Eatalian: Polpo, Smithfield

A vegetarian, a pescatarian, a picky eater and a glutton walk into a restaurant…

Of all the dining experiences on the annual social calendar, the work leaving do is one of those which is low down on the expectations list. There is an outside chance that this will be a time where you will all realise what good friends you could have become – or are – and to wallow in the sadness that is someone leaving, or it can further highlight how different all of you in a perilously small company are and to enjoy this formality as best you can.

Polpo is Venetian tapas, which I didn’t realise was such a thing until I moved to London. Oh the things I’ve learned as a Londoner. It has a Michelin Bib Gourmand, regularly features on the London blogosphere’s ‘Best Restaurant lists’, and the vegetarian and pescatarian both cited it among their favourite restaurants in the capital.

The picky eater allowed us to order as this “wasn’t really her type of restaurant. The places you take me are always a bit…hip.”

Decorated in the post-industrial near hipster decor that is prevalent across cities on both sides of the Atlantic, I suppose she may have had a point. Menus were printed on paper attached to clipboards, waiters had beer, and wine was served in cups. Usually there were queues, but our 6.25pm arrival, while too late for the 4pm – 6pm Happy Hour, was still too early for the post-work drinks diners. Plus, of course the curse of tapas that is sharing.

I enjoy sharing, and I enjoy hearing the recommendations of others, so the vegetarian and pescatarian took the reigns:

  • Stuffed fried olives (£3)
  • Marinated baby octopuses (£3) – this in favour of the Octopus Carpaccio (£8), as I had eaten something similar earlier in the week
  • Spinach, Parmesan & soft egg Pizzette (£8)
  • Classic beef and pork meatballs (£6)
  • Chickpea, spinach & ricotta “meatballs” (£7)
  • Fritto misto (£9)
  • Fried gnocchi, rainbow chard pesto & young pecorino (£6)

I was the only person that could sample all of the dishes, which were fresh and offered some complexity of flavours and textures. I can see what the fuss is about, but I am still yet to be converted. There was no real satisfaction to the eating; instead I was left admiring the sourcing of produce and cooking techniques – an academic rather than an emotional response to the food – while trying to elegantly split a meatball.

A meatball is a meatball is a meatball. The vegetarian, who is part Italian, said that she doesn’t usually like Italian restaurants but the sauces in Polpo are outstanding. Her meat-eating boyfriend said that the meatballs were the best he ever had. She conceded that this meal was less good than her previous one. It certainly wasn’t my best meatball experience, though I can’t remember what was. They were pleasant enough, but will forever fade away into my memory as the meatball that failed to live up to expectations.

Eating out is about socialising, and tapas more than most other foods ups this social ante. It had been apparent throughout the year that we weren’t a particularly social office, but this was even more so when spending an extended period of time together in relatively close quarters. In fact, each of my three dining companions said unprompted at different stages of the meal that they were “awkward”, “not a people person” and “not very social”. Nonetheless, we spoke about work, travel, life, and they gave me a thoughtful leaving present.

“Thanks, I’m touched. But also I’m not very good with real feelings, so fuck you all!”

It was the most that I have ever liked them.

We split the bill, a concept that usually I am not in favour of, but the person that eats most wins in the game of going Dutch. I am sure the picky eater, who ate 1/2 a meatball, a slice of pizzette, some gnocchi and a fauxball was perturbed at her bill share. Social and culinary enjoyment is the heart of tapas, so when this is lacking from your dining companions there is only so much that your enjoyment can reach.

Having now left London, I do not regret quitting at all. I am, however, still disappointed in never having found an Italian of choice.




We’re Hawksmoor People Now

Ever since our initial jaunt to Gaucho around Christmas, Hans and I made a vow to try Hawksmoor so that we could once and for all decide the steak king. It would have to be a special occasion, as steak deserves its own special occasion, so we chose birthday. Mine is April 19th, his May 3rd.We visited on 30th June.

In the intermittent time, I went to Black and Blue, the Accountant’s choice for best steak. As usual I went rib-eye, which was large and chewy and at medium-rare started to become a challenge to eat. More cooking may have dissolved some of the fat, as may have their sourcing of better meat. For the £28 you may have got chips and a side salad, but I would rather have paid the extra £10 for a Hawksmoor or Gaucho any day.

