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Tuesday, October 18th, 2011
Dining Reviews

Dining with Bruce Collier - Poppy’s Seafood Factory: A Sea Change Worth Exploring

I had not been to Poppy’s Seafood Factory in some time, and when I heard that a new chef (Executive Chef Orion Cordoves, said the menu) had come on board, it seemed a good time for another look. If you ate at the former Poppy’s at Baytowne, you’ll recall it had a loose, island-inflected atmosphere, tropical-shirted staff, boat drinks, and a fair share of fried seafood on the menu. There’s been a change.

It’s still on the water, with a good view of the boats and the bay, and adjoins Hammerhead’s, its party-girl sister establishment. There’s inside and outside seating and an upstairs dining room. The walls are decorated with bright and colorful art, which looked local in origin, tables and banquettes, and several lobster tanks filled with Maine’s Finest, alive and ready to be your dinner. The staff dresses more quietly, and things seem more subdued— not stuffy, just a notch lower in volume.

My wife, the Tiny Diner and I ate at Poppy’s early on a recent weeknight, and got a good table in the main downstairs dining room. The TD was welcomed, and I was happy to see another little one seated soon afterward with a large party. The TD is manifesting a greater interest in what adults eat (and the shiny tools they use to do it), and this was her first view of a lobster tank, which was in her line of sight. O brave new world...

Our server (who was very good with TD) brought us our menus, a plate of warm sweet potato rolls and butter, and left us to check out the selection. Maybe the biggest change at Poppy’s can be found in the menu. It’s completely different, and does not skimp on non-seafood choices. There are appetizers, soups and salads, local fish, red meat and chicken, shellfish and a separate section of lobster entrees.

The cooking styles vary from East Coast to Southern to Italian, with a little Caribbean and Asian here and there. I don’t recall seeing anything fried (except on the kids menu), though the chef possibly changes things up sometimes.

We split a starter of ceviche, made from whatever fish or shellfish the chef chooses that night. Ours was a mix of flounder and tilapia. It’s quite tart, with plenty of citrus and cilantro, chopped red and yellow tomatoes, jalapenos, and chunks of watermelon to set off the mild fish. The peppers give it a respectable hit of fire, so be warned. Other starters were smoked salmon carpaccio, seared tuna, shrimp cocktail and blackened scallops.

My wife wanted the veal chop, and I felt I owed it to the house to try something made with lobster—it’s on their sign, you know. Poppy’s has a good choice of entrees made with lobster at reasonable prices (for lobster), and will even add extra lobster for additional market price. I ordered lobster jambalaya.

I’ve had any amount of jambalaya, much of it at people’s houses, but this was my first with lobster. I had high expectations. Poppy’s met them. Jambalaya is very much a cook’s-choice dish, and this cook chose to load the plate with chorizo, smoked sausage, peppers, onions, a sweet and tangy tomato sauce, and plentiful chunks of lobster. All this is laced into a mound of basmati rice. It smelled great, and tasted greater.

The veal chop was 10 ounces, cooked to order and served on the bone with a red wine demi-glace, skillet potatoes and grilled asparagus. My wife gave me a sample, then dispatched the rest herself. The TD kept her eye on both of us, when not staring at the server. Staring is her hobby.

Other dining choices that night were wahoo with grits, ahi tuna, red snapper, shrimp and grits, sea bass, surf and turf, braised short rib (almost got that), ribeye, filet mignon, seafood platters for one or two, snow, Dungeness or King crab, lobster gnocchi, lobster ravioli, lobster mac and cheese, lobster and crab, and blackened lobster (I told you there was lobster).

Among the rainbow of sauces used are garlic and black bean, Creole meuniere, sweet habanero, teriyaki cilantro, gorgonzola demi-glace, and truffle oil infusion.

Four desserts were offered that night—key lime pie, crème brulee, lava cake and bread pudding. We split the latter. The kitchen uses the sweet potato rolls, giving the soft, sweet pudding an extra note of flavor. The TD came across the table at it. My wife insists she was just trying to grab the silverware, but I have a blurred photo that shows the truth.

Poppy’s Seafood Factory is moving in a different direction. I like the course they’re taking.