(BlatherMunch is our Sunday foodish respite from political bias, media dish, snotty intenuendo, and liberal glee. For more essays on food & dining click here or 'BlatherMunch' in Categories).
Poppy 622 Broadway Ave. E., Seattle
It was the most hyped new restaurant since the French Laundromat. (Charlie Trotter's upcoming fast food joint).
Nationally worshipped Jerry Traunfeld, the gardening, food elf who shook the saute pans for 17 years at the sacred site in Woodinville, The Herbfarm finally got his own place; foodies were wet with anticipation.
In September, Traunfeld opened the 110-seat Poppy on Capitol Hill, named after his mom.
At Poppy, Traunfeld offers each diner a tray-like platter from India called a thali (pronounced tally) serving a single diner a variety of small dishes --at Poppy you get 10 or 11. They're like "small plates," or tapas -- so hot these days -- except everybody gets their own.
Poppy's thalis include one or two seasonal salads, (ours were a beet, fennel and lemon verbena; and a chicory salad with plums) a soup, (sunchoke, celery, and sage) one or two seafood or meat dishes, (we got one each: black cod w/savoy cabbage and matsutakes, and braised lamb w/huckleberry and wilted herbs) a couple of vegetable dishes (spicy chickpeas w/peppers and oregano; fingerling potatoes w/5 seeds) a whole grain pilaf (emmer, another name for farro) a flat bread (sumac-sesame naan) and something pickled (green tomato chutney). There are substitutions for the meat dishes for those in a vegetative state,. Cost: $32, or a smaller version for $22. Appetizers and desserts are available as are pairing with small flights of wines.
The restaurant is supposedly aimed at the sensibilities of the Y generation who are coming into their peak earning years, dominate the increasingly gentrified Broadway nabe and are stereotyped as lacking the commitment and therefore insistent on plenty of choices. (the brats)
Despite we might be too old and commit-prone to appreciate the place, we girded our bellyparts with wild anticipation and a truss, then fought the fair fight getting reservations at this the hottest joint in town.
Poppy, after all, should be an important restaurant.
We wanted to be knocked out by Poppy. It was being compared in advance to Vij's, the dazzlingly tasty and innovative Vancouver East Indian/West Coast restaurant at which we recently lost our socks in a 5-dish blow-off.
Traunfeld is a chef from the Martha Stewart belt in the the Jeremiah Tower galaxy, and of the New York Times Magazine, Food & [S]wine, Bon Appetit, Gourmet food panoply on the tu-toi with Coleman Andrews, and God almighty. He's written major cookbooks, has rare herbs growing from his crevices. We craved some wow.
But we were disappointed, and undersatisfied.
Service problems hit us right off, probably coloring this first impression. We were made to wait a half hour or so after our reservation time; were waved away from barstools by the bartender. Because we had dinner reservations, we didn't qualify as bar customers (that's kind of backwards). There was no overflow seating or even a place to get out of the bustle of the busy restaurant.
We felt in the way; we took a walk; we came back; we waited some more.
We weren't the only ones; there were 3 parties ahead of us. As diners finished and left, tables sat fallow and dirty, while coveys of slow bus-people pondered the setting of each table like it was an art installation. One of our party, started busing a table to the chagrin of a grumpy, incommunicative servoir. Svelte hostii stood gazing prettily into their podium monitor, making hopeful noises but neither pitching-in on the re-set nor offering real consolation like free drinks or a goddamn place to sit!
(We can forgive some of this -- Poppy is brand new and busy. But food blog commenters are having similar service experiences. Traunfeld, for lo, these last 17 years, hasn't had to worry about turning tables: The Herbfarm is a prix fixe, one-seating-a-night kind of place -- we hope Poppy's lack of urgency isn't endemic. When mean, hungry people are milling around and in the way, you hustle your ass to accommodate them).
When we were finally seated, there was a tiny goat cheese tartlet waiting on the table perhaps as a sop to our impatience, though I'm not sure that was the reason: our waitroid had no idea how or why it got there.
The controlled format may have set us up for disappointment. When the kitchen has so much control over what everyone eats, each part should be awesome. They were not awesome. The soup was just creamy, the pilaf was warm, the lamb was an undelicious black color from the huckleberries and cardboard-y on the outside like meat seared too long before the braising liquid was added. (We liked the chickpeas, though).
Poppy is not an Indian restaurant, and it's not Vij's. But no flavors jumped out and slapped us around as they should and do -- not just at Vij's, but even at traditional Indian joints or Chinese, or Thai or Japanese places or ... Lark, or Spur for that matter.
(photo: assembling the thalis)
Despite the hoards of help, the food was way too long in arriving. This seems unnecessary since none of the dishes were cooked to order, but rather a matter of dish-up, though that must be time-consuming with all the tiny little dishlets.
God knows the food didn't need to be hurried to be kept hot... it was room temperature. That's the way thalis are served in India, Traunfeld argues -- if that's true, by our lights, he needs to change that to conform to American tastes. We've learned over the years that many things we've always eaten too hot or too cold, are better served warm. But everything at Poppy: salads, braised meat, fish, pilaf come at exactly the same tepid temp. The World's Tiniest Architect and I (no intermediate eaters, we) found that off-putting, creepy even. Although this might not be fair, it added to the perception of middling. Some at our table wondered if it were a kitchen error.
At Mouthfuls, WTA writes:
In a restaurant where you can't really help but focus on the food - reputation and presentation so much in the forefront - it's boring when everyone has the same thing on their plate. Maybe the idea is that the dinner is about your company and conversation and the food is just to be eaten?
I missed the "risk" of not ordering the best thing, or even the thing I wanted the most. There is no "next time, I'm ordering what you had" since everyone has the same thing.
I have to wonder how much different the next meal will be from the one I ate. Sure, there will be a slight difference in the preparation of the salad, or the ingredients in the soup, but there is a formula that will be followed and subtle changes may not be enough.
On the other hand, I can't love something and go back and expect to have it again!
Perception of value, while not usually one of my considerations, became an issue because of the unremarkability of the foodstuffs. When the food is up to expectations or better, you forget about portions... Maybe I'm like the old lady in the joke complaining about the boarding house: "The food is terrible, and the portions are so skimpy!" At Poppy, you get a lot of dishes, but it began to feel overpriced (which it wasn't) when it turned out not to be fabulous.
The room is simple, and has a airy, open feel; windows take the turn around the corner, the lively Broadway street parade is the view. (Hey, btw, Broadway's coming back!)
When all you recall about the evening's food is the chickpeas, that's not fabulous, not awesome. I've worshipped in print at the altar of Jerry Traunsfeld before, and would love to again. Probably won't for awhile.
It's about being fabulous, Jerry, and getting the help to match.