2859 NE Johnson St., Minneapolis
Darlings, when I walked into "Pop! A Neighborhood Restaurant" last Saturday, I saw a gorgeous minx of a thing waiting for a table, dressed to the nines in scarlet legwarmers, honeycomb fishnets, and kitten heels. I saw eccentric tables with highly evolved tastes throwing back $20 bottles of Malbec and $2 bottles of Yoo-Hoo. I saw pop art boldly positioned on bright orange walls, and I nearly fainted. What on earth has happened to Northeast?
As I fixed my monocle more firmly in my eye, I looked more closely at the assembled diners. Why, who was it at that front round table? Wasn't that a coven of Hollywood heavies including Tilda Swinton, Steve Buscemi, and Harvey Weinstein?
Well, of course not.
But still, kitten heels and Malbec is a darn sight forward for the Audubon neighborhood, which has been known previously mostly as a really good place to get a Big Wheels race going, if you're brave enough to take on the hills. Kitten heels and Malbec! How on Earth?
Of course, this came about because a local boy made good, and came home.
You see, Pop! owner and chef Clark Knutson grew up in Northeast, in Audubon's neighboring neighborhood, Windom Park. In the '80s he moved to New York and went to school at the Culinary Institute of America. He then spent the next decade and a half cooking around the globe, in restaurants from Miami to Helsinki. But of course we all know that nice boys named Knutson cannot resist the pull of the North Star State for long, and so now he's back--with wife and child. And, he's now proprietor of the very same restaurant he remembers going to in high school for fries and burgers after seeing The Exorcist at the Hollywood Theater.
Do such pop culture enthusiasms as horror movies and fries seem unlikely for a globe-trotting chef? "I like pop art--I collect pop art--and I like pop music," says Knutson. "For years I knew I was going to open a restaurant and name it Pop!" So the spot where teenaged Knutson indulged his habit for pop culture turned into the restaurant where grown-up Knutson sells two dozen kinds of soda pop, as well as Pommery Pop champagne, to diners who sit beneath pop art reproductions. (His real Warhols and Rauschenbergs are at home--no kidding!) Which is to say, the next time you see a teenager eating fries after a horror movie, think about it: Will he return to that table in 25 years and put upon it such things as pumpkin flan in a pecan soup? Will he?
I surely hope so. Finally, Big Wheels races for those who get their kicks above the table. We'll get to the pumpkin flan eventually, but in the meantime I'll give you the big picture: Pop! is one of those neighborhood restaurants along the lines of Marimar, the Modern, or Prima. It aims to be the local affordable corner place that you stop at when you're not thinking too much about food, and it also hopes to be a little more than that, to provide a fancier, upper level to its cooking, if you're up for it.
It succeeds quite well. The most basic corner-restaurant items, like the lemony Caesar salad, the tender burger, and the crisp matchstick fries are all items anyone would be delighted to find around the corner from their house. The kids' menu--six items, including pasta, grilled cheese, and fried whitefish fish sticks--is priced at $5 a pop, with beverage, fries, and a treat, which immediately makes Pop! one of the most kid-friendly restaurants in town.
For adults, I found a number of dishes worth seeking out. For appetizers, try the picadillo empanadas ($5.50), which at Pop! are four moon-shaped meat turnovers filled with the classic blend of sweet and spicy beef, crowned with a rich olive relish, and served on a bed of greens. The stuff is savory finger food that cries out for a beer and a friend to share them with. The beet salad ($6) is a knockout, a big bowl filled with rustic big slices of beets, scads of toasted walnuts, plenty of blue cheese, and a unifying salad of wilted arugula.
Among the entrées, the two pastas are as reliable as anyone could hope for: the penne ($10) with spinach and a parmesan and garlic cream sauce was rich and plain; the bucatini with sausage ($10) in tomato sauce is the rustic comfort food it should be, the pasta thick, al dente, and chewy, the sausage a few big country lumps, the sauce spare but robust. The Swedish meatballs ($11) are a charming rendition of the Minnesota classic: nicely rough-hewn balls stand sturdily in their tan gravy, guarding fresh-tasting mashed potatoes and enough lingonberries to make you feel fancy.
As for the rest of the appetizers and entrées, I think the restaurant is overburdened right now by a menu that tries to do too much with a small staff and small kitchen. One night I tried the matambré ($13), which I always understood to be a steak stuffed or rolled around a filling, and received a plain, grilled-to-death marinated flank steak, served beside the world's weirdest chickpeas. They were tossed together with blue cheese and soft-stewed carrots and topped with chimichurri, and the whole thing was so discordant and repulsive it was like glancing down one morning to find a submarine sandwich in your bowl of Cheerios. Some things are only good served separately.
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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