September 12, 2008
“Can I begin my analysis now?” I asked my restaurant-loving date, T, as we settled into our seats at the three-week old Pop!! in downtown St. Paul. The location in Northeast has had some success and we were eager to see how it came together in the fairer of the two cities.
The Warhol-inspired decorative screen with a bright medley of Campbell’s soup cans. Very cool. The Lichtenstein-inspired pop art dots that grace the menu. Also very cool. As I searched for more inspiring detail in this strangely bright and cavernous space, I started to struggle with what I wanted to say next. The table we were sitting at (and every one near it) felt like they were located under the chefs’ heating lamp and we were the plated food set to linger at a low heat. Everything felt orange and toasty. T noticed my silence and asked the most pertinent question of the evening. “So, you like the dots. What else?”
My honest answer one appetizer, two entrees, two cocktails, and a bottle of Malbec later is this: Eh. I’m not sure yet. Pop!! is well-intentioned, but we felt that none of the elements came together in a truly memorable way. We ordered Picadillo Empanada appetizers stuffed with seasoned ground beef and served with olive relish and chimichurri sauce. We agreed that the empanada dough tasted flat, as thought it had sat for awhile, and would have loved more of the chimi sauce.
I ordered cous cous with sauteed shrimp, chorizo, saffron tomato broth, and olive relish. Although the entree lacked personality, the shrimp were nicely cooked and made me happy, like a good chorus in an average pop song. T ordered the vegetable paella, which he found disappointing. Always making healthy choices, he thought it would be a nice, light meal of the much-loved Spanish variety. When the waiter took off the lid, T poked at his meal with his fork, disturbed by the little pool of grease formed around the edge. A few bites later, he was disappointed. “There is nothing paella-ish about this meal. But I’m so hungry, I need to eat something.”
My favorite part about the night was not the restaurant’s attention to detail, but my date’s. He pointed out that the Northeast location of Pop! uses one exclamation point, and the St. Paul location uses two: Pop!! But rather than calling them exclamation points, he called them “bangs.” When he saw the use of two of them, he got my attention and said, “See, two bangs.”
T and I walked off into quiet St. Paul and the first cool night of the year. “I still want to go to a ‘real’ restaurant with you,” I said, given how much we enjoy food, restaurants, and all of the opinions formed therein. As it is with the fate of Pop!!, though, I guess it’s still a little too early to tell.