A recent addition to New Road sees Venetian-style cooking come to Brighton. With a myriad of Italian eateries in the city, it’s refreshing to welcome a bàcaro (almost an Italian-style gastro bar) to the centre of town. Polpo’s descent from London in December 2015 saw a real buzz around the opening, especially as its small plates lend themselves so effectively to enjoying a bottle (or two) of wine. The site is deceptively large; on entry the bar runs perpendicular to the door and leads us into a spacious dining area with a distressed interior. Of course this is more of a ‘trendy-London’ version of a traditional bàcaro and the décor proves exactly that: wall lights give the restaurant a gently-lit hue and teams with dark reds and off-white walls to warm the room. This branch of the Polpo chain has a very individual feel to it – the staff are all friendly, relaxed but with a strong air of professionalism and conscientiousness.
We’re greeted and seated, with our waiter promptly guiding us through the menu and advising us to get two or three of the larger plates and a couple of smaller ones to sate our appetites. First things first, we decide to toast our Brightonesque Venetian adventure with a glass of Prosecco (£6). A beautiful middle ground of not-too-sweet and not-overly-crisp, it sets us up for a great evening. Scanning the large menu, we’re spoilt for choice. We pick three of the smaller plates as a pseudo-starter course. Dishes arrive when they’re ready, staggering the dining experience. Arriving first, our stuffed fried olives (£3) whet our palates. With a soft coating of breadcrumbs, the textures are varied, as the salty filling punctuates the olives. Appearing next and like an enormous canapé, our ham hock and mustard crostini (£4) sees the meat cooked to a tender consistency and marries up with the cream cheese it sits upon perfectly. It would be rude not to go to Polpo and try their ‘marinated baby octopuses’ (£3) (their Italian namesake). With a keen taste for seafood, I’m slightly ashamed to admit this is the first time I’ve tried octopus. Disappointed I was not! With white wine vinegar, the tentacled mollusc is served up whole with shreds of red pepper and white onion for extra flavour.
Not quite Neapolitan or Roman, there’s a section of the menu that is dedicated to pizzettes, which are essentially small pizzas with uniquely crispy and flavoursome bases. We choose the fennel salami and ricotta (£8), acting as a cute and delicious nod to the Italian staple. The soft texture of the ricotta enhanced the punchy and generous topping of salami – it acted as almost a mid-course in itself between our two ‘courses’. Next to arrive is a trio of immaculate dishes. The cauliflower, Gorgonzola & fontina gratin (£4) is more of a side than anything else but is essentially a luxurious cauliflower cheese – quite possible the smoothest and richest gratin I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. The last two plates are my favourites by far: duck ragu, black olives and gnocchi (£9) and chilli and garlic prawns (£7). The former’s small game component has a strong flavour that is balanced out with the neutrality of the gnocchi, with a bit of black olive fusing in through each mouthful. Prawns being one of my favourite things to eat, especially if I can get my hands dirty and decapitate the little beasts, I am excited to try them after such a range of perfect dishes. The prawns are meaty and huge and taste fresh. It’s a treat to have them adorned with chilli and garlic though a little of their usual salty-tinge was lost by the strength of the sauce. Topped with wilted confit rocket, this dish is comparable to a kind of pescatarian surf-and-turf. Fantastic.
*All images credited to Nick Hook
Polpo, 20 New Road, Brighton, BN1 1UF