Northern Italian / ‘Peasant Food’
Polenta obsessives and pasta dismissives
Vegans and Vegetarians
Very hip young types and people who want to get on the Polenta trend
People seeking a filling, economical bite or two ( £7 for a restaurant main in London? yup!)
People running away from gluten into the arms of cornstarch
The low fat, high carb health crowd
Expats from the north of Italy (it supposedly developed there?)
In A Word
Down in lovely Soho, sandwiched between A & B, you shall find yourself a little piece of Northern Italy…
Neither restaurant nor cafe (though leaning more towards cafe), La Polenteria’s name means, roughly, ‘the place that does polenta’. And yes, when it comes to ‘doing’ polenta – well…it…does…polenta. Lots…
La Polenteria’s decor is not particularly memorable, though if you look, there’s a collection of copper paiolos on the wall, which are used in the process of cooking polenta
The music? Medium loud – loud enough that you can hear it, but also loud enough that you can chat – (optimal loudness?). Odds are good that 50% of it will be Sting (make of that what you will).
Once you arrive, it does not take long for Friendly Waiter to come and see you (more about him later). This is inevitable. By design, the amount of tables is minimal, so even La Polenteria were jam packed, you’d probably still get plenty of attention. La Polenteria, though quiet this particular Monday evening, still seems to do a pretty strong business in takeaway – if the volume of people coming and going bearing food is anything to go by.
What’s the draw then? Well, Polenta is relatively economical for what you get – essentially you’re buying solid corn starch, presented alongside a number of traditional and not traditional foods. It’s also gluten free, and low fat – but if you’re doing the low carb thing RUN AWAY. This is not for you.
La Polenteria is, I suppose, a pretty ‘hip’ place – fast moving – a kind of casual ‘drop in for a bite to eat’ and not a ‘make a reservation’ kind of spot. It’s certainly not fast food, but the food arrives quickly, and customers come and go in quick succession around me. I seem to be in slow motion in comparison, anchored to my chair and taking the whole thing in with my eyes and my camera.
People watching is particularly good here. Here you find people in casual attire – perhaps woolly sweaters, or wielding the kind of massive backpacks that would cause some sort of epidemic of perpetually raised eyebrows, down in Knightsbridge. This is good, when you look like me – you fit right in.
La Polenteria’s clientele appears young and bohemian, which is, I suppose what you’d expect in this location and pricepoint. You have your ample selection of fashionably attired Soho young folks, the odd confused Asian who probably wandered too far from Chinatown, and then a few other people that I don’t know how to categorise (damnit).
Friendly Waiter tells us tales of media coverage, their writeup in the Telegraph (in which he became front page news – kinda cool) – how it’s usually not so busy on Mondays. Then he goes on to describe how he he also loves the fact that the low fat, gluten free nature of polenta ensures that the dining clientele are mainly female (and I think he’s right – I’m pretty sure that there was only one other guy dining there when I was about, and I’m 80% sure that he was the homosex)
Peoplewatching By The Cake Trap
La Polenteria’s local area marketing is handled by an array of cakes, some of them vegan, most of them (I think) made with cornflour as the base and exclusively gluten free. They are placed at the window – perfectly arrayed to arrest the eye of the passerby, and dare the casual onlooker to upgrade themselves to a serious consumer. Unfortunately, the conversion rate is pretty low, the baked confectionary definitely stopping people in their tracks, but as our waiter laments, they rarely come in to buy.
This does however create the best experience for anyone who enjoys peoplewatching, and at the window seat, I get what is possibly the best spot for cake related peopleswatching around this region of Soho. It becomes progressively more hilarious, seeing a sidelong glance become full on gawking as pedestrians take 3 seconds of consideration into if they want to get better acquainted with La Polenteria’s cakes.
At some point, Friendly Waiter asks me if one of these people snared by the window reminds me of Robin Williams in Bicentennial Man. I respond that I’m not sure, waiter goes on to explain why he enjoys the film so much. We bond a little over Isaac Asimov and a tray of tiny, bitesize miniature polentas.
I’ve not yet explained the waiters to you. Initially, there are two waiters. Friendly Waiter, and Quiet Waiter. Friendly works front of house and has the ability to engage everybody in conversation about everything, he has an industrial strength Italian accent. Quiet Waiter appears occasionally bearing food. He seems to be something of a gentle ghost – not making much conversation but always bearing delicious things. I never heard him speak.
How bout dat food then…?
Polenta is hearty, and polenta is filling. Everything here is served with Polenta, thus everything is hearty and filling. Combine a reasonable price point and it’s a pretty good combination, but fine dining this is not – and don’t expect silver service when you go there.
La Polenteria’s USP is that they’re out to show you how much stuff can be combined with Polenta. Some works better than others but you can’t say that they’re not adventurous in their approach.
The Polenta itself reminds me of semolina, having that same starchy comforting texture and flat taste, which is inoffensive enough to pair it with many things. I suppose it’s a bit more nutty in taste than semolina.
Here’s what we had (in recommended order of consumption)…
POLENTA WITH EVERYTHING
I guess it’s early days, and I suppose they picked both a tough industry and one of the toughest spots to lay out their shingle. Still, with their location, reasonable prices and niche appeal – they’ve got a lot going for them.
So yes, La Polenteria has price working in it’s favour, along with speediness of delivery and the ‘healthy angle’ that comes with their staple dishes. They’re also new, different and fun. What they don’t have in their favour is a limited selection of foods, and it’s almost complete reliance on the polenta as a staple in all the mains. It’s definitely a risky idea and one that has a very focused appeal.
The flavours and recipes are pretty simple, relative to most restaurants and fine dining establishments, but as long as people don’t confuse La Polenteria for what it’s not and appreciate it for what it does best (i.e various takes on polenta) .things should go well. All signs are good so far…
A: 64 Old Compton Street London W1d 4UQ
P: +44 (0) 20 7434 3617