It’s hard not to feel a bit nostalgic when approaching Poppy Kitchen.
The latest in the Metzger Family Restaurants has settled in the former home of JBar, Janos Wilder‘s Latin fusion restaurant at the Westin La Paloma Resort & Spa. Wilder’s more upscale Janos was next door — a glorious space that is now shuttered.
Both restaurants closed in 2012 and Wilder left a big toque to fill.
And Poppy Kitchen, which took over the space in February, does it quite nicely, thank you very much.
Here are seven Poppy pointers:
1 — The milieu. A wall has been built blocking off the passageway that once existed between JBar and Janos restaurants, the colors have been subdued to greys and blues, and a cluster of chandeliers watch over the indoor dining area, which has wooden floors and bare tables. The understated decor makes you think of a restaurant that isn’t particularly interested in ambiance. It’s more than a diner, but less than a “sit down and relax” vibe. The one-page menu’s look underscores that casual feel, from the typeface to the categories (“snacks” and “mains” among them — a riff on the old Abbey menu). And don’t expect intimate conversations — the acoustics won’t allow it.
While all that’s going on, a hostess holds the front door open as she greets you, the waiter is fast, gracious and knowledgeable, and the menu items include Kobe burger ($17) and duck breast ($25). Those are upscale offerings that counter the low-key feel.
2 — That duck breast. This dish is a doozie. Three thick slices of medium-rare duck with crispy skin sit on top of a duck confit fried rice that is absolutely swoonable. The duck confit is made with the tasty meat of the duck leg. Chef Virginia “Ginny” Wooters shreds the meat and infuses it with red chili flakes, giving it a slight shudder of heat. Making this an especially delectable dish: the confit is cooked in duck fat. It’s also tossed with a judicious amount of Himalayan red rice, which has a subtle nutty flavor. Snap peas brushed with garlic sit on top. It was a winning dish at this point; here’s what elevated it: the rich mushroom broth that formed a shallow pool on the bottom of the dish and was soon soaked up by the rice. The earthy flavor of the mushrooms met up with a hint of fresh mint and the two had a joyous union. The duck breast, considered the house specialty, is reason alone to go to Poppy.
3 — The ribeye. We must admit that we were slightly disappointed when the slab of meat was brought to the table. The ribeye ($29) was very thin — it’s nearly impossible to cook a steak that thin the requested medium rare and still have that crusty sear on the outside. Yet, the meat — grilled “a la plancha,” on a flattop grill — was done perfectly. It was well marbled, tender, and tasty enough that the salt and pepper seasoning applied in the kitchen was all it needed. And then there were these: butter-poached asparagus with an ever-so-slight resistance to the bite, and a side of a creamed corn liberally spiked with Asiago cheese. What heaven.
4 — Fish. There’s a salmon that’s always on the menu ($23), and a “Fish No. 2” dish that changes based on what’s available. What was available at the first of two visits was swordfish ($27), pan-seared to a perfect crispness out and moistness in. It came in a broth that burst with the taste of just-picked corn. The simplicity and beauty of the dish was matched by the freshness and flavor of the fish.
5 — Fried chicken. This was a popular Wednesday night event at The Abbey, once a member of the Metzger restaurant clan. It’s been revived at Poppy. And for that we are mighty grateful. The brined and buttermilk-soaked chicken ($19) is crisp outside, tender and juicy in. On a recent visit it was served with a cold macaroni salad cut with onions, pickle and mayonnaise, alongside asparagus and a cloud-light biscuit specked with apple, scallions and bacon. The sides change frequently — not so long ago, they were whipped potatoes jazzed with garlic, green beans brushed with butter, and flakey cornbread accented with cheddar cheese and green chile. You want this fried chicken. You want these sides. But you’ll have to go on a Wednesday — it’s the only day they are served.
6 — Dessert. We have a bit of a complaint here — one dessert featured a pot de crème spiked with coffee and two warm beignets. The custard was creamy and the crisp beignets with soft centers were dusted with powdered sugar. And they were way, way too small and too few. One bite of the beignet and you quickly realize that it would be easy to wolf down a half dozen of them.
7 - The patio: Metzger has installed banquettes on the patio so that all who sit on them can gaze out on one of the best views of Tucson. And he has added this: A table shuffleboard game. And it’s free. Who knows, maybe Metzger will cultivate a few champions to compete with the Arizona Shuffleboard Association (yes, there is such a thing: azsaweb.com).