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#1 Sneakeater

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Posted 26 October 2017 - 09:11 PM

Popina is a new restaurant on the Columbia Street waterfront (it would be confusing to call it Red Hook now -- although that's what this neighborhood used to be considered part of).  It is, in fact, in the original Pok Pok space.
 
The two guys that run it -- Chef Chris McDade and Wine Guy James O'Brien -- come out of the Danny Meyer organization.  Most relevant here, they both did time at Maialino.
 
Let's get the off-putting part out of the way first:  the cuisine here is Southern/Italian.  (The backyard area is now a bocce court.)  Now that doesn't mean Southern Italian as in, say, Compagnian.  It means a mashup of Italian cooking and American Southern.  That's a pretty contrived conceit, very easy to ridicule; certainly not something that was crying out to be done.  But the food on the plate turns out to be almost uniformly delicious.
 
I've been twice.  The first time was with friends of the house, and we were showered with so much free food, drink, and attention (despite the presence in the house of an extremely influential restaurant reviewer) that I couldn't honestly review the meal.  I went back again with someone else, though, and it was just as enjoyable.
 
I would say the star dish is the Hot Chicken Milanese, with ranch dressing.  It would almost count as a guilty pleasure, if the frying weren't so pristine.  This is a theoretically questionable dish that just ends up working.  I'm positive they make their own ranch dressing (as I do when I make my Pretentious Mississippi Roast -- a dish that these guys could someday mash up with a brasato or something).  The other main dish -- swordfish with peanuts and stuff -- was also very good, if not a superstar like the chicken.  The remaining main dish listed on their web menu -- a strip steak -- isn't regularly available, although they did offer a very hearty slow-cooked (I have this sinking feeling that in this case slow cooking meant sous vide) steak special on my second visit.
 
The pastas are all really good.  My favorite is their paparadelle with smoked ham hocks, which works well enough to justify the entire Italian/Southern conceit.  But don't ignore the bucatini in Venetian salsa (basically anchovies cooked down to a paste and losts and lots of very very thinly sliced onions, fried).  Indeed, don't ignore the chittara with black trumpets, sunchokes, and black truffles, either.  Or the cavatelli with tomato, ricotta, and nduja.
 
The antipasti included the only real misstep:  I thought the arancini in honey were too cloyingly sweet, the one case where the intrusion of Southern American accents detracted.  The clam bruscetta was very good, though, and the pork meatballs in gravy (Italian red gravy, I mean) were fine, if kind of ordinary compared to other things here.  The brussels sprouts were brussels sprouts.
 
They have a whiskey cocktail called the Fancy Free that I just adore.  The wine list is heavily oriented toward "natural" and lots of fun.
 
COMP DISCLOSURE:  The hits just kept on coming.


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#2 Steve R.

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Posted 26 October 2017 - 09:47 PM

I've already heard great things about the place by reading the 1st Yelp review from someone whose taste is legendary  ^_^

I plan to go soon... maybe I'll name drop & see what that gets me.  :blush:


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#3 wingding

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Posted 26 October 2017 - 10:02 PM

There are similarities between cucina povera and some traditional southern food that have always interested me...greens with pork products,polenta/grits,tasty fried fish ....overcooked vegetables ,so this is a potentially interesting mashup...
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#4 Sneakeater

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Posted 26 October 2017 - 10:27 PM

Someone should definitely tell these guys about the need to overcook their vegetables.


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#5 GerryOlds

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Posted 01 December 2017 - 06:07 PM

I really liked this place. Both pastas (the pappardelle with ham hocks, and chitarra with bottarga and jalapenos) were excellent. Some reasonable wines and that chicken milanese is crispy and nicely spicy. It feels more Italian than Southern, but not complaining.



#6 Steve R.

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Posted 01 December 2017 - 06:32 PM

Today, on another thread, Daniel said "I have been to a lot of restaurants lately, most I don't care to talk about".  Basically, that sums it up for us as well.  We get around a bit, but most places aren't so good or so bad that I feel the need to write about them.  Popina fit into that category for us.  The wine was good -- the wine guy (a friend of Daniel's) was really nice and recommended an unknown to Rich & Peg bottle (that aint easy to do) that we all liked (specifics escape me now).  The service was ok -- no glitches.  The hot chicken cutlet was a very good dish -- an interesting idea, well executed.  I'd be happy eating it again, maybe even a little happier than having a well made Chicken Parm. at an Italian place.  Nothing else stood out.  Yes, each dish was a combination of Southern USA & Italian, but the changing of the ingredients didn't improve or significantly change the flavor profile of any of them enough to make them more than they would've been at an Italian place with the same price point.  Certainly not, in my opinion, Maialino level.  Bottom line is that I wouldn't steer anyone away from going, but I won't be heading back without good reason either.  I was hoping for better.  


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#7 Sneakeater

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Posted 01 December 2017 - 09:39 PM

See, this is the problem of communicating that you liked something well enough but didn't think it was fabulously great.  Speaking only for myself, it never even occurred to me that I might have been making it seem like I thought Popina was as good as Maialino (or even in the same league as Maialino).  I thought it was implicit that this is a modest neighborhoody place that could never be taken for one of the best restaurants in New York.  But now, rereading my post, I can see how you could come away from it thinking that.  It almost makes one think he should give star ratings.  (Not.)


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#8 Steve R.

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Posted 01 December 2017 - 10:13 PM

See, this is the problem of communicating that you liked something well enough but didn't think it was fabulously great.  Speaking only for myself, it never even occurred to me that I might have been making it seem like I thought Popina was as good as Maialino (or even in the same league as Maialino).  I thought it was implicit that this is a modest neighborhoody place that could never be taken for one of the best restaurants in New York.  But now, rereading my post, I can see how you could come away from it thinking that.  It almost makes one think he should give star ratings.  (Not.)

 

My fault.  I shouldn't have used Maialino as an example as it related back to your post.  I never thought you were equating the two.  

 

However, you did say that "The pastas are all really good.  My favorite is their paparadelle with smoked ham hocks, which works well enough to justify the entire Italian/Southern conceit.  But don't ignore the bucatini in Venetian salsa (basically anchovies cooked down to a paste and losts and lots of very very thinly sliced onions, fried).  Indeed, don't ignore the chittara with black trumpets, sunchokes, and black truffles, either.  Or the cavatelli with tomato, ricotta, and nduja."   And GerryOlds said "Both pastas (the pappardelle with ham hocks, and chitarra with bottarga and jalapenos) were excellent."  Those were the comments that I felt the need to add my own (opposing) 2cents to.  The food I had (& sampled from 3 other cooperative diners' plates) doesn't lead me to believe that he's a good chef producing interesting tasty dishes worth the cost.  In that, I seem to disagree with both of you.  It happens.


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