Chef Florence Knight takes us behind the process of reopening her venue Polpetto

When Polpo's little sister outgrew the French House, Knight resolved to look for larger premises...

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Indy Lifestyle Online

At the outset, Polpetto was just the little sister of Polpo [Russell Norman's wildly successful Venetian bàcaro], serving essentially the same menu and, until 2012, was situated above the French House, a pub steeped in history, in the heart of London's Soho. The dining room was meticulously pieced together with a rusty tin ceiling, red banquettes, old bentwood chairs and miscellaneous antique light fittings. We did well there, but it was clear that we were going to need more room and so we resolved to look for larger premises; as it happened, I had a book to write, so we closed for a while.

During the hiatus, I resolved that the new Polpetto would celebrate simplicity, flavour and texture. We would take inspiration from old paper, antique books, curved glass and worn linens. Above all, we would work hard to create something unique, warm, feminine, delicate and welcoming, with a few delightful surprises.

The restaurant would ultimately find a home on Berwick Street in Soho, firmly embedded in the local marketplace with its trading traditions and unique atmosphere. A beautiful marble-topped bar would sit quite centrally in the restaurant, the perfect place to enjoy an 'aperitivo' and to watch the world go by.

So here is the story of how we came to find our site, build our new restaurant and open the new Polpetto in February 2014...

The search begins – February 2013

We closed the old Polpetto in February 2012 and we then had numerous failed attempts to find a new location for the restaurant. We had visited sites all over Soho (it had to be Soho) and we'd seen fairly promising locations such as a redundant Indian restaurant in Denman Street and a poorly performing Italian on Old Compton Street – but for one reason or another, things just hadn't worked out. Then finally, almost a year to the day since we closed, we received a call from an agent offering us an almost perfectly-proportioned space in the middle of the West End. The site consisted of two elongated 800sq ft boxes sitting broadly on top of each other in Soho's market district.

We had to keep a very open mind as we leered into the metal carcass of the building as it was undergoing extensive works. They were excavating the basement, knocking through walls and completely restructuring the building. We would be left with concrete floors and bare fire-boarded walls to work from.

It being in Soho and competition for restaurant real estate being fierce, things would not be as simple as making an offer and taking the space. We quickly discovered there were at least 10 other interested parties and were informed that the landlords were organising a beauty pageant before they made their decision.

The 'pitch' – April 2013

If truth be told, the odds were stacked against us. Our company, Polpo Ltd, owned by 'Restaurant Man', Russell Norman and his business partner, Richard Beatty, had recently won a pitch for a site that has now become the Ape & Bird Public House on Shaftesbury Avenue, so we were aware that there might be some fatigue with us on the part of the landlords. There were also a lot of other heavy-hitters bidding.

I was pitching for the site with Russell and I remember walking down to the offices of Shaftesbury Estates PLC, through Soho, on a grey, wet day in early April, feeling very nervous indeed.

I'd never done anything like it before so I just fell back on my chef's training. Good preparation, some fresh ideas and 'keep it relevant'. We'd prepared mood boards, sample menus and I had baked some brownies which I thought might sweeten their attitude towards us.

The pitch started well, had a very positive middle and ended with copious compliments for my brownies. Smiles all round. My heart then sank when they informed us that we had two or three excruciating weeks to wait before a decision was made. We had been first and they still had nine presentations to see before they made their call.

Open for business: Diners at the new Polpetto in Soho (Carol Sachs)

A site at last – 25 April 2013

The landlords were as good as their word, and they called to let us know they were very excited about the prospect of a new Polpetto on Berwick Street. We were all taken aback. And so the negotiations began. Working through the legal implications of a new lease is a laborious process and fortunately something I didn't have to get involved with. It was going to take some months before we would be able to sign officially and it would be 10 months of hard work to prepare both the site and the menu before we could open to the public.

Planning – May 2013

We started with brainstorming sessions – in particular with Russell and Richard, but I talked to a lot of people, especially about the menu and ingredients. The walls of the office and my house became covered with pictures of glassware, plates, linens, fixtures, menu notes and drawings.

Turning plain brick walls and concrete floors into a fully functioning restaurant is no easy task, but fortunately our team had done it all before. All the key players knew their roles and our contractors had long ago understood our requirements so things progressed well.

