A buzzy slice of Venice seduces the WestEnd

<strong>Polpo<br />41 Beak Street, W1F 9SB<br />tel: 020 7734 4479<br /></strong>Cost in restaurant per person without wine: &pound;25<br /><br />DO you know what a bacaro is? Neither did I, nor &ndash; I&rsquo;ll wager &ndash; do most of the people jostling for a seat at Polpo, which calls itself simply &ldquo;a bacaro in Soho&rdquo;. Well, a bacaro is a Venetian bar specialising in fish and other northern Italian delights, served in small tapas-style dishes. And in Soho, it is also a glitterati magnet, to judge by the crowd the night we went. <br /><br />Polpo is cool &ndash; there&rsquo;s no doubt about it. The crowded small-plates style of restaurant has already proven a winning formula, with the likes of Barrafina, Salt Yard, Tierra Brindisa and even Maze, always heaving with a suave, spectacled crowd. And Polpo is super small, with exposed brickwork and two sexy little bars jammed with Campari and Cinzano and all manner of Italian wine, so it doesn&rsquo;t take much to make it seem very busy, very popular and therefore really rather hip.<br /><br />It&rsquo;s different, too. We&rsquo;re used to Spanish tapas, but regional Italian is less familiar. Which is why, confronted with a menu featuring the likes of cuttlefish in ink, polenta smeared with cod, and pumpkin with prosciutto and parmesan, you can&rsquo;t help but say: &ldquo;Oooh, what have we here?&rdquo; and rub your hands with glee. Chorizo and patatas bravas are far, far away at Polpo. <br /><br />In line with the rough and tumble, rustic atmosphere of the place, the menu is printed, typewriter style, on paper placemats that quickly become smeared with oil, ink and other dribbles. There are teeny tiny bites (&ldquo;cichete and crostini&rdquo;) &ndash; potato and parmesan croquettes; figs with prosciutto and mint &ndash; that are delicious and cost between &pound;1.20 and &pound;1.90. Then there are five, roughly even sections of the menu: breads (more like sandwiches), such as crudo, mozzarella and rocket panini; tomato and tapenade pizzetta, and wild mushroom piadina. We steered clear as we didn&rsquo;t fancy a sandwich, however delicious, on the side of our already greedy order.<br /><br />From &ldquo;meat&rdquo;, we had grilled sliced flank steak and mushrooms, a copious, simple hit of beef drenched in its juices and the exciting pumpkin dish mentioned earlier, which was a daunting pile of carved slices of the vegetable topped with the prosciutto and generously dusted with shavings of parmesan. It made no pretensions to elegance, it didn&rsquo;t even look particularly nice (pumpkin and prosciutto clash rather badly in terms of colour), but it was delicious &ndash; meaty, lots going on, with plenty of character. We also had pork belly with raddichio and hazelnuts, but it seemed like a poor cut, or poor quality meat, and at &pound;5.50 tasted cheap, so we left it on the plate.<br /><br /><strong>DELIGHTFUL ODDITIES</strong><br /><br />From &ldquo;fish&rdquo;, we went with fritto misto &ndash; a generous assortment of deep fried seafood that tasted as light and naughty as it should. The cuttlefish in ink with gremolata was tasty but looked horrible &ndash; cuttlefish (which is in the squid family and quite a hideous creature when alive) has a very soft texture, especially when shredded and soaked in a menacing black sauce. All the same, the dish had a kind of pleasing, undemanding savour.<br /><br />One of the highlights of the evening was the fennel, thinly shredded, with a gorgeous lemony dressing. Also on the vegetables list were &ldquo;English beets&rdquo; and wet polenta, quirky choices that hammer home the fact that this really is a menu of delightful oddities.<br /><br />However, Polpo&rsquo;s rusticity may be a bit self-conscious for some &ndash; the wine, including cava, is served in cheap beakers, the sort you&rsquo;d put orange squash in at a kids&rsquo; summer camp. And as of last week, there&rsquo;s a no-bookings policy, which makes no sense and is simply irritating rather than free and easy. And the house aperitif, which can be a thing of beauty, was horrible: campari with something bitter also served in that awful beaker.<br /><br />Dishes are inexpensive and it&rsquo;s lovely to feel thoroughly un-ripped off. The result, though, is that quality is hit and miss. But in a place like this, figuring out what works is half the fun &ndash; and it won&rsquo;t break the bank to make the odd mistake.<br /><br /><br /><strong>IN A NUTSHELL: </strong><br />Venetian-style bar serving little plates of northern Italian favourites. It&rsquo;s an eclectic mix of food &ndash; think cuttlefish in ink and polenta with cod &ndash; but the rustic, chaotic style of the place translates to some dodgy food and service, and overcrowding.