Double-edged swords rarely come much sharper than hype. Tapes N Tapes will tell you that. As will Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. As will, come April 2012, The Vaccines. The Twang are currently telling that to anyone who will listen (which is no-one). Everybody wants a bit of praise and a modicum of respect but too much of anything is usually a bad idea (except perhaps Gruyère and Rioja). Get too much hype too fast and you risk a backlash that cancels out all the positives and lands you back before square one.
Russell Norman could barely breathe for all the compliments when he opened dinky Venetian tapas place Polpo. I half expected him to be carried forth through the streets of Soho atop the shoulders of Jay Rayner and (yes, really) A A Gill before getting perched on Trafalger Square’s fourth plinth and turned to stone for endless worship as a monument to decent, affordable, exciting cooking in central London.
Rather than crumble under the expectation he followed it up immediately with more of the same, the perhaps even better Polpetto, and just to prove he’s no two trick pony, here comes Spuntino, a miniscule diner based around small sharing plates but with a New York flavour.
And of course there’s all manner of praise online for the backlash-resistant restaurateur. The always-entertaining Grumbling Gourmet waxed lyrical on the sliders and mac cheese while Hugh at Twelve Point Five Percent admits to jonesing for the deep-friend olives. Nutella pizza and lamb sliders impressed Gourmet Chick the most while zucchini pizza was perfection for Greedy Diva. London Eater’s pictures and Cheese & Biscuits’ description of the truffled egg toast sealed the deal, we were off to try it.
The Spuntino website feels like the Radiohead site the day of a big release. Well aware of the countless eyes pointing its way, it merely offers the restaurant’s name, location, and opening hours. “No telephone, no reservations”. What more do you need? Why list the menu when 1200 others already have? Build and they will come. Everything you need is right there, in a simple buzzing font transposed over a rusted metal background, and in the words of mouths across the capital. It’s smart, understated, knowing and deceptively very well thought out. Much like the place itself.
Laissez-Faire described the atmosphere at Spuntino as “achingly hip but self-conscious of this fact…but not in an annoying way” and that pretty well sums it up. Stripped back walls reveal white bricks they claim they uncovered when renovating (I suspect they were shipped in), the trademark tiled ceiling looks down on weak orange lamps, a group of tatt victims looking like a vintage rockabilly band serve cocktails.
Our server was a friendly dude straight outta Bushwick in an Anthrax t-shirt (I thought it would be churlish to ruin the mood and ask if he prefered ‘Spreading The Disease’ or ‘Among The Living’) while the kid bringing the actual plates out was wearing sunglasses indoors. While bringing plates out. Not sure what the dress code specifications on his employment contract are but I guess that was his own embellishment. Either way, they eventually disappeared, and somehow Spuntino’s laissez faire ambience made me want to shake his hand rather than sneer. Today’s free popcorn was sage and garlic, a surprisingly moreish combo, while filter coffee (the only coffee they do) came in camping mugs, came cold, then came hot but late, but came on the house.
Spuntino’s food has been sold (by other people) as sort of Italio-American sharing bites, which is, it turns out, the technical term for kids’ party food: burgers, pizzas, eggs and soldiers, mac cheese, stringfellow fries (they’re called ‘shoestring’ here: they’re stringfellow). Egg-wise I went for the boiled with soldiers, which was shell-less and encased in breadcrumbs. Not, sadly, the finest boiled egg I’ve ever had but the buttered toast was divine. We caught a whiff of the much-celebrated truffle egg toast as it was passed in front of us and decided to move on to sliders*, which thankfully didn’t smell of builder’s armpit, and were indeed beef and marrow patties of joy that had just-burnt orange cheese actually fused into the flesh. The whole thing was piping hot and burst with juice on bite – expertly done.
A zucchini, mint and red chilli pizzeta demonstrated the expert flavour clashes so renowned at Polpo on a crispy base while cheddar grits were an incongruous but tasty warm, gloopy side. They improved with every spoonful. And while it’s hard to go wrong with peanut butter, ice cream and raspberry jam on the same plate, the PBJ – peanut butter and jelly – sandwich was supreme, a “peanut butter reduction mixed with milk and ice cream and reset in old cake tins” according to the pseudo-metalhead server, sprinkled with peanut brittle and much jousted over by my sister and I.
So another triumph, this time in an alleyway you’d previously only visit for your bondage gear. The question is though, when does it end? At what point does the extension of an awesome idea become an overstretched franchise? When does Russell’s enthusiasm turn into a ubiquitous cash cow? Somehow I think he has a fair few more truly great joints up his sleeve first.
Price per head: £13.50 (should eat out at teatotal time more often)
Soundtrack: Unobtrusive folk troubadours
Clientele: A surly, showy woman was replaced by two girls with cameras on our table of six – I suspect I’m not the last person to pop in for blog fodder.
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