Sharp menu: A Polpetto lemon tart (Carol Sachs)

Building delays and menu rewrites – August 2013

As time went by it was clear that, as a result of various building and legal delays relating to the licence, we weren't going to open before the critical Christmas period. We discovered that there was no allocation of space for an extractor fan on the exterior of the building, and so it would have to go inside the kitchen. This was a serious drawback as the kitchen seemed to be getting smaller and smaller each time I visited. There were also longer lead times on key pieces of equipment than we expected, and so ultimately it was decided that we would open at the end of January 2014.

The opening-time change meant that I was rewriting menus regularly, as things were rapidly going out of season, but I became obsessive about finding new ingredients and working on flavour combinations to match them.

Finding suppliers – September/October 2013

I follow the seasons, almost religiously. It is logical that ingredients always taste better when in season, whether it's white currants, bobby beans, sloe berries, quinces, acorns, cocoa beans or nettles. My approach to cooking has always relied on a few central ingredients – three at the most, or four at a push. I take great pride in subtracting things from dishes rather than adding.

As I rely on ingredients rather than heavy preparation techniques, the suppliers are crucial. They are really what make the menu so special. With simple food, it is particularly important that you buy the best-quality ingredients that you can get your hands on.

Knight says: 'There were tastings after tastings that left my head reeling with ideas' (Carol Sachs)

Working out the offer – November 2013

I now knew that I would be opening in February, so I immediately set to work on the final menu. I was in limbo land. No kitchen, no staff and no finalised dishes. Everything was up in the air and I had many sleepless nights. There were tastings after tastings that quite often left my head reeling with ideas.

Finally, dishes started to take shape. I was introduced to winter tomatoes that tasted unlike any tomato I had tasted before; salty from the soil they nestle near to, crisp and even nutty. I quickly decided the only way to celebrate these was to have them sliced simply into pieces, dressed with a thick, grassy olive oil and nothing else. I sourced what I believe is the best burrata I've ever eaten and spooned over warm agretti and chilli.Tender bacon chops were to be basted in foaming butter and finished with a dollop of whitty pear butter and toasted walnuts. Hare was slowly braised overnight and mellowed with cocoa powder. Hand-dived scallops were seared in a smoking pan and cushioned on a velvety cauliflower purée then draped with lardo. Pink radicchio, with its cupped leaves, was gently coated with shredded orange, thick honey and mustard.

I'd been trying to perfect a flourless chocolate flan for months. A few days before we opened, I cracked it.

Completion – December 2013

The end of the build crept up on us and before I knew it kitchen equipment was being commissioned, there was the hum of the extractor, a noise I was so familiar with, coffee machines were being installed and brass fittings attached to the front door. I had a restaurant, suppliers and a menu and no one to cook it!

Finishing touches: Burrata with agretti and chilli (Carol Sachs)

Finding the right team – January 2014

The task of selecting a team began with interviews running all through January. I recruited chefs who shared my passion for ingredients and who had showed a definite commitment to doing something different, working to a high standard and were determined to make their mark in their respective areas of expertise. Once we had the new recruits on board, I set about the task of whipping them into shape. Trying and retrying dishes until we got it right. We had two solid weeks of trial and error, but I could tell we were quickly turning into an effective team. I knew the first few weeks and months would be tough, so this preparatory period, learning to work together, overcoming any weaknesses and perfecting our menu, was absolutely crucial.

Doors open – February 2014

At last the day of the opening came. The culmination of a year of planning, building and worrying. We had decided on a 'gentle opening'. A few close friends and family members to start with and then no announcements, just an open door and a menu in the window. Now the real hard work was to begin.

Recipes from Polpetto

Veal cheeks, white wine and fennel

Veal cheeks are the softer, more subtle version of beef cheeks and are more tender and toothsome. It takes a little time to prepare and braise the meat, but the results are worth waiting for. Fennel is one of my favourite vegetables and the little hint of aniseed really brings out the best in the veal.

