West End bar food with a difference
There are plenty of chain and independent restaurants in London, but some straddle this distinction such as the various, apparently independent Polpo restaurants that are all actually part of the same group. Although I have yet to make my way to Polpo or Da Polpo, I have dined at sister restaurants Polpetto and Mishkin’s. I greatly enjoyed the Venetian small plates at Polpetto and was broadly pleased with the neo-Jewish cooking at Mishkin’s, so I had high hopes for Spuntino, an outpost of the burgeoning Polpo empire that I had shamefully overlooked.
I visited Spuntino with the Euro Hedgie on a weekday lunchtime and we arrived early to snag a spot which is essential – the place filled up almost to capacity very quickly. Apart from a handful of tables for small groups, the seating consists of stools around a bar so Spuntino is really only suitable for lone diners and people with one or two friends looking for a quick bite rather than somewhere to linger.
What will prove really divisive however is the decor. The worn and chipped tiles, exposed metal fittings, bare light bulbs, antique prints and zinc topped bar will strike you either as grunge chic or pretentious depending your level of chip-on-shoulder class aggro and overstated, self-imposed, ineffectual and ultimately self-destructive sense of socioeconomic inferiority (banned Comments trolls, I’m looking at you).
The service was helpful and efficient, although it did help that we were among the first to arrive that lunchtime. While awaiting our mains, the Hedgie and I snacked on the chilli popcorn, although those bland chunks of nothingness were unimpressive.
Although Spuntino’s menu, which changes fairly frequently, does have some of the same Italian and Venetian dishes available at its sister restaurants, the focus here is on more American/Italian-American-ish dishes. That quintessentially American dish, the hamburger, is present, but our eyes were drawn to the mini versions (or ‘sliders’ as Americans insist on calling them). We tried all four and one of the best is the pulled pork mini burger which is moist, tangy, a bit salty and slightly smoky. It’s very good – almost on par with Pitt Cue’s pulled pork.
The other stand-out mini burger is the bone marrow and ground beef burger. Coarsely ground, it’s dense, fatty, moist and lightly peppery. Very moreish – if the full-size 5oz burger is anything like this then my waistline will be in trouble.
Sadly, the other two mini burgers weren’t nearly as good. The tantalising lamb and pickled cucumber burger turned out to be inexcusably bland. The spiced mackerel burger was more divisive. The Hedgie wasn’t fond of this minced fish patty, decrying its detexturised state and branding it as a limp Thai fishcake in a burger’s clothing. While it wasn’t up to the standards of the first two burgers, I wasn’t quite so damning – the zesty, slightly salty patty may not have a lot of depth of flavour, but it’s not nearly as a bad as a Thai fishcake.
We couldn’t dine at a Polpo group restaurant without trying the signature dish of cuttlefish cooked in its own ink which seems to be available at almost all of them apart from Mishkin’s. The consistency of the dish seemed off though – the cuttlefish seemed firmer and the ink-based sauce tangier towards the middle of the dish. The addition of broad beans seemed like an afterthought too. It wasn’t bad once I got to the centre, but overall this seems like a less-accomplished version of the similar dish available at Polpetto.
More satisfying was the spicy sausage and grits, even though the sausage wasn’t spicy in the slightest. The sausage chunks did have the benefit of being dense and fatty though which proved to be the perfect accompaniment to the coarse, buttery grits.
One of the most interesting parts of Spuntino’s menu is the dessert section and I’ll go back if only to try the rest of it. The peanut butter and jelly sandwich isn’t nearly as mundane as it sounds. The ‘bread’ is actually a pair of triangular peanut butter-flavoured nougat pieces. Although it’s pleasing enough, it doesn’t have anything remotely resembling the visceral tang or viscosity of real peanut butter. The jelly/jam filling is more like a compote and a rather unmemorable fruit compote at that. An interesting failure.
Far more successful was the creme fraiche ice cream with pickled cranberries and shortbread. The heavy creaminess of the ice cream would be rather boring on its own, but it’s glorious when combined with the tart sourness of the cranberries while the buttery shortbread adds some more variation in texture with its crumbliness. Good stuff.
There’s clearly some sterling work going on in the Spuntino kitchen, but this isn’t reflected in all the dishes. For every star like the pulled pork burger or the creme fraiche ice cream, there’s a dud like the lamb and pickled cucumber burger or something interesting but flawed like the PB&J. Although Spuntino is still worth going to, without more consistent quality from the kitchen it’s only really bothering with if you happen to be in Soho and the queue isn’t too long. A heavy hearted three stars.
Address: 61 Rupert Street, London, W1D 7PW
Phone: not listed
Opening Hours: Monday-Saturday 11.00-midnight and Sunday noon-23.00.
Reservations: not taken.
Total cost for one person including free tap water when shared between two people: £25 approx.