Friday, September 19, 2008

Dinner for eight. Poppy.

For many Seattle foodies, Jerry Traunfeld, chef and writer of several cookbooks, (formerly of the Herbfarm, probably the most renowned Pacific Northwest restaurant) is something of a god. They swear by his recipes for unusually spiced vegetable dishes and herb-infused ice creams and when he announced that he was leaving the restaurant that made his name to open his own place, the city (or it seemed to me) was in a fever of anticipation for several months. This was particularly exciting for me, since I have never eaten at the Herbfarm, because my mother found it pretentious. It had a long waiting list for a reservation, an even longer list of instructions for dining there, and a menu that seemed to go on forever. Once, she went as far as booking a table, but when they started telling her all about the restaurant over the phone, she got fed up with all the details and canceled our reservation. Years went by, and somehow I never got around to trying it on my own. Now I was intrigued by the news that not only was Traunfeld opening his own restaurant, but that it would be in Capitol Hill, where I do most of my eating.

First, we heard that the restaurant would be called Poppy. Then, I read that it would occupy space at the north end of Broadway and would serve an Indian-inflected menu, inspired by Jerry's recent trip to that far eastern subcontinent. I would drive past the huge windows and see the ongoing construction inside. Opening dates were bandied about; rumors of a soft opening floated around. At last, the opening night was confirmed - last Saturday - and a few days later, G. called. G. is a friend of my mother's, and one of the few in her mostly conservative Taiwanese circle of friends who is eager to seek out and try Western food. Her son is a friend of mine, and he is a chef/foodie extraordinaire. (Whenever we meet, we spend the entire time talking about whatever restaurants we've tried since we last saw each other). When she invites me to dinner, I say, yes please. This is perfect. If it were left to me weeks, or months would pass by before I ventured out to the far end of Broadway to try this new place.

I am early, so I choose to wait at the bar, and instead of nervously sipping ice water or asking for a lemonade I throw caution to the wind and recklessly order a cocktail. When I ask the bartender for a recommendation, he asks if I want something from the menu, or if I want him to create something for me. Why not? Exotically beautiful bottles appear in front of me, shaken together with vodka and ice and strained into a frosty glass, adorned with a fat curl of lemon zest that looks like a goldfish swimming around its bowl. It turns out to be a martini scented with framboise and elderflower liqueur, not too sweet, slightly fruity and floral, somehow exactly what I needed. The rest of my party arrives, and I close out my tab and head towards our table. We are in a far corner of the airy, open space that looks like a Design Within Reach exploded in a Scandinavian Modern house, all pale wood with touches of bright colors, white pendant lamps, modern without being cold.

There are several appetizers - we order three of them in multiples, 'cause that's the way we roll - and then the evening's menu. There are two set menus, one "Thali" (with vegetarian options) with ten or eleven dishes, and one "Smali" with five or six dishes. A thali, apparently, is an Indian meal served in many small bowls or plates arranged on a round tray. The details are a little blurry, but this is what I remember: Eggplant "fries," salty-sweet and a bit squishy. Little tartlets of Taleggio cheese, leeks, apples, and dill, with a meltingly crumbly crust. Deep-fried mussels, crisp outside, soft inside, apparently a signature dish. The "Thali" arrives, with all sorts of exciting things in little dishes. The largest dishes are a saké-marinated cod with a cucumber salad, sweet and warm and cool and spicy all at once, and a piece of braised pork belly served on a bed of shredded Napa cabbage, probably some of the best pork belly I have ever eaten in a restaurant. In the middle is another bowl of rice capped with a flap of oven-blistered naan sprinkled with tiny black seeds. There is a sweet-tart gazpacho made with some sort of melon, a bowl of chickpeas in a light dressing, watermelon-and-lime pickle, Romano beans with hazelnuts, and sweet little beets. (Does no one trim the ends of beans anymore? Is it just me?). There is not too much of anything, but just enough so you are satisfied with the range of flavors and textures before you. It is like the grand menu at a fancy restaurant, but only better, because the atmosphere is friendly and casual, and everything comes at once, instead of in an interminable procession of courses. And then it is time for dessert, which none of us can resist.

We pass around a "rocky rose sundae" made with chocolate sorbet, Marcona almonds, marshmallows, rose-water syrup, and whipped cream, and another glass of chocolate malt ice cream. I have a plum tart oozing cream on top, with a sweet version of that same meltingly crumbly crust that supported the apple-dill-Taleggio tart from the beginning of the meal. Someone hands me a bite of a deep-dish pear tart, wrapped in a pastry scented with, I think, celery seed. Everything is gently flavored with all kinds of mysterious (mysterious to me, at least) herbs and spices, most of which I can't quite identify, and it is somehow strange and exciting all at once. I am dizzy with food (and with framboise-and-elderflower spiked vodka) and cannot wait until I come here again. Soon. I say this all the time, and I hope to mean it, for once.

We walk out to the car through the back door, past raised garden beds planted with herbs and greens, all still young and tender. I am sure they will find their way into the kitchen, and onto our plates, the way the food here has already made its way into my heart.

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