4 veal cheeks, trimmed and silver skin removed
3tbsp '00' flour
A large pinch of salt
A few grinds of black pepper
1tbsp olive oil
4tbsp good-quality extra virgin olive oil
3 white onions, peeled, halved and sliced
A large pinch of flaky salt
4 good-quality Spanish anchovies in olive oil
3 large cloves of garlic, whole and bashed
5 sprigs of thyme, chopped
3 sprigs of rosemary, chopped
1 bay leaf, torn in half
2 large bulbs of fennel, halved, cored and sliced into 2cm pieces
375ml good-quality white wine
1 tin of plum tomatoes
500ml light chicken stock
1 can of good-quality cannellini beans, drained and rinsed

Preheat the oven to 140C. Combine the flour, salt and pepper and set aside on a tray.

Dust the veal cheeks in the seasoned flour. Heat the oil in a large, shallow pan over a medium-high heat. Cook the veal cheeks in two batches, until browned on both sides. Don't be tempted to keep moving the meat in the pan. Once the cheeks are evenly coloured, remove them from the pan and set aside.

In a new pot, pour in the olive oil and reduce the heat to a low flame. Add the onions, along with a good pinch of salt, and stir to combine. Then place a lid on the pan for 10 minutes, until the onions are soft with no colour. Stir in the anchovies until they've melted into the onions and disappeared, followed by all the chopped herbs, chilli and bashed garlic. Cook the garlic out for 5 minutes to mellow the flavour.

Add the sliced fennel and cook for a further 5 minutes. Pour over the white wine, stirring to loosen particles from the bottom of pan, and cook over a high heat until reduced by half. Add the chicken stock, and bring to a boil again for a further 2 minutes.

Carefully remove the pan from the heat. Lay the veal cheeks in a single layer into a deep baking tray or casserole pot and pour over the hot liquid until the cheeks are submerged. Remove the whole tomatoes from the tin, discarding the juice. Keeping the tomatoes whole, lay them evenly over the veal.

Bake, covered tightly with tin foil or a lid, at 140C. Check after 3 hours. The veal cheeks should hold their shape but have no resistance.

Use a slotted spoon to remove the cheeks and vegetables from the liquor. Reduce down the liquor until the sauce lightly coats the back of a spoon. Check the seasoning at this point and add more salt and chilli to your taste. Once happy, gently stir through the strained cannellini beans and pour back over the vegetables and cheeks.

Serve in shallow bowls with some fennel throngs.

Milk pudding, rhubarb and rose

Makes 4

Milk pudding is a much more delicate dessert than panna cotta and quite easy to make. We produce some of the best rhubarb in the world in the UK and its tartness pairs beautifully with the sweet fragrance of rose.

2x2g leaves of gelatine
150ml double cream
200ml whole milk
50ml buttermilk
3tbsp caster sugar (to taste)
4 dariole moulds
Vegetable oil to grease

For the rhubarb

300g rhubarb, cut into 5cm batons
6tbsp caster sugar
1 blood orange, juice squeezed and passed through a sieve
1tsp rose water
75g water

Begin by lightly greasing the dariole moulds and wiping out the excess with some kitchen paper and set aside.

Soak the gelatine leaves in cold water. Pour the cream into a pan followed by the sugar and place it over a medium heat. Stir until dissolved and then bring the cream to the boil. Once the cream begins to bubble remove it from the heat.

Squeeze all the excess water out of the gelatine and stir it through the hot cream and sugar mixture until it has dissolved.

Stir through the milk and buttermilk then pass the mixture through a fine sieve. Carefully pour into the moulds and place them in the fridge for at least 2½ hours, until set, but they still have a slight wobble.

Preheat the oven to 170C. In a bowl, mix the caster sugar, water, orange juice and rose water.

Lay the rhubarb batons evenly into the shallow baking tray.

Pour over the syrup and turn the rhubarb over so that they are covered in the syrup on both sides. Add the halved skins of the squeezed oranges.

Cover the tray with tin foil and bake for 10-15 minutes, until tender. The rhubarb should be soft but must keep its shape. This will vary depending on the size of the rhubarb, so best to check regularly.

Once out of the oven, remove the tin foil and allow the baking tray to cool over a wire crack. To help release the milk puddings from their moulds, lower them carefully into a bowl of hot water for a few seconds and run the tip of a sharp knife around the edge. Then upturn on to a small dish or saucer.

Nestle a few of the rhubarb pieces close to the wobbly pudding and spoon a little syrup on to the plate.