Even though Lucullus bloody well invented the petulent and expensive version of the long male sulk, he could not budge Fulvia from her refusal to dine at The Herbfarm restaurant in Woodinville. As the first human female to appear on Roman coins, she knows the value of a denaris and refuses to waste hers on “one of those fancy restaurants where your ass wears out just before your net worth.” Lucullus discarded his sullen mope and argued that his spouse was indulging in false economic reasoning, whereas in reality Herbfarm’s 9-course tasting menu served with 5 or 6 matched wines constituted high end VFM. This avenue of discussion turned out to be a dead end, but it did earn Lucullus the sobriquet of “profligate gastro pimp.”
Undaunted, Lucullus resorted to guile and deception. He suggested a drink and a bite at Poppy, located close to our rental in Seattle’s Capital Hill neighborhood. Fulvia liked this change of subject and scene. What Lucullus failed to tell her as they sipped wine at the restaurant’s concrete bar with its exposed brick backdrop, is that the establishment is owned by Chef Jerry Traunfeld, who had 17 years at the helm of Herbfarm prior to opening Poppy.
Fulvia was quite taken by the eggplant fries drizzled with sea salt and honey. The large wedges of unctuous, sweet, and saliferous aubergine candy are encased in a micron-thick shell imparted by just the right amount of time in a fryolater.
We also sampled Chef Traunfeld’s take on weiswurst. The Teutonic version of these puppies is made with veal and the bar menu’s description of “herbed white sausage” with no mention of meat type leads one to believe that Poppy’s are too, but disguised so as not to offend Seattle sensibilities. Since Lucullus was by this point in full-scale dissembling mode, he took this as a promising sign. Poppy’s terrific tomacula came nicely tarted up with sage cherries and glazed shallots.
Lucullus bided his time until Fulvia was feeling no pain and then sprung his well laid culinary ambush. Obtaining a dinner menu, he explained Poppy’s concept. As a result of gastro-research conducted on the Subcontinent, Chef Traunfeld expropriated an Indian concept called thali, which involves serving a variety of small dishes simultaneously on a round tray to each diner. In other words, this methodology short circuits both of the well-worn tasting menu and tapas approaches, allowing guests to selfishly snarf an entire tasting menu all at once without sharing. Since Poppy’s opening in 2008, Seattle thalis have achieved god-like accolades from international, national, and local food media.
But even more to the point, thalis are widely considered an affordable luxury. For example, Gourmet declared Poppy 1 of 126 American restaurants worth the money. Lucullus then divulged his coup de grace: with unintended serendipity he and Fuliva had arrived in the Emerald City during Restaurant Week. This meant that a starter, a main course thali, and a desert could be had for a mere $28.
Finally, the imminent arrival of Aristippus sealed the deal. The hedonistic student of Socrates does not care a fig for the price of a meal, but he is a total slut for celebrity chefs and you can’t get much more celebrated than Jerry Traunfeld, who duked it out with other culinary glitterati on Top Chef Masters, won the James Beard Award for Best American Chef: Northwest and Hawaii, pioneered farm-to-table dining, wrote two acclaimed cookbooks, etc.
And that is how MagoGuide came to dine at Herbfarm without dining at Herbfarm. Lucullus began the festivities by ordering up a round of those delicious egg plant fries to take the edge off while contemplating the evening’s wine selection. Our waitress supplied the requisite expertise and upon her advice (which we followed throughout the evening) Lucullus selected an 2010 Oregon pinot noir from J. Christopher. This unfiltered gem had a nose of rose petals and cassis followed by huge succulent dollops of ripe berry fruit and red cherries with a punky, fruity finish that goes on for some time.
The first starter was blue cheese gougers with spiced fig, onion, and arugula. Nice little bites somewhere between savory stuffed puff pastry and canapés on steroids.
Next came lightly fried mussels with lovage, which seemed a bit bland at first but then the curry (unmentioned in the description for some reason) kicked in. Sleeper mussels, who woulda thunk it?
