The desserts caught me by surprise. I was expecting something clever yet homey, perhaps deconstructed butterscotch pudding or a chocolate malted liquid-nitrogen shake. But when you're following a crafty guide, you never know quite where you're going until you get there — and the end of a meal at The Populist is a long way from that cheeky bowl of bar mix you first downed with a glass of Macedonian white. This place might be named for the common man, but the food, it turns out, is anything but.
See also: Behind the scenes of The Populist
Set on a dark stretch that looks deserted even though it isn't, the Populist has been nudging diners to venture farther up Larimer Street since it opened in November. Operated by chef Jonathan Power and Noah Price, the same team behind the popular Crema coffeehouse a few blocks closer to downtown, the restaurant exudes a similar hipster vibe, albeit one a notch fancier. Victorian wallpaper, linen-colored with blue-gray swirls, lines one wall, the pattern echoed in the hard-surfaced banquette below. Opposite, a cream wall boasts an off-center, gilt-edged mirror that's not quite big enough to fill the space. A smaller, bright-red dining room with an upright piano and a row of lockers lies beyond, but even the view of the partially open kitchen can't brush away the feeling that this area is a pass-through, and that the front, with its big windows and packed copper bar, is where you want to be. Come spring, French doors will open onto a vine-covered patio, but for now, diners waiting for a table must crowd the bar and, when that's full, spill out messily into the center of the room. Yes, the flow can be awkward and, yes, as at Crema, you can't help wondering what would happen if you moved this table here, that table there, maybe added a pillow to soften that banquette a bit. But isn't that the point? The potential of the ordinary?
Happy to be seated, you munch bar mix distractedly because the story the guy is dishing to his sister next to you at the communal table is more interesting than the one your friend is telling, and you can't really pay attention to the food while eavesdropping through the loud music and pretending to hold up your end of the conversation. As a result, you miss the first hint that there's more here than meets the eye — specifically, those dried apricots, crispy chickpeas and favas hidden under all that Rice Chex and popcorn. But you finally have to let the other conversation go, because the server is lifting a pitcher to pour apple parsnip soup into a bowl with green pebbles on the bottom. Isn't that what restaurants with tablecloths do, pour at the table? But you can't ponder that too long, because if you do, your friend will scoop up those jellied jalapeño pearls that accent the sweet, earthy soup.
By the time the carrots arrive, you've caught on to the Populist's uncommon-food-for-commoners shtick, and you like it. You don't know quite what Power's flourish will be, because the menu divulges nothing more than the most basic element of each dish — just three or four words of a title, no descriptors of any kind. Servers are supposed to fill in the blanks, drawing you into a friendly conversation about the food, but not all of them do. Some, in fact, seem like they're in the first day of a public-speaking class, knowing they should make eye contact but dreading every second of it, tripping over explanations (and sometimes inventing ones of their own) in their haste for a retreat to the kitchen.
If you get one of these servers, as I did one recent night, there's no way to ready yourself for orange-glazed carrots so deliciously honeyed you'll want to suck them like lollipops. Charred carrot purée, curly raw shoestrings and cardamom-chive mascarpone temper the sweetness; without these accents, "carrots three ways" would topple like a two-legged stool. Similarly, you expect the pork-and-pear sausage to be pudding-like — you ordered boudin blanc, after all, not Italian sausage — but neither the menu nor the server has prepared you for nibs of spaetzle, pan-crisped and sultry from the addition of beets, that disappear far too quickly.
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As you venture into heavier territory, though, it's sometimes hard to sustain that enthusiasm. Braised jackfruit is entertaining on its own, a slab of tropical fruit flaking like carnitas in a dark mushroom-tamari reduction. But fine slices of flap steak deserve a better partner than cold, marinated oyster mushrooms, which are a tad too close to raw meat in texture. And huitlacoche-stuffed agnolotti need more than a few fried carrot chips to brighten an otherwise rich, monotone plate.
Power was a philosophy major in college, which might explain the questions he asks of his food. Who says bacon and eggs must be for breakfast and jam must be made of fruit? A 64-degree egg, set on a spoonable concoction of slow-cooked onions, bacon, sugar and sherry, provides an alternative answer. And with a deconstructed duck cubano, artfully arranged on a rectangular platter with Gruyère, cornichons and dots of Dijon, he questions why a charcuterie plate seems high-end when you can tuck similar ingredients inside pressed bread and simply call it lunch.
Questions are asked of us, too. Some are big, such as why food of this caliber should be surprising here when it's expected at higher prices, in fancier settings, in other parts of town. Others are simpler: What do you feel like eating tonight? Free of labels, the menu allows you to choose what you want, without constraints of first course, second course, sides. Plates are meant to be shared, so you can order two courses or seven, traveling from France to Mexico to India and back without being stopped at customs.
By the time you reach dessert, you're ready for whatever the kitchen might throw your way. But it's Josh Sanford, not Power, who's in charge of pastry at the Populist, and instead of that liquid-nitrogen malt or another witty yet grounded dessert, you get one cigarillo of chocolate ganache and four kernels of caramel corn on an empty plate the size of the Sahara. You look at your friend, who laughs out loud. Delicious, yes, but so precious, so unrelentingly gourmand, you have a question of your own: Is this the Elitist or the Populist? The rest of the meal has already answered that, though. And with food this good and prices this reasonable, you're already waving the server over for another go at dessert.