It took a few moments for Jerry Traunfeld’s answer to sink in. Not quite two months? Is that really all the time that Poppy‘s been open? The smiling, but clearly tired, chef and owner of this hot new property on Capitol Hill assured me it was true. And he surely would know. I guess that’s one quirk of a restaurant that’s had as much anticipation as this one–from its first twinkle in Jerry’s eye dating to his departure from The Herbfarm in early fall 2007. The name, the location, the demolition/construction of the new space, the menu development…we’ve been along for the ride following all the strides toward this momentous opening. Makes it hard to forget that the just-opened restaurant hasn’t actually been opened longer.
In part, it’s because we know we’re in such good hands with Jerry. While the place certainly does deserve the break-in period any other new restaurant does, this chef hits the ground running after such a stellar run at his longtime Herbfarm post. Soft-spoken and low-key despite his high profile and national regard, Jerry seems very much to let his cooking speak for him perhaps more so that other chefs of his caliber. He presents himself with a quiet confidence that plays well on the plate.
Or platter, to be more accurate. Poppy’s MO follows that of the thali–an Indian presentation of small dishes of different flavors, colors and textures that contrast and complement each other. It’s rather like a tasting menu that you get all at once, so you can bounce back and forth between dishes as so inspired. The selections change daily, each with a theme. It was “a thali for a new puppy” on Friday night (or new rescue dog, as the case may be!). Eight of the ten dishes were set, including celery root pear soup, green goddess beet salad, cilantro naan and cauliflower with apple, dill and currants. The last two dishes–BC scallops with cider sauce and peanuts, and wagyu beef cheeks with toasted nut sauce–could be swapped out, one or both, for leek porcini and chestnut blintz, or chanterelle and sweet potato gratin. Between the four of us we tasted everything and pretty much everything sung strong with amazing flavors, distinctive textures, wonderful variety. And for a flat $32, it was a great value–both in terms of quantity and panache. We were full enough that one scoop of malted milk chocolate ice cream sufficed, deliciously so, for dessert.
Our dinner Friday night had started of with cocktails and snacks. To sip, we tried three: the Papi Delicious (a savory take on the margarita, with red bell pepper and jalapeno), the Pearaway (aquavit with belle de brillet pear eau de vie and dry vermouth) and Six Twenty Two (rye with amaro nonino, rhubarb and bitters). All were layered with great flavors, interesting, clever. Alongside we snacked on spice crispies (puffed rice with nuts), eggplant fries with salt and honey and a little delicate tart of leek, taleggio, Asian pear and tarragon. It’s was off to a great start within moments.
I love the new-meets-old interior, with the original high brick walls exposed and simple, contemporary furnishings. And Jerry managed to work a small herb garden into the plans, lovely, lush raised beds just outside the back door. You can take the chef out of The Herbfarm, but you clearly can’t take the herb farm out of the chef. Now, his menu may feature plenty of interesting fresh herbs but is also infused with a wider world of culinary influences, more spices, less fanciness, perhaps a little more simple purity at the core of the flavorful fare.