The best of the appies in the humble opinion of Lucullus was a grilled sardine served with a raddish and charred-scallion salad. The sardine was a substitute for the usual smoked trout, but it is quite hard to see how that type of fish could have produced the same delicious result to say nothing of bettering it. The sardine was fishy in a very good way and the texture contrast yielded by the radishes just short of sublime, but what really pulled the dish together was the salsa verde produced from Poppy’s collocated urban herb garden. Chef Traunfeld gives good herbage!
The thalis kicked off with Traunfeld’s signature dish of slow-roasted coho salmon with black lentils and lime pepper hollandaise. Merely the best cooked salmon ever, but do not take Lucullus’ word for it, ask Fulvia. She is not a very happy fish eater unless it is fried, but she ate every bite that was not begrudgingly allowed her dining companions. The salmon was accompanied by:
- Galeux d’eysines pumpkin soup: smooth curry essence paired with crunchitude supplied by toasted pumpkin seeds and pine nuts.
- Radicchio, apple, and black olive salad: righteously sour but also enhanced by restraint on the olive component.
- Swiss chard and oregano gratin: distilled Mediterranean flavors in a ramkin.
- Kohlrabi with coconut milk, tamarind, and dill: think alternative universe warm ‘tater salad.
- Pickled figs: very good fichi agrodolce
- Nigella poppy naan: wonderful, this is how naan should taste.
The pig thali was composed of spice-rubbed Berkshire pork ribs with pear slaw. The ribs were expertly cooked and the rub supplied layered heat, while the pear slaw added a refreshing sweet crunch. The ribs were accompanied by:
- Billy’s tomato and strawberry soup: wow Billy, this soup was pretty freakin’ amazing from the pinot nose to the strawberry acid hit on the finish, a wonderful pairing with the wine.
- Cauliflower salad with sumac: crunchable and salty Precious.
- Black eyed peas with berbers: black eyed peas without pig candy is like a day in Seattle. Yo chef, couldn’t you have migrated just a little of the fine Bershire porkage into this dish?
- Swiss chard and oregano gratin: see the description under the salmon thalis above.
- Fennel grapefruit pickle: pickled licorice, very nice.
The duck and chanterelle basteeya was a bit more problematic. The rich shredded duck meat tended to overwhelm the chanterelles. Perhaps a less delicate ‘shroom would have worked better? The phyllo dough exterior added some nice crunchitude but what really pulled the dish together was the dusting of powdered sugar, which deepened the duck’s intensity while also serving to bring out more of the delicate chanterelle flavor. The problem was that the sugar was needed in every bite but confined to the very center of the dish. However, adding more sugar to the surface of the phyllo dome would have risked making the entire preparation too sweet. The basteeeya was accompanied by:
- Smoked eggplant and lentil soup with coconut yogurt: smooth and smokey with a slightly sour kick supplied by the yogurt.
- Radicchio, apple, and black olive salad: see the description under the salmon thalis above.
- Golden beets with spice bread: nice but more spice would have been nice (a surprising lapse by chef known for his exuberant use of herbs and spices).
- Brussels sprouts with caraway and shallot: the shredded sprout went well with the crunchy fried shallots but more caraway would have been nice (another lapse in flavorage?)
- Pickled figs: see the description under the salmon thalis above.
- Nigella-poppy naan: see the description under the salmon thalis above.
Our thoughtful waitress decided that we needed something sweet before tackling our deserts so she supplied us with a nutter butter bar palate preparation that was more of a full on song of salty crunchy caramel goodness than a sweet amuse bouche.
The most traditional desert was Fulvia’s hot date cake with butterscotch, pecans, and coffee ice cream–luscious, rich, and comforting.
The burnt honey ice cream with ras el hanout toffee and dried fruit sent Aristippus into paroxisms of joy. The killer chutney compote was the key to this innovative dish.
Lucullus finished with a daring and bizarre chocolate ruffle torte with caramel, sob-cha crumbs and orange frozen yogurt. The flavor combinations were a bit jarring but that may have been the point. It was one of the most interesting juxtapositions of flavors MagoGuide encountered in an evening filled with them.
Really…. we can’t wait to return.