Exclusive first look: The Populist opens on Wednesday
On Wednesday, the Populist, a restaurant from Jonathan Power and Noah Price, the duo behind Crema Coffee House, will open its doors on Upper Larimer, its debut arguably one of this year's most anticipated restaurant openings. But there is nothing remotely splashy about the Populist, which, at this point, is still bereft of signage. Price and Power have designed what appears to be the quintessential neighborhood restaurant, the kind of place that's simultaneously elegant and humble, its interior an oasis of comfort, warmth and sincerity, and that's precisely what the owners had in mind when they began designing the restaurant.
"We want this to be like Crema," says Price. "We wanted to open a super-approachable restaurant that bridged the gap between fine dining and an everyday experience, a place where you can come in twice a week and have a seven-course tasting menu, or just have a small plate and a craft beer." Their mission, he continues, is "to keep our prices down but still offer great flavors and the best ingredients we can. We want the focus be on the food without labeling ourselves local or organic -- just trust that we're using the best ingredients that we can get our hands on and presenting them in a way that's fun and different."
To wit: Instead of truffles, which are breathtakingly expensive, Power, who helms the partially open kitchen, is making good use of huitlacoche -- corn smut, or Mexico's equivalent to the truffle -- stuffing it inside his agnolotti, which he pairs with carrot chips, roasted corn and micro cilantro and then pools in a corn husk beurre monté. Beef cheeks, puddled in a tamari reduction, straddle seared frisée and fingerling potatoes dusted with porcini salt. Small mounds of roasted jalapeno caviar, spooned into the bottom of stark white bowls, are perked up by an apple and parsnip soup that's poured tableside and specked with aleppo chile flakes, which are sourced from the Savory Spice shop, as are most of the restaurant's spices, stored in jars that sit on a shelf high above the line.
Those exceptional dishes -- and more -- will be served in a dining room that glows with polished restraint and a distinctly local feel. Weathered lockers are used to harbor wines, another set of lockers to hang coats; an antiquated upright piano, ornate in its design, sits against one wall, wedged between a pair of two-tops with views outside the window; the bathrooms, should you have to wait, pose next to a long wall studded with photographs, most of them of landscapes; muted Victorian wallpaper, a mix of light blue and cream swirls and diamonds, adorns the main dining room, where two wooden community tables reside; and a stunning bar face, constructed with rough-cut copper that shimmers in different hues, is its own conversation piece.
And the bar, which is overseen by John Ingle (formerly of Wild Catch), will pour classic cocktails (think whiskey sour, old-fashioned and the aviation) and nifty variations of those classics, along with craft beers and affordable boutique wines, a dozen of which are priced at a paltry $28 a bottle. "This is definitely a place for wine geeks," says Price. "We have lots of funky stuff" including, he notes, a Lebanese wine. "There are some things that I'm betting most people haven't heard of, and we wanted to have a list where people could come in and try something new without breaking the bank." In addition, notes Price, Ingle is making his own bitters, syrups and tinctures.
I spent some time with Power and Price at the Populist last week, touring the space, which also includes a terrific patio, and sampling Power's dishes (every dish I tried left a lasting impression), and I imagine that when it opens on Wednesday, the overriding echo heard in the dining room is going to sound something like, "Oh, my God, you've got to taste this." This will be a restaurant that the neighborhood -- and Denver foodniks -- will wholeheartedly embrace.
And here's a sneak peek to give you a taste.