In the 11 months or so since he opened the wildly successful Polpo, an homage to Venetian bacari on Soho's Beak Street, a lot has been said about Russell Norman. He's been described variously as the saviour of a fading Soho, progenitor of the next big thing in restaurants, and simply as a 'legend' in both its traditional and more colloquial senses. All of these may or may not be true, but one thing I can tell you with certainty is that Russell Norman is a gentleman.
When, months ago, I couldn't get in at Polpo and flounced off elsewhere, Russell's classy response was firstly to let me know, helpfully, when the quieter times at Polpo were so that I might better have a chance of getting in, and when that didn't lure me through his doors he promised to get me a table at one of the previews for his new venture, Polpetto, when they happened. True to his word, last night I finally sat down to dinner in one of Mr Norman's restaurants for the first time - and what a fantastic time it was.
Polpetto occupies an unusual site, until recently the quietly famous dining room of one of Soho's best-known boozers The French House, but now operating discretely from - while still sharing an entrance, staircase and loos with - the pub downstairs. In keeping with Norman's love of New York the tiny room has been given a classy refurb in the style of a Keith McNally bistro, although bare brick walls, naked lightbulbs, aged mirrors and red banquettes are now as familiar to Londoners thanks to the likes of Dean Street Townhouse and Hoxton Grill as they are to any Manhattanite. Polpetto manages to stand out from the crowd thanks to a spectacular burnished copper ceiling, shipped over from a salvage yard in Connecticut and installed here for the delight of anyone minded to look up from their plates.
Given the quality of the food being turned out though, looking up from plates might prove difficult. Polpetto follows the same formula (so I'm told...) as its big sister up the road, offering traditional Italian dishes in a variety of sizes all designed for sharing from cicheti - barely bigger than a mouthful, The Boot's answer to Spain's pintxos - via bruschette, to larger plates which could easily serve as a main course for anyone not fond of sharing, or solo diners. Alyn and I tried seven plates which to be honest was about two too many, but didn't regret a single bite.
Anchovy and chickpea crostino was, as Alyn accurately put it, 'like fishy houmous', of a robust pâté consistency and ideal for enjoying with a Negroni while we chose what to follow it with. We stuck with breads and tried first a bruschetta topped with stracchino - 'it's like Primula', Russell elucidated - fennel salami and figs, then a cured pork shoulder and pickled pepper pizzetta. Both were lovely, the former rich with oozing cheese and nicely oily salami, the latter matching sweet pork with tangy peppers to more-ish effect. The bruschetta, I scribbled on my menu 'would make a cracking hangover brunch'.
Next up was our one choice from the 'Fish' section of the menu, in this case crispy soft shell crab in Parmesan batter with fennel salad. This was as amazing as it sounds, the crisp, creamily-dressed fennel providing a cool, smooth counterpoint to the hot, crunchy crab. The batter didn't taste much of Parmesan but was none the worse for it. Moving on to 'Meat' we tried three of the five plates on offer, which between them delivered both the stand-out dish of the meal and the only slight let-down. The duffer was osso buco - tender braised veal shank - with saffron risotto which, although comforting to eat and better than OK, was somewhat bland and dulled down rather than enhanced by the so-so risotto.
All was forgiven however with our first mouthful of pigeon saltimbocca which as well as being the best dish we'd tasted that evening was also one of the best I can remember having this year. Fat, bloody breasts of pigeon came wrapped in salty prosciutto, the whole layered with a generous but not excessive scattering of sage. Served on a swirl of creamy white polenta it was a brilliant, imaginative, modern British rendition of an Italian classic. Our other plate, a ham hock and parsley terrina served with a mustardy egg mayonnaise and cute tiny cornichons was also very good; consistency-wise more like rillettes than terrine it was a further example of executive chef Tom Oldroyd's expertise and flair.
Full as I was, I still found room for pud, a magnificent, textbook, very boozy tiramisu pot followed by a thick, strong espresso to snap me back into life from my excess-induced torpor. Throughout the meal we'd enjoyed a bottle of Cortese Volpi 2009, the enthusiastically recommended house white at £15 from a short, thoughtfully-selected list of seven whites, seven reds and one rosé almost all available by the 250ml and 500ml carafe. Lilliputian glasses encourage slow, refined consumption.
Service was fun, informal and fast-paced enough to avoid long waits without ever feeling hurried. With an introductory 50% off the food our bill for seven dishes, one pudding, a bottle of wine, aperitifs, coffee and 12.5% service came to a laughable £54. Even without the discount we'd have got out for under £40 a head and it would have been even less if we'd not been quite so greedy with the ordering.
I still can't get my head around Russell Norman's aversion to taking dinner bookings, so how soon - or whether - I'll be back remains to be seen, but I can say without hesitation that I recommend Polpetto and encourage those without my Geminian hatred of waiting to go, go, go. I did wonder if it was acceptable - nay, gentlemanly - to write about Polpetto when, in Russell's own tweeted words there's still tweaking to be done and hell, it's not even officially open yet. But if it's this bloody good in preview, then it's only going to get even better. The hype might, just for once, be justified.
Polpetto, Upstairs at The French House, 49 Dean Street, Soho, London W1D 5BG Tel: 020 7734 1969 http://www.polpetto.co.uk