Restaurant review: Poppy, the Capitol Hill new venture from former The Herbfarm chef Jerry Traunfeld, delights with an Indian-style menu full of thali and smali, a range of up to 10 different dishes on one order.
It was like opening a Broadway show with no rehearsals. That’s how Jerry Traunfeld now recalls the hazy, crazy days of September, when his much-ballyhooed new restaurant, Poppy, debuted on Capitol Hill, a neighborhood fast becoming to Seattle’s restaurant scene what the Great White Way is to New York theater.
Anticipation had simmered all summer among the food-besotted. We all wondered: After 17 years at The Herbfarm, what would Traunfeld unleashed be like?
Turns out he’s stayed true to his muses — the herbs and spices that have informed his cooking for so long. But Poppy presents a fresh concept, born on a spice-hunting trip to India and based on the thali, an Indian-style meal of many individual dishes served together on one tray.
Poppy offers an a la carte bar menu (not limited to the bar) and several small plates as starters; but the daily thali is the menu’s set piece. The combinations encountered on my recent visits delivered just what you’ve come to expect from this James Beard award-winning chef: meticulous cooking and a gift for mingling flavors that rivet your attention.
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A thali is $32 and holds 10 little dishes; the truncated “smali” is $22. Either can be tailored to suit vegetarians. The thali isn’t really meant for sharing, but so many people do that Traunfeld says he’s slightly increased the portion sizes to accommodate that.
What’s most striking about the thali is the diversity encountered as you hop — with fork or chopsticks — from one tantalizing nibble to another. “A Thali for December Snowdrops” began with a slender glass of smooth chestnut soup. Vanilla was the forward flavor, followed by a swirl of cardamom and bay.
Cold items team fruits and nuts in unusual and effective ways. Sections of satsuma were pickled with its zest. Persimmon and crisp, slivered fennel hobnobbed with supple strips of Buddha’s Hand, a citrus fruit reminiscent of lemon pith without the bitterness. Hazelnuts complemented a crunchy celery family reunion of the root, the stalk and the seed.
Vegetables turned up in purées, gratins or simply roasted. Cauliflower might be mashed and sprinkled with sumac and sesame one night; dabbed with anchovy and lemon another. A mini-gratin of Swiss chard, bright with currants and creamy with béchamel under a cap of burnished Gruyère, was comfort food at its most sublime.
In these and other dishes, Traunfeld takes humble to haute levels. He layers an elegant “lasagna” with lush buffalo milk ricotta, leek and hedgehog mushrooms. He perfumes short ribs with cumin and pairs them with saffron polenta. He prepares tandoori-cooked quail Persian-style, smothered in a tart pomegranate-walnut sauce.
The tandoor also yields supple pillows of naan stuffed with potato and coriander, and ruddy chunks of succulent chicken, offered on the bar menu and served with cooling yogurt and a searing sriracha-spiked slaw.
One thali will stretch for two, but hearty eaters will want to add an appetizer or two. Eggplant fries, glistening with honey and speckled with sea salt, are a good bet, as are salt cod fritters, served with smoked paprika aioli, and amazingly light for something deep-fried to a mahogany hue.
For a lighter start, try a cilantro-lavished salad of spot prawns, pink grapefruit, red onion and avocado; or beet salad, a earthy tumble of bitter frisée, salty blue cheese and pumpkin-spiced croutons in sherry vinaigrette.
The sweet thali ($14) is designed for two. It holds wonderful little treats like nutter butter squares and chocolate caramel truffles, plus your choice of a dessert and an ice cream. Pastry chef Dana Cree matches Traunfeld’s inventiveness with winning combinations such as pear-and-sour-cherry crumble with blue cheese ice cream. If you have an unabashed sweet tooth, satisfy it with a “hot date cake,” Cree’s sophisticated take on sticky toffee pudding with butterscotch and banana ice cream.
Cocktails are just as tempting. I loved “The Lookout,” which the bartender accurately described as “Negroni-ish.” Its hint of sweetness comes from aperol, fruitier than Campari, and along with yellow chartreuse it tints the gin a flaming orange.
Those poppy hues percolate throughout the spare, midcentury modern décor.
Poppy is Traunfeld’s first venture as chef/owner. At 48, he is stretching himself creatively, mentally and physically. Through the ribbon of glass that rims the kitchen you can watch him, a diminutive Busby Berkley directing a chorus line of cooks who by now have had plenty of time to polish their performance. It’s the front of the house that is still finding its marks and needs to perfect its timing. If they do, Poppy should be in for a long run.
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