Photography by David Blakeman
Newly gentrified RoRo gets an airy, agreeable, millennial-friendly restaurant all its own.
Like so many hotels these days, the new art-themed Cambria Hotel Downtown Phoenix, located in the heart of the Roosevelt Row Arts District, aims to capture the vast millennial market. Instead of being grand, imposing and boring in beige, the colorful, clean-lined lobby looks like somebody’s cool midcentury modern living room, furnished with plants, bookshelves, quirky local art and comfy chairs that encourage curling up with your iSomething. In fact, that’s exactly what one young woman is doing as my friend and I pass her on the way to Poppy, Cambria’s on-site restaurant, also aimed at the young and young-at-heart.
Poppy – billed on the website as “locally sourced, globally inspired” and more than an “Instagram show pony” – has two menus: all-day brunch and dinner, both designed by executive chef and Chicago transplant Nate Cayer, and both featuring inventive takes on crowd-pleasing classics in a shareable small-plates format.
For people in the breakfast food camp, huckleberry ricotta pancakes, crowned with a generous schmear of black lime and vanilla butter and sided with coconut-scented maple syrup, are tropical-flavored fun. Topped with a crispy, tea-brined chicken thigh, the brioche French toast is a fancy take on chicken and waffles, served on a plate dusted with chile powder for requisite heat (honestly, I’d rather have good old Louisiana hot sauce). It’s a decent but not comparable alternative to Lo-Lo’s signature dish. In that same mildly disappointing vein, eggs Benedict arrive on a good English muffin that simply needs more toasting, topped with oven-roasted tomatoes, chunks of beef tenderloin, poached eggs and a thin Hollandaise jazzed up with tangy giardiniera (its salient feature for me). The dish is adequate, but not as exciting as I’d hoped.
Far better, to my mind, is Poppy’s singular soup flight. On my visit, it included an excellent oxtail chili, made with heirloom beans and lots of rich, umami-rich beef, Fresno chiles and crunchy cornbread crumbles; and a silky and fiery hot habanero corn chowder, amped up with a bourbon reduction. A daily special of pleasant, vaguely chunky leek and potato soup finished the deal.
Poppy is still technically an infant restaurant – it opened shortly after Thanksgiving – and at this point in its lifespan I like the dinner menu better, where coffee-rubbed lamb “lolli-chops,” charred and juicy, arrive on a bed of earthy roasted carrot and potato hash with a chunky slick of cumin chimichurri. Thai mussels, afloat in a dreamy, aromatic broth of coconut milk, chile, fish sauce and lemongrass, are also first-rate, with thick slices of good crunchy bread for mopping. Meanwhile, a roasted half-chicken is comfort-food perfection with sturdy pan-seared dumplings, roasted fennel, charred onion and thick, sweet carrot purée. For $16, it’s a steal.
And that’s the beauty of unpretentious Poppy, where Cayer’s creativity never veers into the Byzantine and indecipherable. Great for millennials, sure, but it works for the rest of us, too.
Poppy Restaurant & Bar
Cuisine: Modern American
Contact: Cambria Hotel, 222 E. Portland St., Phoenix, 602-675-4108, poppyphx.com
Hours: Daily 6 a.m.-3 p.m., Su-Th 5-10 p.m., F-Sa, 5 p.m.-midnight
Highlights: Soup flight ($10); coffee-rubbed lamb lolli-chops ($18); Thai mussels ($18); roasted half-chicken ($16)