Polpo Chelsea is one of a small network of Polpos that have exploded out across London. Russell Norman’s original successful attempt at creating a Venetian bàcaro in the heart of Soho has found an appreciative audience amongst London’s fickle gastronauts. Polpo has had enough success that it’s evolved into the kind of chain restaurant that lesser chains resent and bitch about behind its back. What really sets Polpo Chelsea out from the pack is its rather covetable location; taking residence in the bend of the large L-shaped terrace (or should that be piazza) next to Duke of York Square. On a sunny evening, admittedly a rarer occurrence now October has us in its claws, Polpo even attains a jazzy European atmosphere; hard to find elsewhere in the smog-strewn capital.
Whilst the outdoor dining area was certainly crowded during our visit; the tables were placed far enough apart that the surrounding buzz of conversation was invigorating rather than oppressive. All of the set-dressing in the world won’t help if the food isn’t up to snuff of course, so my companion and I tried not to allow the Felliniesque atmosphere turn our heads too much. The Polpo menu offers something approximating Venetian tapas; with some seriously headline grabbing fish on offer. Getting into the spirit of things with a crisp and sweet Polpo Bellini (£7.50) bubbling on my lips, we helped ourselves to a cichèti of fried stuffed olives; an oddly playful snack that deserves a broader audience. Appetites piqued, we reeled in a platter of fritto misto (£10.00) along with sautéed tiger prawns with chilli & garlic (£9.50) to complete the aquatic theme. The fritto misto was a particular success: white bait, squid and prawns deep fried in a delightfully light, flaky batter. As a result the rich taste of the fish came through beautifully, with the prawns such a stand out that they perhaps took some of the spark out of the resolutely un-deep fried tiger prawns. Said prawns were nothing to sniff at though: closer in size to miniature bananas than those you can find in the supermarket, with a bold taste diffused through an opulent chili and garlic sauce.
Stepping away from the ocean, we also sampled the duck served black olive & tomato ragù and gnocchi (£8.80), the tomato ragù was the real hero here, with the duck very much playing second fiddle to the pasta. Whilst it was certainly a showstopper it was also deeply filling, which should definitely be considered if you’re shooting for four plates rather than three. Desert arrived in the form panna cotta with strawberries (£5.00) just in time for the sun to complete its passeggiata over the western horizon. It certainly went down smoothly but didn’t massively stand out compared to the other courses, though perhaps as night drew in we were feeling the cold a tad. Polpo Chelsea provides hearty fare at not too exacting a price with ambiance to burn. Maybe save it for a sunny day though!