Lively yet relaxed, informal yet chic, Polpo, the final restaurant to arrive at Exeter’s new Queen Street dining quarter, has created an experience that is charmingly humble with a modest elegance that greets you before you even step through the door. Towering, real-flame patio heaters immediately catch your eye and an intriguing glass frontage lets you peer inside to see diners sipping on tempting young wines as they share plates of simple Venetian food. It’s as though you are in a place where stresses are left at the door, and as you enter inside and become immediately absorbed in the stripped-down chic interior with its worn tiles, cloth-draped light shades and authentic Venetian style ceiling, you soon see why.

On arrival you’re invited to have a drink at the central bar or head straight to your table. We tried a Belini – prosecco and peach puree – a light aperitif as we took in our surroundings. The mixture of booths, single tables and bar seating emphasises the informality of dining here whilst the subtle dividing walls between rows of tables give privacy without it seeming obvious.

Our welcoming server, Sarah, struck the perfect balance of friendly yet polite to make you feel both special and at ease. If, like me, this is your first time in a bacaro then you’ll be well looked after when browsing the menu. Sarah guided us through the menu making suggestions on how many dishes to order and offered personal recommendations to fit our tastes and appetite. Russell Norman, the entrepreneur behind Polpo, told us that while some dishes on the menu are not typically Venetian, such as his highly recommended braised cod cheeks, they all have the essence of Venice.

To start we selected two dishes from the appetizer menu, or ‘cicheti’ as it is known in a bacaro, opting for the Potato & Parmesan Crocchette (£2.50), Arancini (£2.50) and Deep Fried Olives (£3.40). Small, well presented and full of taste, these came out very quickly to whet your appetite for what lies ahead and made for a nice accompaniment with the large selection of wines and other drinks on the menu. The deep fried olives, stuffed with anchovies, were highly addictive. The initial crunch followed by a bitter inside keeps you coming back for more.

The Spicy Pork & Fennel Meatballs (£6.20) caught my eye for our main selection. Fennel can often overpower but I was pleased to taste just a hint in this dish, and the Grilled Garlic Pizza Bread (£2.00) that was suggested for mopping up any leftover sauce was light and flavourful. The Panzanella (£4.40), a summery salad of tomatoes and bread to soak up olive oil and balsamic, gave a fresh accompaniment and we also took Russell’s second recommendation of the Roasted Red Chicory & Grana Padano (£4.80). Polpo are passionate about using seasonal produce and the menu is constantly changing to reflect this so we were especially encouraged to try this dish as it would soon be out of season. Flavourful and adding another texture, this simple dish didn’t fail to impress.

For dessert, I was highly intrigued by the Chocolate Salami (£4.00). This unique dessert looks exciting and the party in your mouth when you take your first bite is even more exciting still! A dance of flavours and textures all come together perfectly and the touch of salt will have you salivating for your next bite.

Having fun pairing different dishes together will keep you coming back to Polpo as although there is no wrong combination, you’ll love experimenting with which dishes complement one another.

Polpo’s aim to recreate the charm of the authentic back street Venetian bacaro, a type of eatery where people can come in, sit down and enjoy a variety of small appetizers, has been highly successful. It’s not just about eating Venetian food, it’s about experiencing Venice.

Words & photos: Jake Tucker

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