Finding a sense of place: Polpo in Exeter
PUBLISHED: 12:03 05 June 2017 | UPDATED: 12:03 05 June 2017
Catherine Courtenay slips into holiday mode with a visit to Polpo
However fleeting his relationship with Exeter, it is a measure of his affection for the city that Russell Norman opened one of his Polpo restaurants here.
The restaurateur has achieved both commercial success and culinary accolades for the Venetian restaurant chain. Modelled on the city’s back street bars, or bacaro, four of his London venues have received Michelin Bib Gourmand awards for quality and good value. Subsequent openings have been in Brighton and Bristol and now Exeter, where Norman once spent time pondering the option of studying for a degree in drama at the university.
As it happens, he didn’t, but the city made an impression and on Polpo’s opening night he said he was thrilled to have returned and be staying in Exeter again.
Using a mix of old and new materials (in Exeter’s case you’ll find salvaged wall tiles and maple parquet flooring) shows that creating a sense of place is important and part of Polpo’s success is down to Norman’s fascination and long term association with Venice, his adopted city.
Has he succeeded in recreating a backstreet bacaro in the heart of Exeter’s new Queen St. Dining Quarter? No one can say the remodelled, modern surroundings are conducive, but step inside and there are definite echoes of the “faded elegance”, as he calls it, of his beloved city in the use of dark wood, time-worn tiles, subdued lighting and cosy but functional booths.
A large central bar dominates and, along with the open plan kitchen, is a focal point for all the activity. Perch on a stool, select from the impressive Italian wine list and choose a bite to eat, or cicheti, one of Polpo’s famed small plates. Crostini, arancini and delicacies like marinated baby octopus or stuffed fried olives start from around £3. This is where Polpo scores, serving high quality, simply cooked food; these are authentic Venetian dishes, with more unusual flavours like chicory, fennel and almond, and you can choose to eat as little or as much as you need.
And yes, there are pizzas, or rather pizzette, smaller portions with generous toppings like spinach and egg or cured pork shoulder and pickled pepper.
End with an affogato al caffe, three little servings of espresso, gelato and a liqueur, for a sensory experience which is pure Italian perfection.
Pork chop, white beans and wild garlic
Jason Wass, group executive chef says this is his favourite spring menu dish. “The white beans make this a hearty dish and wild garlic in season is at its very best.”