The buzz around Poppy started months ago, when Jerry Traunfeld announced that he’d be leaving the Herbfarm after 17 years. Leading up to its opening this week, it became nearly a frenzy, with hopes raised when it was widely announced that reservations would open on September 6, and then dashed when opening was delayed another week. I was beginning to wonder, could any place possibly live up to all this anticipation? I fear that people are expecting a mini-Herbfarm experience or something. But Jerry is aiming for a casual neighborhood place where he can experiment more with spices, along with the herbs that he knows so well.
I was curious to see how the thali concept would work at Poppy. It is certainly not a new idea, since the concept originates in India and there are a number of Indian restaurants in Seattle that serve thali plates. But instead of Indian food, Jerry is serving his own Northwest-style preparations in thali-style dishes – each person receives a platter with about 10 small bowls with different tastes. It’s the best kind of small plate dining: you don’t have to share, yet you still get a little of everything. But at Poppy, you don’t have a lot of choice. There is only one thali each evening (with a vegetarian variation), although they do plan to change the thali offering every couple weeks.
We went on Thursday, a couple nights after they opened. The room is casual and modern, with a bit of a Scandinavian design philosophy. With the large space, high ceiling, and hard surfaces, it felt a bit cavernous and impersonal, however. While we waited for friends to arrive, we ordered cocktails and fried mussels. There are about a half dozen appetizers ranging between $3 and $6. Our mussels were presented on the half-shell, piping hot with a dollop of lovage aioli. I thought they were quite good, and Eric loved them. He wasn’t disappointed when our friends arrived and wanted to order most of the appetizer list to share, including the mussels again. We tried the eggplant fries, which were sweet-salty from the honey and salt, but a little soft and not crisp like fries. The cauliflower mash was served with a small piece of naan flatbread – it was tasty but we didn’t finish after we ran out of flatbread. My favorite two appetizers were the leek, dill, apple, and taleggio tart, along with the curry leaf vadas with a yogurt dipping sauce. It’s too bad there were only three of those tiny savory doughnuts, because wow, they were good.
The restaurant had filled up by now and it was clear they were getting slammed. We waited a long time for our thali to arrive, but forgot about the wait when a server and Jerry himself came out to deliver them to our table. As he has been every time we’ve met him, Jerry is quiet and unassuming. He was there for only a moment before scurrying back to the busy kitchen – after placing the food on the table, the server turned around to introduce him, but he was already gone. Instead, he described each of the tiny dishes in front of us.
I think sometimes I’m a closet vegetarian, since I usually lean more toward foods without meat. That night, the vegetarian options just sounded great, so when ordering I opted to switch out my albacore and pork belly with chanterelle croquettes and ricotta dumplings. I tried a nibble of Eric’s meat and fish, which were yummy, but the dumplings and croquettes were my favorites of the whole meal (usually it’s the opposite, where I wish I’d ordered what Eric has). I have a habit of leaving my favorites on my plate for last, which wasn’t the best idea in this case, because despite what it looked like, it was a lot of food and I was pretty full at the end. I nibbled all around the platter trying combinations of foods together, but mostly, the first things I ate were the roast potatoes and the romano beans with hazelnuts – although they were each well-prepared and perfectly cooked, they were only a little more interesting than something we might make at home. The carrots were sweet and served as thin ribbons scented with clove. Watermelon came pickled, and the tiny bits were nicely tart and sweet, and tasty mix-n’-matched with the other dishes. I really liked the chickpea salad in a creamy dressing, but one of the best things on the platter was the melon, tomato, and mint gazpacho. It had just the right combination of acidic, sweet, and savory flavors. A chewy, crusty piece of naan showered with nigella seeds, along with a bowl of rice anchored the meal.
If you’re not hungry enough for all that, there is a “smali” option (don’t roll your eyes at the name), with a smaller selection of the same dishes, for $22 instead of the full $32. It’s a nice option for dropping in casually from the neighborhood. Although, with only one meal choice, the question that’s nagging me is whether they can really keep the menu changing and interesting enough to keep people coming back frequently. On the other hand, I really want to go back for those croquettes, so I hope they don’t leave the menu any time soon.
Desserts go back to à la carte, at $5 for your choice. On this night, there was a plum lavender tart, peach anise hyssop shortcake, and a lemon verbena panna cotta, along with a handful of different house-made ice creams. I usually skip ice creams on a menu, but in this case they were too interesting to pass up. Our table ordered three of them: the malted-milk chocolate, the banana mace with caramel sauce, and the rocky rose sundae, made with rose geranium and homemade marshmallows. All were delicious, although the delicate banana is best not eaten with the rocky rose, which is almost overpoweringly rose flavored. The malted-milk was the unanimous favorite of our table.
The food is definitely closer to The Herbal Kitchen than The Herbfarm Cookbook. While bright with spices and herbs, flavors here aren’t as complex as Jerry’s Herbfarm cooking. A few dishes, such as the mussels and the carrots, were even reminiscent of recipes in The Herbal Kitchen. But the spices add an interesting dimension to his cooking – I’m looking forward to seeing what else he has in store for future thali menus.
622 Broadway East, Seattle