Eat & Drink

A Sense Of Place

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

August 2013

The Populist
3163 Larimer St.
720-432-3163
thepopulistdenver.com

3 stars

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THE DRAW
A well-conceived, romantically lit gastropub with unpretentious hospit-ality and an inventive menu.
THE DRAWBACK
Certain dishes, though thoughtfully procured and prepared, sometimes lack balance; some diners might find the communal tables (86 of the restaurant’s 100 seats) inconvenient.
DON’T MISS
A tequila and rose-salt variation on the Bee’s Knees cocktail, affordable wines from unexpected countries like Lebanon, curried chickpea salad, beet agnolotti, tandoori poussin, seared diver scallops
DETAILS
Shared plates, $5 to $19; seven-course tasting menu, $70 for two; street parking. Open for dinner Tuesday through Saturday. Reservations accepted for parties of six or more.

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On my most memorable trip to the Populist, I sat solo at the copper-topped bar. The rail was two-deep with regulars, all of whom the bartender knew by name. I wedged myself onto a rare open stool, ordered, and set about eavesdropping. The couple to my left had been married for 30 years. Over the seven-course tasting menu, they talked about a Whole Foods marketing program, the last time they got stoned, and her cats. The pair to my right was on what appeared to be a first date. He was so familiar with the Carrots Three Ways—a dish that includes a purée of charred carrots that sends an inviting waft of burnt sugar across the room—it made me (and presumably his uninterested date) wonder if he brought someone here every night. Shortly after I finished my dinner of steak bavette, two discs of polenta, and arugula topped with oyster mushrooms, the bartender decided that my neighbors and I—all still strangers—needed more wine. He handed us a “porron” (a glass wine pitcher), and when it was my turn, I tried to ensure that the slender stream of Vinho Verde falling from the spout didn’t miss my mouth. I wiped a drop off my cheek and passed the wine to the blind daters.

A porron is a decanter from Spain with a slender stem, like a watering can, to allow communal drinking straight from the source. Without practice, it can be awkward even among close friends, yet the bartender was brilliant to suggest it to a collection of strangers. A couple of sips in, the seersuckered man to my left proceeded to offer me one of his seared scallops, which he lovingly arranged on a bread plate with a taste of white bean purée, delicate chorizo, warm cilantro aïoli, and translucent habanero gelée. When I glanced down at the dessert list, the regular to my right leaned past his date to advise me: “I didn’t believe in God until I had the Chocolate and Popcorn.” I texted my friend to see if she could abort dinner with her in-laws: This is getting good, I thought.
In an instant, the bartender, his porron, and his keen sense of community turned a fine evening into a memorable one. He gave a long-married couple, floundering daters, and a lonely texter something to laugh about, something to tell all our friends. He made us feel cared for, and in doing so demonstrated an attribute far more precious than competent service: heartfelt hospitality.

In his book Setting the Table, famed New York City restaurateur Danny Meyer writes, “It’s about soul—and service without soul, no matter how elegant, is quickly forgotten by the guest.” Each time I dined at the Populist, that kind of thoughtful, intuitive service, which is far more rare in local restaurants than it should be, defined the experience.

On one visit, the hostess complimented me on my boots. It was just the confidence spike I needed in an uncharacteristically fashion-forward outfit. Later, her colleague sensed that my date and I were still hungry following four shared plates and insisted on another savory selection instead of offering dessert and shuffling us out the door. Another evening, the bartender decided a night of shoptalk deserved a complimentary splash of Jeppson’s Malört, a little-known digestif. On my fourth trip, I hosted a couple from Littleton who were stymied by the many beverage lists. Our server avoided a condescending explanation and made a self-deprecating joke: “Let me explain the 100 pieces of paper that we’ve thrown in front of you.” When a white wine arrived instead of a Portuguese rosé and we couldn’t flag down our waitress, her co-worker was eager to help. Instead of delaying things by telling us she’d find our server or challenging how our order transpired, she simply asked, “Which wine would you like to drink?” and returned with the correct pour. 

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.