Once upon a time there was a widespread belief that 3 factors made all the difference for a successful foodservice operation: Location, Location and Location. We are now being treated to a masterclass in the re-writing of this particular rule. Russell Norman has just added the fourth venue to his growing restaurant empire and he has done it again. Before you go any further, I am not going to use the words “shabby” or “chic” – that’s just for you Russell!
Norman first made a name for himself as an Operations Director of Caprice Holdings, before leaving, during the recession, to go his own way. Interesting timing, but it has definitely paid off. You won’t find fancy advertising for any of his venues in glossy magazines, nor discount vouchers online, yet his restaurants are packed on most days of the week and waiting times of over an hour on Saturday evenings are the norm.
If you were to “judge a book by its cover” most of the restaurants are “well read favourites” not glossy blockbusters. Pass by the outside of the venues, and you would be forgiven for mistaking them for “past their sell by date” restaurants. Don’t make this mistake, really.
Norman belongs to a new generation of Tweeters and no other London based foodservice operator has been credited with successfully harnessing the power of the web to the extent he does. The man has currently over 5,000 followers on Twitter with a steady increasing number joining day by day. Just 5,000 followers don’t sound much if you can reach over 100,000 with conventional marketing initiatives. However, unlike the ‘spray and pray’ approach of traditional methods, these 5,000 are loyal and repeat customers spreading the message to another 5,000, which in addition will spread the message to another 5,000 and so on. You can do the maths.
Polpo, his first venue, opened in October 2009, in what can hardly be described as a high footfall location, in Soho. Yet, Polpo became an instant success. Polpetto followed in August 2010 and found a home on the second floor of a Pub close by. A location most operators would walk away from. Yet, Norman’s second venue also became a household name in Soho and beyond. Spuntino opened in March 2011, with as much acclaim as its sister restaurants. Da Polpo, his latest venue, opened this month close to Convent Garden Market and was, this time, reported in most of the mainstream publications.
But there is more to his success than the smart use of Twitter. Norman has developed a distinctive style aimed at a particular group of like-minded customers. Very relevant for the more price conscious, but quality focused consumer, who isn’t in search of glitzy space, but likes homely comfort.
Enter his latest venue ‘Da Polpo’ and you will understand what I mean about distinctive style. I was already very comfortable with what I would find from other visits to Polpetto and Spuntino but went with an open mind and an empty stomach!
So what can you expect? Lets start with the staff. Many of them look like the kind of people you see on the street in London. But again, don’t be mistaken. Our ‘server’ was a little wine connoisseur and provided us with a taster of a bottle of Custoza 2009, which she described as ‘cracking’ and cracking it was, so we had the whole bottle (£26.50). Menu descriptions were short and left a lot of room for imagination, but our ‘server’ was also a little Gourmet and navigated us with bravado through the menu.
The menu was broken down into sections such as Cicheti, Pizzette, and less intimidating sections such as Meatballs, Mains and Desserts. Cicheti turned out to be bite-sized snacks, which are traditionally found in Venetian wine bars. We sampled ‘Arancini’ (£2.50), which were deep-fried Risotto balls with Mozarella, and Potato & Parmesan Crocchetta (£1.50) to start with. Subtle in flavour and nicely seasoned, the type of snack I could probably never get bored off. The Fritto Misto (£8.00) arrived shortly after and was a mix of squid, anchovies and prawns deep-fried in a heavenly thin and crispy batter.
Our first Pizzette to arrive was topped with Spinach and a raw egg yolk on the top (£5.50). A simple combination, but the silky egg yolk gave a very nice texture to the dish. However, the second Pizzette (£6.00) to arrive was more to my liking. A thin and crusty base topped with slices of grilled Mortadella, smelly Gorgonzola cheese and pickled radicchio to balance the richness of the dish. Meatballs, or Polpette in Italian, were honoured with its own section on the menu. We sampled two varieties, classic beef & pork and a vegetarian variety made of Chickpeas, spinach and ricotta. Both varieties of Polpette were big, fat and juicy and arrived covered in a tangy tomato sauce. The Calf’s liver (£7.00) and grilled sirloin (£8.50) were mouth watering tender. The grilled asparagus with soft scrambled egg and Parmesan (£7.50) rounded up our selection of savoury dishes.
We decided to fill the little bit of space we had left in our stomachs with something sweet. We had a ”traditional” choice of Tiramisu, but thought it would be a good dish to benchmark against the other hundreds of Tiramisu’s we had in our lives. The dessert was served in the same type of glass used for wine (very resourceful) and had a bold coffee flavour. We also went adventurous with the ‘Nutella’ Pizzette, which was, as the name indicated, covered with Nutella!. I was told afterwards (by Italians of course) that this is in fact a common dish that can be found in restaurants and cafes throughout Italy. Italians are known for being obsessed with Pizza and Nutella. It appears a logical evolutionary step to combine the two. Affogato al caffe (£2.50), the third choice was again a ‘classic’ Italian Coffee Culture dish made of a shot of hot espresso poured over a scoop of Vanilla Ice Cream. The perfect caffeine loaded finish needed after a marathon of food (what a tough job I have).
As expected, Norman’s newest addition again under-promised and over-delivered. At the end we left having spent £30 a head for the 4 of us including wine and service charge.
However, if you manage to restrain yourself, and don’t buy most of the menu, which I have difficulties with most of the time, you would get away spending a lot less.
Da Polpo – do it, and soon. Please, you will love it.