When a new spot opens in town, we can't wait to check it out, let you know our initial impressions, share a few photos, and dish about some menu items. First Taste, as the name implies, is not a full-blown review, but instead a peek inside restaurants that have just opened — an occasion to sample a few items and satisfy curiosities (both yours and ours).
Location: 222 East Portland Street
Open: About two months
Eats: New American fare
Price: $20 to $40 each
Hours: 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 to 10 p.m., Sunday to Thursday; 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., 5 p.m. to midnight, Friday to Saturday
In November, we told you about the opening of Poppy — a new restaurant inside the also-new Cambria Hotel Downtown Phoenix. By now we’ve gone twice, already daydreaming of a third and fourth, because there’s more work to be done at this worldly hotel restaurant.
Poppy is the new home of Executive Chef Nate Cayer and Chef de Cuisine Steven Blackburn. Both are from Chicagoland; Cayer is originally from Vermont. Both worked at a farm-to-table restaurant in Plainfield, Illinois, before Cayer asked Blackburn about joining him in Phoenix. In fact, Cayer was fired for recruiting Blackburn.
“They walked up and were like, 'You can go home, you’re fired, you’re poaching staff,' Cayer says.
Now, the two operate the kitchens behind Poppy and From the Rooftop — the straightforwardly named rooftop bar. Cayer and Blackburn run the kitchen up there, too, but the two are separate entities. FTR offers the same bar program, and small plates made to be shareable — nothing you’d need a fork and knife to eat, as Cayer puts it.
Back on the bottom floor, Poppy’s menu is described as “locally sourced, globally inspired.” That tracks, as purveyors include Noble Bread, Chula Seafood, Beetanical Garden, Top Knot Farms, and The Fig and The Knife.
Notable regarding the menu: Cayer and Blackburn often use kitchen scraps in their cooking. Examples aren’t necessarily found right on the menu, but it’s a major practice in Poppy’s kitchen.
“We put the finest ingredients in the dishes, the entrees, and the small plates,” Blackburn says, “and then the scraps we’re reusing for the bar, the stocks, ceviche, and gazpacho.”
Citrus peels are macerated, sugared, and used as cocktail syrups. Watermelon rinds are pickled and placed on the charcuterie plate. Apple skins are fried and used as garnish. Belly meat from Chula salmon is used in the ceviche. Top Knot chicken bones (not from the customers, FYI) are used in stocks.
But it’s mostly the drink program that benefits from diverted scraps. Cayer says the best example of this is the house cocktail Triple S — which stands for smoky, sweet, and spicy.
Cayer says the pink drink is made with strawberry ends, basil stems, and pieces of habanero. They throw in a couple peppercorns, some sugar in the syrup, and, of course, the mezcal. “The rest is made from scraps,” he says.
Another great craft cocktail, which may come recommended by your server, is the Smoked & Stoned. The darker cocktail ventures away from other smoked drinks thanks to the brightness of an apricot liqueur paired with the Cardamaro’s depth. Smoke is also an ingredient.
Now, let’s get some food in us.
As with many restaurants, the small plates are doted over. Here, it’s easily the most creative place on the menu. The Thai mussels are a soft treat, each forkful carrying the taste of the coconut milk, chili, lemongrass, and fish sauce to your mouth.
A don’t-miss-it dish is the fried Brussels sprouts — crispy sprouts tossed in salt and pepper, lemon juice, and a bacon jam. Sticking to the theme, that bacon jam is made with the bacon grease from the morning’s breakfast rush.
“It’s kind of like a hollandaise, but with bacon fat instead of butter,” Blackburn says. In the end, you’ll wish for some privacy so you may run your finger around the bottom of the bowl, getting every last bit.
Mains seem simplified on the menu — there’s a burger, salmon, filet, vegan enchiladas. Then there’s the Top Knot Half Chicken. It's another favorite of the staff.
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This is a hunk of juicy, high-flavored chicken, topped with microgreens. It’s placed half atop the dish’s pan-seared dumplings, charred onions, and carrot puree — the whole thing looking like a wild bouquet. Eating this takes strategy, as you’ll want each bite to feature a bit of each element. And when it does happen — a little bit of savory chicken, soft dumpling, sauce-like carrot — it’s understood why it’d be an entree recommended.
It’ll be interesting to see Poppy grow along with this section of Portland Street in downtown Phoenix. The patio may soon be getting some heavy use, and FTR is already a scenic hit (the unobstructed views of central Phoenix are incredible). But the menu will also continue to develop.
“Poppy is going to evolve dramatically. We’re going to change the menu all the time,” Blackburn says. “Because we like to cook and have fun in there.”
Welcome to Phoenix, guys.