Pop Sensation

Local boy comes home from the Culinary Institute of America to make good in Nordeast

And yet, I ordered this matambré a week later, and received a sturdy, charming dish: The steak was seared beautifully on the outside, perfectly tender and cooked to temperature within, drizzled with the chimichurri sauce, and garnished with blue cheese. Off to the side, a lovely chickpea and carrot stew sat quietly, tasting earthy and plain. Hmm. To me, this says that on the first visit for some reason the chef had to step away, and someone clueless stepped in to fill his shoes. And while I can feel sympathy, nothing I can ever say will get my friend who received the weirdo version of this dish back into that restaurant. The ropa vieja ($12.50), which is beef stewed in tomato sauce and should be tender and wet, was dry and stringy the two times I tried it, and, strangely, on both visits the rice was dry and underdone and tasted of stale saffron, in that awful sawdust way.

The appetizers were particularly fraught with peril. A bowl of melted provolone ($6) served with toast points hardens and then re-forms into a single glob after seconds on the table, and particularly needs to be rethought. The sugar-sweet mango foam with jerk chicken that tasted as plain as church-basement carpet was hard to explain. And I hardly know what to make of the most ambitious of the appetizers, called "Three Fish and a Plantain" ($9.50), which I ordered twice, thinking that the first time, when I got slimy salmon ceviche and grilled shrimp over a toothache-sweet coconut cream, there had to have been a mistake. Both those dishes were far better the second time around, the shrimp being merely plain and a bit strange with coconut cream that seemed unchanged from its can, and the salmon marred only by a too-long marination. But both times the walleye escabeche tasted like a fish-dough gumdrop. Avoid.

Of course I feel terrible writing that! I do feel awful, no kidding. But I cannot tell a lie. Well, I might, except anyone who'd go on in would figure it out for herself pretty darn quick, and then where would I be? Well, Acapulco, yes, if you'd just send the tickets already! In any event, it's hard not to feel sympathy for Knutson standing practically all alone behind his line and serving all these many, many dishes to all these many, many eager customers. The place really is thronged most nights. It stays thronged, despite the consistency problems, because the neighborhood desperately needed a restaurant, and both the wine list and desserts are terrific.

Pop!'s wine list is a pretense-free, budget-healing gem--try the $4-a-glass, $16-a-bottle Calina if you want proof that a $16 bottle of wine in a restaurant can be a great thing. This Cabernet Sauvignon is made by Kendall Jackson from Chilean grape juice, and the combination of American winemaking and good Chilean grapes results in a wine that's round and full, but still prickling with the barnyardy notes that give you something to notice and chew on. In fact, the wine list of a little more than two dozen bottles, priced from $14 to $39, with most around $20, brilliantly answers the question: Can a wine list be both interesting and cheap? Hooray!

The desserts also deserve plenty of applause. They are put together by the young and talented Gilbert Junge, who, like Knutson, is a CIA graduate, and who put in time in the kitchen at the Minneapolis Aquavit and worked in Chicago in the kitchen at Charlie Trotter's. Catch a glimpse of all that high-falutin' training in such confident dishes as a coconut tapioca pudding, an elegantly understated pudding paired with slices of translucent roasted pineapple ($5.50). The pineapple tastes candied and profound, the pudding has a jolly, mouth-filling texture and plain comforting taste, and the two together make a happy contrast of bold and simple. The "Pop! Ditters" are fresh-made little cinnamon donut holes served hot alongside a bowl of warmed chocolate sauce laced with a pinch of chili powder--simply marvelous.

My only caveat is that sometimes desserts sell out before the evening is over, so be sure to order early. And often. And bring me some! But especially, bring me the pumpkin flan, a marvelous creation. Imagine, if you will, three kinds of desserts united into one unforgettable bowl. At first your fork encounters a large square of silky pumpkin flan--like pumpkin pie, but in a gossamer, flanny way. Below you'll find plain, sturdy spice cake. And surrounding this two-tier triumph, a bowl of pecan soup! Now, pecan soup is like melted ice cream, all nutty, creamy, and irresistible, and as you swish your sturdy cake through your melty, nutty cream, you, too, will forgive the restaurant any transgression. After all, isn't rejoicing in the pleasures of sweets the very essence of pop culture?

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