In fact, it is hard to imagine a more perfect neighborhood gathering spot than Potager. Stripped down to the bare husk of whatever old warehouse the space was before, the restaurant's walls are pocked with old drywall scabs, exposed brick and lovely yellow lights. The bar and ductwork are brushed aluminum, the tables spare blond wood. All the linens and plates are simple white. The only other adornment is the atmosphere, a cross between neighborhood funk and neighborhood hip--a few mismatched chairs, an old couch, dried flowers, magazines hung from the rungs of a ladder, and lots and lots of cool-looking people, including tables full of duplicates of the entire cast of Friends. Although the main dining room is spare and high-ceilinged, it is not one of those noisy spaces where diners have to begin screaming as soon as they sit down. Somehow, it stays quite refined, with jazz playing in the background.
From the front entrance, at night, Potager glows. From a bar stool on the inside, there is an incredible view of Capitol Hill loonbags, old and young, all of whom seem to be walking to or from Alfalfa's or the corner liquor store. From Potager's garden in back, you see (and smell) nothing but flowers, vegetables and fresh herbs.
With its intense, enveloping, community feel, Potager is reminiscent of one of the old Mercury Cafes--if the Merc had just spent a month at a health spa and hired a closet organizer.
Potager even shares the Merc's healthy interest in fresh, seasonal offerings. The menu changes with the seasons, in line with the philosophy espoused by the restaurant's name--Potager translates to "kitchen garden." In a kitchen garden, August is supposed to be a month of burgeoning ripe tomatoes, peppers, squash and melon--and more of just about everything but lettuce than any gardener can use. But last week, when I visited, Denver had weathered not just a hailstorm, but three weeks of Seattle. If there were any ripe tomatoes in a hundred-mile radius, they had to have come from a Limon greenhouse or an obscure farmer's market I wish I could find. Potager's garden was shredded and ravaged, just like everyone else's. But the fact that the fresh herbs had sustained a major hit didn't explain the strange, pervasive lack of flavor in many of the dishes we tried at Potager. Nothing tasted as good as it looked--although it always looked like something Monet would paint.
Potager's menu is small and selective, which meant our foursome could order nearly half the dishes on the dinner menu. While waiting for the appetizers, we snacked on excellent French bread from the Full Measure bakery and sipped wine by the half-glass--a wonderful concept that caters to people who like to try new wines almost as much as they dislike driving home schnockered. The first starter to arrive was a skewer of lemongrass-and-coconut marinated shrimp ($7.95) artfully arranged on a slick of "spicy peanut vinaigrette." The six shrimp were grilled and yummy. They did not, however, taste even faintly of lemongrass, coconut or peanuts. The same unadorned fate befell the steamed mussels ($9.25), which were allegedly influenced by garlic, ginger, red bell peppers, fresh tomatoes and cilantro, but recalled nothing so much as nice, fresh mussels in plain sea water. But the sushi-grade tuna and rice cake ($8.50) hit the mark, since high-quality tuna should never be a big tastebud-assaulter.
More complex flavors finally arrived in the roast bell pepper and fresh mozzarella terrine ($7.50): succulent layers of peppery pepper and creamy cheese spiked by a balsamic vinaigrette and loaded down with fresh basil leaves. And the hits continued with two entrees that arrived out of left field, islands of down-home meat dishes in a sea of arugula. An order of oven roasted chicken ($12.95) brought a half-bird piled high with tomatoes, cucumbers and kalamata olives, and full of great surprises--like a layer of goat cheese next to the crisply roasted skin and a lump of perfectly soggy bread stuffing. The BBQ roast pork tenderloin ($14.95) looked like it had been clawed from the grill by a grizzly, and the tender meat was intensely flavored with caramelized onions and chile. But what was up with the "sweet corn souffle" served on the side? Although it looked rather grand--it had the shape of a Yoplait container--it tasted like the Jolly Green Giant's creamed corn, which ain't bad, but isn't exactly a souffle. Still, we had to applaud the rib-stickingness of the meat dishes.
Our more ladylike choices were less successful. The summer risotto ($10.95) was a stingy mound of rice augmented with clumps of zucchini, summer squash, shaved parmesan and almonds that tasted like Rice-A-Roni. Again, that ain't bad, but to present it as a high-rent, high-concept risotto is misleading. The grilled filet of salmon ($13.95) was swimming in a wonderful broth dotted with bits of corn and chili, but the filet itself was small and bland, and decorated with strange squares of roasted red pepper butter that never melted into the mix and so never tasted like anything but butter. We transferred the pats to bread, ate them and ordered dessert.
I've never met a creme bralee ($3.50) I didn't like, and this one was no exception. The blueberry bread pudding ($3.50) also struck the right comfort-food tone, if not texture, since it seemed more like a dense muffin crammed into a ramekin than an egg-derived pudding. If the waiter had called it Hot Crammed Muffin, I would have been very pleased with what showed up on my plate. Actually, renaming a few dishes would solve a lot of Potager's semantic problems. Call that appetizer Really Yummy Shrimp, for example; turn the risotto into Nice-Enough Rice. Take the emphasis off aromatic vegetables and herbs and move it to Meat.
Although the dining room doesn't open until dinner, Potager also serves breakfast and lunch. When we returned the next day at 1 p.m., the golden evening crowd was nowhere to be seen; we were the only customers. We sat down at one of the funky tables in the cafe and waited for something to happen. Finally we gave up and went to the counter, where we learned that lunch is a serve-yourself affair (you can then take your meal back to the table, or move out to one of several sylvan spots in the garden). Seven tapas--which change from day to day, at $2 per--were on display; we also spotted a small menu posted near the bread and rolls, which listed the possibility of bowls of Hatch green chile ($2).
"Oh, right," the counterdude said, "I always forget to mention that."
He shouldn't: The chile was awesome, made with peppers so recently roasted you could smell them coming and boasting an unusual creamy texture. The heartier tapas were equally satisfying, particularly the chorizo in puff pastry that was served cold and had the exact congealed spicy/fatty appeal of pizza the morning after. And a serving of marinated mushrooms provided a nicely pickled counterpoint to a dish of smooth hummus served with pita points. Less thrilling was the minted melon salad featuring what the counterdude called "midget grapes" and very ripe cantaloupe, but no mint (or even green flecks, as far as I could see). Roasted potatoes, which the counterdude pronounced "not my favorite, but okay," were exactly that. We also sampled a generous portion of ceviche redolent of cilantro and a smaller saucer of mussels that had no more taste than they had the night before, sided with salsa made from still-tasteless corn. All of the tapas came garnished with slices of ripe strawberries--an odd pairing with ceviche, but perhaps the only fresh-fruit option after all that hail.
By the time we finished eating, a few other tables were occupied, all by older diners with little dishes spread out before them and confusion on their faces as they puzzled over the possibility of acquiring drinks and silverware. If you're the sort of person who demands three square meals a day, tapas may not make much sense at lunch. But where else can you satisfy a craving for a totally crazy little dish of marinated mushrooms at, say, 3 p.m.?
When I drove by Potager just two hours later, the beautiful neighborhood people were already converging. What were they looking for, exactly? I wasn't sure, but they'd come to the right place.
Potager, 1109 Ogden Street 832-5788. Hours: Tuesday through Sunday,7 a.m.-4 p.m., 5 p.m.-11 p.m. Closed Mondays.