was used for the rice, but although the rice itself was cooked OK, the stock was insipid, giving little flavour to the dish. Given that pumpkin itself has a certain inherent blandness, this led to a rather dull dish (12/20). Tellingly, I left most of mine but the plate was removed without any inquiry as to why.
I finished with honey and walnut semifreddo served in a cornet. This worked well, the honey and walnut flavours coming through well, the texture good, the cornet a nice texture contrast (14/20). Double espresso coffee was quite good, served in a clear glass rather than a cup (15/20). Service was friendly if a little too casual: one incorrect dish turned up, and when I pointed out what I had actually ordered I was asked “oh, do you want to change it?”. Er yes, that was why I ordered it. Also, there was the risotto incident; if someone leaves most of a dish it could be because they are not hungry, but surely it is the most basic service to inquire if there was a problem?
Polpo clearly has a successful formula; even on this mid-week lunch the place was fully booked other than a few early tables, and the bar area quickly filled up (not bad for a 65 cover restaurant weeks after opening). The tapas idea is a nice one, especially at lunch, though the no-reservations policy in the evening could be pretty irritating if you made a special journey here. Some reviews have fawned over the low prices, which I am not so sure about, at least at lunch. I had tap water only, the recommended number of dishes and the bill came to £25 for lunch. At the time of writing, for £17 you can have a three course lunch at Michelin-starred Wild Honey, or for £29 a generous lunch at Tom Aikens involving ingredients and cooking considerably more elaborate and capable than here. Still, this is certainly a pleasant enough place, and Russell Norman has clearly found a wildly successful format.