Eat & Drink

A Sense Of Place

The Populist finds a niche with noteworthy hospitality and nuanced cuisine.

August 2013

Even the vague menu descriptions—something co-owner Noah Price and chef-owner Jonathan Power consciously decided upon—gracefully nudge server-diner interaction. For a dish of Korean-inspired beef ribs, julienned soy burdock root with taro chips, and a cilantro-papaya salad, the menu lists only “Kalbi short ribs.” This brevity compels your server to get to know you well: Only through conversation can she determine if you would prefer gluten-free parsnip pizzelles or if you might be interested to know that the Populist’s pork comes from Tender Belly, the office of which is located kitty-corner to the restaurant.

Although such noteworthy hospitality is not to be confused with the technical edicts of service, the Populist most often delivered on the latter as well. Water arrived immediately, the waitstaff paused gracefully to let customers pass first, napkins were refolded during visits to the restroom, servers were versed in unusual ingredients such as huitlacoche (a mushroomlike fungus that grows on corn), and questions about wine led to discussions of “saignée” (a method for producing rosé) when we wanted them to.

That’s not to say the Populist is perfect. There was a strange gap in the staff’s knowledge of after-dinner drinks: Twice, I received pours that were bone-dry despite my request for something sweet to pair with dessert. Price and Power want us to share our food, yet one night we had trouble getting fresh plates despite the obvious amalgam of olive pits and sauces we’d collected over the first four courses. The insistence on sharing would also benefit from offering serving spoons—not everyone is willing to trade germs.

As for the food itself, Power responds to the deluge of hyperlocal menus with a consciously procured global tour. There’s poussin served alongside saag paneer made from Boulder-grown kale; a vegetarian entrée featuring Southeast Asia’s exotic and meaty jackfruit; a deconstructed Cubano charcuterie plate with house-cured duck breast; Mediterranean chickpeas tossed in Noosa Yoghurt flecked with curry powder; and Niwot rabbit sausage paired with fried pretzel spaetzle. Power, who spent time in the kitchens at Root Down and Olivéa but is not classically trained, takes modest ingredients and cuts (pork temple, flap meat, crosscut ribs) and prepares them in unexpected, and often risky, ways. There’s artistry, too: Dishes arrive with gorgeous dollops, dots, and brush strokes that resemble the work of a pastry chef. 
But this fussy presentation is also an Achilles’ heel. In a shared environment, it would be helpful if servers explained how the kitchen intends for items to be eaten. Without instruction, some dishes lacked balance—bites needed more acid or texture or fat. Each time I wondered if making a ruinous mess of our plate would have helped—if tossing the kale salad with the artful schmear of black pepper–studded Haystack Mountain goat cheese cream would have made the mature, fibrous greens more enjoyable.

The Populist also needs to improve its pacing. When the outdoor patio first opened, food sometimes beat cocktails and, on one occasion, five hot dishes sat in front of a party of three. The kitchen was likely trying to stay ahead of itself after doubling the size of the restaurant overnight, but no one should feel rushed when trying to enjoy the Populist’s lovely, ivy-lined RiNo oasis. 
I’m a fan of the cocktail list—five classics and five variations on those classics—even if the riffs sometimes stray so far you wonder if it’s still OK to use the namesake. The dessert program, on the other hand, needs work. Pastry cook Josh Sanford makes vegetables decadently sweet (chocolate-avocado gelato) and shrewdly steeps cake in Earl Grey, but caramelized popcorn tasted bitter, a shallow panna cotta arrived overwhelmed by an aged sherry vinegar, and carrot cake remained dry even after dragging it through the pool of vanilla crème fraîche. If I were Power, I’d harness Sanford’s passion and arrange for him to complete a stint under another pastry chef. (Called a “stage,” this is a common way for a chef to continue his or her education.)

When that first meal came to a close, however, I wasn’t thinking about the pacing or serving spoons or textural balance. Instead, I was focused on the hug that my seersuckered friend gave me as he departed. “It’s like a house party in here,” the bartender said as I paid. At first I didn’t understand. House parties I attend don’t feature exposed ductwork and Victorian damask wallpaper that’s carried seamlessly from a wall to its adjacent banquette. My friend’s home bars don’t display room-temperature brown eggs or glass porrons. But over the course of becoming a regular myself, I came to understand: The Populist’s acute sense of hospitality softens and humanizes any technical flaws. By the end of the evening, you leave—as you do the home of close friends—satiated by a sense of belonging. And you want to do it all over again next weekend.