It’s been an exciting wait for Polpo to open in Leeds. The critically acclaimed London restaurant has branched forth into the glorious north and laid their hat in the luxurious surrounding of Harvey Nichols, blending Venetian style with an added touch of rustic charm. This really was the hottest opening in town so my friend and I got dressed up and hot-footed it to the top floor of the fancy shopping centre to see what Russell Norman’s latest bacaro has to offer. Thanks to Harvey Nichols for the free invitation!
If you like the small plate style of eating, then Polpo is for you, offering up tapas style food with a distinctly Venetian flavour. We sat at our table and were welcomed by a complimentary cone of calamari and courgette which, whilst lacking seasoning, was a lovely way to start snacking whilst perusing the menu for what to indulge in. The surroundings were busy and created a cosy atmosphere with unique lighting which made it feel like you had walked into a family run Italian bistro, a move away from the slick glass and metal modernity of Harvey Nichols.
The staff were very friendly, advising us to order quite a few dishes to enjoy between us and giving us personal favourites to help us order. In the end, after much deliberation over which type of meatball to order (yes, the struggle is real!), we plumped for a mix of seafood, meat and a couple of the staff favourites. First arrived our cicchetti (meaning very small), which were the stuffed fried olives and ham hock and mustard crostini. Along with this came our cocktails, elderflower martinis which came in daintily small glasses. They were delicious and the size was deceptive – I had three, thinking how something so small wouldn’t have much effect. My head didn’t agree the next day. Note to self: don’t be greedy! Anyway, enough of my lack of self control, more about the food!
The fried olives, stuffed with anchovies, were worthy of the recommendation from our waitress – crispy, salty and moreish, a perfect partner with a crisp glass of white wine or a cold beer. The ham hock and mustard crostini looked delicious and was piled high with meat, but was slightly less successful than the olives in terms of taste. The pork was succulent but, similar to the calamari, lacked seasoning and a sense of piquancy – in fact, it was pretty difficult to pick up on any mustard on the crostini. Tasty, but slightly bland. Possibly a opening night oversight.
Our pizzette – a light alternative to its doughy namesake was topped with spinach, parmesan and a soft baked egg. This was a surprising find, with a different texture from what we expected, with the spinach topping forming a soft mousse consistency, cradling the perfectly baked egg. With a generous sprinkling of parmesan, this was a light and satisfying dish which we thought would make a great lunch if you weren’t wanting a filling dish. From trying the spinach offering, I’d definitely go back for the other three pizzettes, with the prosciutto, scamorza and pickled radicchio flavour sounding very tempting.
Along with our pizzette came one of the Venetian classic dishes: meatballs and spaghettini. The choice of meatball at Polpo is pretty impressive, with a customer being able to choose the ‘classic’ beef and pork, lamb and mint, spicy pork and fennel or a chickpea, spinach and ricotta offering for the vegetarian diners. You also get the choice of tomato sauce and spaghettini or meatballs ‘alla vedova’, which means the meaty morsel is deep fried in a crispy crumb. We plumped for the classic sauce and pasta option and really enjoyed it, with the mixture of the beef and pork giving the ball a firm texture and a deftly balanced, savoury flavour. We inhaled them greedily, fighting the urge to play out a scene from Lady and the Tramp (I’d have been the tramp, just in case my friend is reading this!).
Our last duo of dishes were the roast pork belly with braised apple and chilli and garlic prawns, which are always a great partnership in my opinion. The prawns were well seasoned and cooked (I could have eaten two dishes full of them) and the crackling on the pork was devilishly crispy and delicious. The actual pork belly and apple combination, a natural pairing, unfortunately followed suit with the previous dishes due to a lack of seasoning. It should have been a stand out dish but paled into the background with the soft apple adding little taste to the overall plate.
But never fear, the desserts were here to save the day – and did they ever!
My friend and I would both own up to being massively sweet-toothed, so when we saw tiramisu on the menu, there was no debate – it had to happen! I also decided to try the flourless pistachio and almond cake, because those two flavours are personal favourites of mine. Now did I mention how greedy I was earlier? Yes…well, we saw chocolate salami on the menu and had our curiosity piqued. The waitress offered to bring some over as well and y’know, who were we to refuse? It would have been rude not to.
The tiramisu pot was sumptuously silky and boozy – everything that a tiramisu should be. However, the stand out dish was the pistachio and almond cake, coming with a HUGE dollop of mascarpone drizzled in honey (my pet peeve is when restaurants give you a meagre serving of cream – so thanks Polpo for your dairy generosity!). It was light, moist and one of the finest sponges I’ve eaten in a long time, The pistachio flavour shone through and was delicately accompanied by a wonderful almond essence which lingered in the mouth. It is worth returning just for this cake – a masterpiece!
And the chocolate salami, I hear you cry? Well it was very simply slices of chocolate, nut and fruit – we’d nearly eaten ourselves into a coma by then so didn’t finish them, but it was a lovely side dish and I could imagine children loving this accompaniment, or it going down a treat with a cup of coffee.
The evening was really enjoyable and the food, on the whole, was tasty and definitely well worth the prices. Leeds is pretty jam packed with restaurants at the moment but I think the placing of Polpo in Harvey Nichols, along with its reputation, will see it thrive. Hopefully small niggles like seasoning will be ironed out in the first few weeks of opening and if I was to recommend anything, go in for coffee and the flourless pistachio cake, or a pizzette and an elderflower martini (just don’t drink three on a work night – your liver won’t thank you, mark my words).
Disclaimer: this review was written following a free invitation to Polpo’s preview launch.
Photographs: courtesy of Harvey Nichols