The Dope on Poppy
The outdoor lobby of Lincoln Road's Sterling Building has proved to be a problematic location for restaurants. Pacific Time Café and South Beach Stone Crabs, the prior occupants, had to contend with moviegoers cutting through their dining room for entry into the Alliance Cinema, and the distraction of a large window leading into Books & Books. I was once seated at a table by this window, my stone-crab chomping disconcertingly on display for every browser at that bookstore's bargain table. Poppy is the latest Sterling venture, and the first to offer a real restaurant environment. The two old problems are gone: There is no more Alliance, and the windows leading next door have been covered with navy blue drapes. The décor is, in fact, quite inviting, a Moroccan/Mediterranean motif with wrought-iron gates at the entrance; high walls sponged a rustic orange color; a long, long communal dining table running up the center of the rectangular room; and roughly the same number of flickering candles in glass as you'd find at an aromatherapy convention.
There are tables lined up each side of the room, and more tables for alfresco dining in front of the restaurant, spilling into and taking up the space of what was formerly Flowers & Flowers; altogether Poppy seats 200. Behind the dining room, which has no front or back walls, is another outdoor area, this one secluded and lush with tropical foliage and a full bar specializing in cute martinis -- chocolate, sour apple, and so on. It's a cool, breezy spot to enjoy a drink, though, like the diners, you'll be subjected to club music thumping continuously in the background; on weekends a DJ spins the sort of tunes that might be appropriate for dancing but not particularly conducive to conversation or digestion. At least not to mine, though I acknowledge that the snazzy clientele here may think otherwise. We can all agree that Poppy's vibe is pleasantly festive, its open-air ambiance enchanting and refreshing.
I could go on waxing not-so-eloquently about the décor. It would, in fact, be fitting if I did so, for that's precisely where Poppy's priorities lie -- long on ambiance, short on cuisine. The menu is stiffly formulaic, as if the owners photocopied an old Gallup poll on South Florida's favorite restaurant dinners and handed out copies, along with recipes, to a robotic kitchen crew. The appetizers: fried calamari, steamed mussels, tuna tataki, crabcake, ceviche, and carpaccio. There is no passion in the cooking, nor speck or spark of creativity -- unless you count a pesto-mustard sauce that augments Aussie lamb chops. The menu also fails to match the environment, surprising since Poppy is operated by the folks behind Opium and the recently departed Café Tabac (now a pool hall called 8 Ball), both of which featured solid food thematically linked to the décor -- Asian and French Mediterranean, respectively.
We started with fried calamari. Fans of this dish might note that squid tentacles have all but disappeared of late. That's because nowadays restaurants buy bags of frozen, presliced, rings-only squid, evidently on the presumption that tentacles are off-putting to the average diner. A plate of Poppy's tentacle-less, crisply fried rings came with one-and-a-half dipping options: a pewter bowl of light marinara sauce and a parsimonious squirt of saffron aioli upon just a few pieces. A dish of more aioli was promptly brought to us by our waiter upon request. We should have asked for some jalapeños as well -- they were supposed to be included, but we found only one solitary ring, battered and fried, among the mix.
We might have asked for another crabcake too. Had the one they served as a starter included lump crabmeat, or had the price been under $11.95, I probably wouldn't feel this way, although I still would have griped that it was fried, not sautéed. The cake was otherwise of decent heft, contained just the right amount of seasoning, and was accessorized to tasty effect with bright dabs of tomato-avocado relish, poblano chili mayonnaise, saffron aioli, and roasted red pepper rémoulade.
Andalusian gazpacho, a smooth, refreshing purée of tomatoes, cucumber, and peppers, contained a clump of diced avocado that, according to the menu, should have been "avocado cream," and a keen kick of vinegar via swirled balsamic reduction. The menu tricked us again with a "warm goat cheese salad" of mesclun greens and cold goat cheese; a decent plate of salad but not large or special enough to warrant the $9.95 price. Appetizers start at $11.95, which is expensive, but main courses are moderate, only lamb chops and filet mignon topping $20.
Italian food is highlighted under two menu headings, "carpaccios" and "pastas." Actually the carpaccio listing occupies a substantial space on the page but could have been compressed to one sentence: thinly sliced beef tenderloin with shaved Reggiano, capers, lemon vinaigrette, and choice of garnish -- arugula, mushrooms, artichokes, or all three. Pasta selections could have been summed up in one word: boring. Penne, angel hair, farfalle, and linguine come topped with, respectively, tomatoes and vodka cream sauce; tomatoes, basil, and garlic; sun-dried tomatoes and shiitake mushrooms; and mussels, shrimp, calamari, and white wine broth.
The few nods to Moroccan cuisine come by way of two kebabs (shrimp and filet mignon) and "merguez," a thin, spicy lamb sausage traditionally served with ariza, a hot chili sauce. The five links served here were a bit overcharred, and though the menu promises ariza and fries on the side, the ariza never arrived. I would have asked for some, but while buspersons were on the ball when it came to clearing plates, waiters were hard to come by -- both on a busy weekend evening and a less-hectic weekday night. This is not a well-trained waitstaff but rather the standard SoBe sort -- pleasant enough but not particularly interested in honing the finer points of their trade. It's as if perhaps they're concentrating on more important things, like what outfit they're going to wear to the club when they finally get off work.
Other entrées include a fleshy, adeptly grilled one-pound whole red snapper, dully, er, duly accompanied by basmati rice and a listless julienne of carrots and peppers. Same vegetables sided a grilled tuna steak with sweet balsamic-red wine reduction and scoop of garlic-imbued mashed potatoes. A sweet balsamic sauce (they must store this stuff by the keg) and another scoop of passable mashed potatoes also anchored a juicy, medium-rare chimichurri-grilled churrasco steak, but this time the potatoes had a half-dozen unseasoned asparagus spears sticking out of the side and a thatch of arugula leaves that had seen better days rising from the center. Mashed potatoes, rice, and fries are the only starches on the menu; asparagus, carrots, tomatoes, and spinach the sole vegetables. The selection of wines is similarly limited.
So are desserts: a wedge of key lime pie garnished with canned whipped cream; chocolate or passion fruit crème brûlée; apple tart; tiramisu; and "chocolate cake with blueberries" that was really a rich, creamily dense chocolate mousse pie with dark chocolate crumb crust topped with blueberries and blueberry sauce. Not bad. Not great. Which is what should be said for the overall food and service at Poppy.
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