Whatever your opinion of the thali platter, there’s no denying that the dessert thali at Poppy is one sweet deal. For $14 you get a choice of main dessert, ice cream, and sweet extras. An extra dollar will allow you two desserts. Pictured above is a thali with two desserts. Starting at noon and moving clockwise, is the aptly named Hot Date Cake with Banana Ice Cream–luscious enough to turn you on to the sexy combo of dates and bananas and possibly even your date, too, especially if he has a banana in his pocket; chocolate caramel truffle slices; Crackerjack (far, far better than the boxed kind); Nutter Butter squares (far, far better than the candy bar); chocolate chip cookies (save these for the next day, when you’ll appreciate them more); chocolate terrine (deep dark chocolate abyss, for die-hards only)…Between these desserts and the fabulously creative cocktail lineup, Poppy seems to be getting better and better…
Poppy, 12/6/08 update: The more you eat at Poppy, the more you gotta admire Jerry Traunfeld’s genius in the kitchen. And, yes, he really is a brilliant cook. So much so that his ambitious failures are usually far more interesting (and edible) than other chef’s plebeian successes.
At my second visit, I was no longer a thali newbie, but my husband was. This meant that while he was distracted by the novelty of little dishes presented on a circular tray, I wasn’t. I also knew, based on my previous experience, that the regular thali would be far too much food for me, so I ordered the “smali” pictured above. My vegetarian smali had fewer little dishes than Mike’s full-size thali, which looked like this:
Here’s how the dishes tasted, clockwise from noon: Chestnut soup with cardamom, vanilla and bay (yummy); BC scallop with savoy cabbage, cumin and apple (OK; scallop was a tad too chewy); five-seed kale (good); mushroom marjoram bread pudding (good, but some folks would call it stuffing); quail from the tandoor with pomegranate walnut sauce (beautifully cooked and flavored quail; sauce just OK); persimmon, chervil, and fennel salad (lovely, vibrant, original); shaved cauliflower with Buddha hand (good); satsuma mustard pickle (weirdly compelling and possibly addictive); rosemary-ginger yam with spiced coconut (OK); coriander potato roll (a classic mixed marriage of Chinese eggroll wrapper with potato knish-like filling).
The reason I like the thali is also the same reason I don’t like the thali: All that variety of flavors and textures, on a single platter for $32, is an amazing bargain. Getting everything at once, however, forces you to eat quickly, or take small bites in quick succession. With so much to choose from, this means that some dishes won’t be eaten at their optimum temperature, especially if you eat slowly. The overall effect of this presentation made me feel like a giant at a buffet table set by Lilliputians.
In the case of this particular thali–cheekily titled “a thali for waxing gibbous”–I felt like a giant at a Lilliputian Thanksgiving. All the classic dishes were there, with a twist: stuffing (bread pudding); mashed yams; winter greens; weird but addictive sweet-sour condiment (satsuma pickle in place of cranberries); cauliflower; and even a tiny bird, roasted in its entirety.
But did it all work? Not really. But everything was interesting, fascinating, creative, original. Really, the main problem is the presentation: Forcing all those different dishes onto one platter, served at once, distracts from the distinctiveness of each component. Quite frankly, there are very few restaurants who could serve their entire prix fixe menu in this fashion and have it work. That Poppy fares as well as it does is a testimony to Traunfeld’s impressive culinary skills.
Which reminds me: We started out the evening rather traditionally, with an appetizer portion of the absolutely brilliant salt cod fritters. These emerged from the kitchen piping hot and perfect. And because it was the only thing on the table, we lavished our full attention, savoring each bite slowly. That kind of pace just isn’t possible with the thali.
I’m sure the thali concept is a difficult one to pull off on a daily basis, especially with the hordes of people who are still flocking to Poppy. (Kudos to the restaurant staff for warming up its attitude amidst the constant slam!) My hope is that when all the furor calms down, the thali idea can be tweaked to allow for more a la carte options and more breathing space between each tastes. The food here is too good to be its own distraction.
One last thing: Please, please, please Mr. Traunfeld! Ditch the chopsticks!
Jerry Traunfeld’s groovy new Poppy on Capitol Hill does a vaguely Indian riff on the mini-plates phenomenon, providing 8 little courses all on one large round platter (known as a “thali”). Technically the food was well-made and delicious (October 2008 visit), but I didn’t understand why everything had to be together on that cumbersome thali. Why couldn’t I just order what I wanted? And why were there chopsticks? And why naan, rice, AND potatoes? Good enough to merit another visit–though I’m not sure when I want to brave the novelty-crazed crowds again. Have heard from several sources that service is rather frosty. Ours was definitely on the chilly side too…