There is no money in poetry, but there’s no poetry in money, either. – Robert Graves
People keep asking me the same question.
They say “John?”
I say, “What?”
They say, “John, I’m going out tonight in Summerlin; should I go to Poppy Den or Honey Salt?”
To which I say: “Both are worthy of your hard earned dinero. But it’s a Morton’s fork, if you will, as both impress and depress the hell out of me.”
Perhaps I should explain.
You see food fans, both Honey Salt and Poppy Den are corporate calculations, with all of the personality of an adding machine.
The good news is, that makes them perfect for the SUV and ladies-who-lunch crowds who have flocked to both since the day they opened. (No one ever accused Summerlin-ites of having anything remotely resembling imagination…or a need for authenticity for that matter.)
Both are designed to within an inch of their lives and are hatched and run by real pros (Kelly Jones in the case of Poppy Den; Kim Canteenwalla and Elizabeth Blau at HS).
Service at both is excellent.
The wine lists at both are miniscule…befitting customers who think nothing of buying a $75,000 car, but then carp at spending more than fifty bucks on vino.
A few good beers are on hand (if our culinary revolution has accomplished nothing, at least it’s freed us from the mega-brew hegemony of the late 20th Century), and of course, there’s the ubiquitous “house-made, hand-crafted, artisanal, blah blah blah cocktail list” at both that makes one yearn for a well-made Harvey Wallbanger.
Then there’s the food: “farm-to-table” according to the Honey Salt menu and Asian-fusion according to Poppy Den’s Web site.
Honey Salt’s menu tries too hard to be something for everyone (scallops, salmon, chicken and beef – you know the drill), but if you know where to look, there are gems to be found. A shot of Canteenwalla’s “Green Goddess Juice” may be expensive at seven bucks, but seems to possess mystical, health-giving properties. (You’ll swear you feel better after the first swig.) His “New England Fry” — basically clams and calamari — suffers from not enough lemon in the aioli, but otherwise is a crispy evocation of everything fried seafood can be. But the real winner on the apps list are the turkey meatballs topped with fresh, grated horseradish, and the aggressively-spiced Tuscan cannellini bean soup — both as deeply flavored and well-constructed as any starters in town.
Things get dicier when you venture to the main parts of the menu. My burger has been overcooked and under-seasoned both times I’ve tried it, and the same dullness permeates much of the cooking. It almost seems like Canteenwalla (a chef with major chops) has decided to dial back the seasonings on everything for fear of offending someone. I’d wager even Nana Tiffin — after whom the excellent (if somewhat mild) chicken curry is named — would implore her grandson to “kick it up a notch” (or two). At least Canteenwalla can be proud of (and you will remember) this dishes’ pedigree. In the case of the “Farmer’s Toast(s)” offered at lunch, both are so bland and boring you’ll forget you ordered them even before the check arrives. In the chef’s defense, all vegan and vegetarian food is bland and boring, so we give him props for at least trying to jazz it up.
As for the vaunted Biloxi Buttermilk Fried Chicken, it operates under the same handicap. Chefs in this day and age need to know one truism about burgers and fried chicken: it has to be life-changing to be considered anything other than an also-ran. This one may be in the race, but its lack of spice in all that crispy crust makes it a perennial DNF (did not finish).
The problem, of course, is because Honey Salt isn’t just a restaurant, it’s a “concept.” Which means it is a template for what the investors hope will be a chain or franchise down the road. For this reason, everything on the menu is geared towards pleasing everybody. That’s why all the buzz words are there — “comfort foods!” “grain power!” farm-to-table!” and why the swells and clippy-cloppy ladies of Summerlin love it just fine.
But as Molière said: “The friend of all mankind is no friend of mine,” and I’d be a lot friendlier towards Honey Salt if Kim and Elizabeth let ‘er rip, and tried to make a statement with their food instead of trying to avoid hurting anyone’s feelings…..or offending anyone’s palate.
Poppy Den, on the other hand…
….heaps the same indignity upon its customers — who are but lab rats in the owners’ quest for a successful brand (a New York offshoot is in the works) — but at least its chefs know where the spice cabinet is.
Top Chef contestant Angelo Sosa proudly struts his stuff* as a Jean-Georges Vongerichten acolyte, and demonstrates his fusion training with all sorts of round-eye familiar goods tweaked with the spicing and techniques of Southeast Asia. The best damn soup in town might be his tomato bisque with curry foam, and it’s hard to fault his ultra-crispy (and memorable) “The General’s Chicken Wing” — lacquered to within an inch of its life with sweet, viscous soy sauce — and finishing on the palate with the subtle-yet-strong heat of this Korean bar food mainstay.
Less successful among the small plates are the seared pork dumplings — which resemble and taste like frozen, fried egg rolls and not the potstickers they’re described as – and “Aunt Carmen’s Fish Fritters” (what’s with all this homey menu nomenclature?) — that no one will ever mistake for a Thai fish cake; they being tiny balls of deep fried mush, i.e., all filler and little fish. At least that’s what they tasted like. Surprisingly, though, the sauces that come with each of these apps are as addictive as the over-fried proteins are disappointing.
Sosa’s meatballs are miniscule but his tuna deviled eggs are are a nice way to jazz up the overplayed “tartare” — in this case mixing raw fish chunks with a separate salad of hard-cooked whites tossed in a “deviled” dressing. I couldn’t find fault with his sweet and savory “fried rice” quinoa with dried pineapple or his roast duck with bok choy, but the ballyhooed “poppy fries with kim cheese sauce” (get it?) will be ballyhooed by the waitstaff here and no one else — they being by-the-numbers fries with a sauce so bland it could pass muster at an old folks home serving pre-chewed food.
All of these are but picayune complaints from a persnickety critic. Both of these restaurants are probably perfect for these times and the clientele they wish to serve. Both are the brain child of “name” chefs who have decided to bring their talents and their staffs to the ‘burbs rather than fight the corporate (and imagination-free) bureaucracies of the Strip.
But ELV longs for a time when restaurants were started by owners and/or chefs simply looking for a place to cook and serve their food. When sugarplum thoughts of brand expansion and templates for franchised success weren’t the watchwords of this industry. But this is the world we live in, and corporate calculation or not, both Honey Salt and Poppy Den are miles better than anything this neighborhood has seen before. Thus, are we as Las Vegans enriched by their presence and I for one, wish both great success.
Just as I wish each one of them had a soul.
1031 South Rampart Blvd.
Las Vegas, NV 89145
Inside Tivoli Village
440 South Rampart Blvd. Suite 180
Las Vegas, NV 89145
* Although he won’t be doing much strutting around Tivoli Village….that brand-building thing again.