With its black, plush decor and beautiful Latino waiting staff, Gaucho has a stylish severity to it. Hawksmoor on the other hand is unashamedly a steak house: hardwood and check shirts sticks in the mind. The staff were I would dare say friendlier, but more approachable may be the more accurate description. Gaucho had a tighter-dressed crowd (take from that what you will), while Hawksmoor had after-workers and awkward double dates, though maybe this is more representative of the weekday vs. weekend crowd.

Aside: I won a free meal at MeatLiquor through Instagram. £30 for two people. We ordered the first four things on the menu (philly cheese steak (which was 60/30/10 mushrooms/bread/steak), Jack Daniels burger, cajun fries, South African chicken wings). The decor was intense. The music was loud. There were a lot of families, surprising for this non-family friendly place. I found a PDQ machine in the toilet. A man at the table next to us ate a burger and was the most attractive I have ever seen anyone eating anything, all meat, muscles and motivation. It was the most disappointing meal I have had in London, but the price was right.

Hans’s dad had proudly proclaimed Hawksmoor as the best steak in London. Another of my friend’s said that Hawksmoor was “marginally” better. The man at the table next to us was having his steak with a regular knife. Watching him cut the steak made tears come to my eyes: like a stick of butter through some slightly warmer butter.

Rump, ribeye, two types of chips, a bottle of Malbec. Both steaks were outstanding, though either we weren’t sophisticated enough to tell much difference between them or had imbibed too heavily.

“Is this what good wine tastes like?”

“Have you never had good wine?”

“I guess not. I like wine. Who knew?! It’s so meaty. Three orgasms for how this tastes with the steak.”

Three days later Hans would return to Gaucho (the special occasion being that he had a date who was willing to pay) and verify that Gaucho had the better steak.

Hawksmoor had the better Malbec (surprising as Gaucho is Argentinian) and the triple cooked chips and ketchup are the best of either that I have ever tasted.

Hans threw some water onto to the seat behind him but nobody mentioned anything. We still belong.

I had a conversation with the waitress about the meat being sourcing. She was impressed with my knowledge and I with hers. Documentaries taught me everything I know.

From the decor to the meat board to the steak – with its variety, texture and taste – Gaucho was our heart and soul, but a bottomless brunch was a step too far and we are no longer welcome there.

Hans’ dad revisited Hawksmoor and said the Chateaubriand is the best thing he had ever eaten. Hans and I could have ordered better. Next time, Chateaubriand and a side of bone marrow, for our proxy favourite steak place.


End Aside: my friend in Stoke suggested a steak place in Stoke for her birthday. Oh how I laughed. We went to a pub instead. It was fine, though our other two dining companions said that they liked their steak well done and I left (mentally).



No Harmo in Some Parmo

I went to visit my Aunt in Yarm. She and I aren’t very close, and this weekend visit totalled more time that we had spent together than in the rest of my life. It was nice.

The weekend itinerary was as follows:

Whitby: lot of goths; best fish and chips in the country.

Durham: sound cathedral and cake, though I was outraged at having to pay extra for cream on a scone. Whipped cream, not clotted. Outraged.

Darlington: hide in an alley.

Yarm: lover’s walk, for family.

On the second evening she took me to her local pub for the Teesside specialty of Chicken Parmesan. We had nachos to start. Our family has a famously large appetite for such small Chinese people.

“There aren’t any all you can eat restaurants in Hong Kong. They would be out of business very quickly.”

She went for the standard Parmo. I went for the hotshot, which came with jalapenos, chorizo and a spicy sauce on top of the already artery-clogging breaded chicken and cheese. She had only had a Parmo once before, from her local takeaway. This was better. Having tried both Parmo and Hotshot I would recommend the Hotshot, though I like sauce and spice so of course I would.


Real food. Hearty food. I finished everything except five chips. I thought I was going to collapse. Good work, Teesside. I don’t know how you aren’t all dead.

The pub, village, and overall trip were all lovely (“lovely”. What an inoffensive adjective), with the north east of England having perhaps the most attractive train journeys outside of the Highlands. This is Real England, and it is awful and awe-ful in equal measure.


The Pot and Glass, Church Rd, Egglescliffe Vilage, Stockton-on-Tees TS16 9DQ