Devon review: Polpo Exeter

by Crumbs

30 May 2017

Red chicory, served with nutty Grana Padano, is slow-roasted to bring out the agrodolce (bittersweet) flavours that Venetians adore.

Exeter’s Guildhall Dining Quarter has seriously upped its game with its latest, and final, addition, Polpo,
reckons Charlie Lyon

Refreshing, isn’t it, when things turn out better than expected? Hopes were always high for Exeter's Guildhall Dining development, which saw the historical market building, more recently used as a shopping centre, regenerated into a light-filled space with original features unearthed. Although not as ‘artisan’ as first predicted, London brands like Turtle Bay, Absurd Bird and Comptoir Libanais moved in and were welcomed with open arms by Exonians. Good to see South West-born brand The Stable in the mix too. The last space was originally promised to MeatLiquor, but apparently ‘financial troubles’ put paid to that. Within a few minutes of receiving a call about the vacant lot, Polpo founder Russell Norman, who’d had an interest in the location from the off, booked a train ticket from London to have a look; 24 hours later the deal was done, and the team started working on the opening.

“I love the city, and feel it has that perfect balance of culture, sophistication, beauty and energy,” Norman says. And its these qualities that Polpo brings to thedevelopment that MeatLiquor, and its dirty dude food, could not have done. “For everyone at Polpo, it’s very important that we contribute to the culinary life of Exeter, too,” reckons Norman. And this is one thing that sets Polpo apart from its neighbours. Norman is committed to staff development, and the chefs here are given a chance to shine. From cheese-making trips in Italy to in-house training in London, the guys here are fed inspiration constantly. Nothing comes from a central kitchen, and chefs are trained to produce each exquisite plate perfectly on site.

They’re given their deserved limelight in the restaurant too, which has a central open kitchen. There’s at-counter seating, plus a mix of booths and tables around. This place really is a thing of beauty, modelled on the backstreet bacaros, or wine bars, of Venice, with red leather banquettes, salvaged oak timber and Victorian glazed tiles. The ceiling is forged from painted tin tiles, imported from America as was traditional in the 19th century; these things were popular due to their fire-retardant qualities.

When it comes to food, the team are still busy setting up new local suppliers, and some of the typically Venetian specialities are imported. The marinated baby octopuses (£4.20), for example – from the cicheti (or Venetian snacks) menu, which we begin with – are one of these imports. They’re tender and moreish, unbelievably fresh despite the shipping, with onion and white wine vinegar adding zing but allowing their sweetness to shine through. We wash them down with a bellini (£6.50) that’s flavoured with just a hint of fresh peach.

Panzanella (£4.40) is next, the plate piled high with colourful heritage toms, huge basil leaves and bread juicy with fruity oil, yet still retaining a good bite. As well as appetisers, breads, salads and veg dishes, the menu has hearty plates too. The roasted sea bream (£8.40) comes with the crispiest skin, salted perfectly so there’s no need to consider scraping it aside. The white flakes are juicy and full of flavour, as are the brown shrimp, served up perfectly pink, that ride atop it. The oil is Mediterranean and light, and there’s a supersonic citrus zing that cuts through everything to leave the palette clean. The fennel underneath is rich with fishy flavours.

A pork chop (£8) is huge and tender, cut easily by a knife in one swift motion. It sits proudly on a bed of white beans, perhaps overly salted for some, but savoury and moreish all the same. A hint of wild garlic from two verdant leaves runs through the dish. Red chicory, served with nutty Grana Padano, is slow-roasted to bring out the agrodolce (bittersweet) flavours that Venetians adore. This is peasant food elevated to something worthy of a royal table.

Desserts are traditional and refined – a fresh Aperol sorbet (£4); a small glass of light and creamy tiramisu (£4.80) – as well as tantalisingly modest, to ensure you’ll return for more.And return we shall, whether it’s for aperitifs and cicheti, a drawn-out dinner, or to take advantage of the all-day set menu. This is the venue to head for that promises elegance and refined dining, plus unbeatable value.

✱ Polpo Exeter, 18 Higher Market Guildhall, Queen Street, Exeter EX4 3FB; 01392 422439;