Polpo Brighton Review: “If this is the future of chain restaurant dining, it’s looking good.”
Having already firmly established itself as a hip London brand, Venetian eatery Polpo has taken another step in its quest to dominate the ‘small plates’ market, opening its first restaurant outside the capital on Brighton’s New Road.
With five successful London branches already under their belt, the Polpo team have had their sights set on Brighton for a while, explains Russell Norman, Polpo founder and a man who clearly knows how to tell people what they want to hear. This is the ideal city for the “Polpo vision”, he says. Brighton is unique, bohemian; people here like things to have a sense of individuality. It smacks of marketing patter, but he’s not wrong.
The restaurant had its soft launch a few weeks ago and the atmosphere tonight is certainly lively. First impressions are… familiar. Casually dressed staff, distressed antique fittings, tapas-style dining with Mediterranean flavours – Market may have already beaten Polpo to it by a matter of months. Judging by the number of customers enthusiastically sharing plates tonight, however, this town is big enough for the both of them.
For the indecisive or easily bored, the concept of sharing many smaller plates is a godsend. Here, the dishes are called cicchetti, the Venetian term for bite-sized savoury snacks served alongside booze. They’re priced between £3 and £10, so depending on your level of indecisiveness, you could easily rack up quite a bill.
The fact that the dishes arrive sporadically to the table (or the bar if you choose) prevents things from feeling too much like a formal dinner, which would certainly not be the Polpo way. First, we try potato and parmesan croquettes, which are a beautiful mouthful in textural terms; crunchy parmesan crust gives way to a creamy mash, but sadly, they are also pretty bland.
More impressive is the butternut squash and ricotta bruschetta, although it’s not bruschetta as we know it. The beautifully light focaccia bread hasn’t been toasted but merely flashed in a griddle pan. Its topping, however, is spot-on: thick slices of butternut squash, cooked so that it still retains some bite, scattered with creamy ricotta and crunchy almonds, all liberally drizzled with virgin olive oil.
Meatballs are a Polpo speciality, with an entire section of the menu dedicated to different flavour combinations perched on top of spaghetti or served alla vedova (rolled in polenta and fried). The pork and fennel ones we opt for are dense but moist and beautifully spiced, served in a tasty, if fairly generic, tomato sauce.
Another Polpo trademark is the pizzette, a mini pizza with fresh, quality ingredients sitting sparingly atop a super thin base. Ours has a classic, simple combination of mozzarella, tomato and fresh-torn basil leaves adorning it, allowing the quality of the base to shine through.
Huge prawns in their shells, marinated with garlic and chilli, provide an excuse to get our fingers dirty and are as fleshy and fresh as those found at some of Brighton’s more upmarket seafood restaurants. Impressively, the salads and vegetables section of the menu has also been given some real thought, and our dish of wafer-thin raw courgettes with rocket and liberal amounts of finely grated parmesan, is surprisingly savoury.
Desserts are small and perhaps not so suitable for sharing, but they offer classic Italian flavours, like velvety, rich tiramisu, or affogatto al café (with a shot of Grappa if you’re feeling very Italian).
Polpo is clearly on a mission to extend its reaches beyond Zone 1 and Brighton’s a fairly safe bet for a laidback eatery that’s already made a name for itself in London. I can’t help feeling that as the Polpo empire grows, things are becoming a little formulaic, but diners are assured a lively atmosphere and crowd-pleasing food. If this is the future of chain restaurant dining, it’s looking good.