Venue Review: Pop's
When Chris Stinnett and John Vandergrift announced that they were moving Pop's last spring, it no doubt came as a surprise to some. The restaurant had just celebrated its 15th anniversary in February, after all, and remained as popular as the day the original owners - a partnership that included Scott Howell and Ben Barker, two of the area's pre-eminent chefs - opened it. Indeed, it's no exaggeration to say that Stinnett and Vandergrift, who bought Pop's in 2003, built on the solid foundation of contemporary Italian cuisine they had inherited to create a local landmark.
The move wasn't far - just a couple of blocks - but it was significant in a number of ways. The new location is closer to a rapidly revitalizing downtown Durham, for one thing, where the partners have already staked a claim by opening Rue Cler, a French bistro and bakery, in 2006.
Located in West Village, a retail and residential complex in a cluster of restored tobacco warehouses and cigarette factories, the new Pop's is larger (and considerably noisier) than the old one and boasts an attractive courtyard patio. The industrial chic vibe is largely preserved, thanks in part to a few key decor elements borrowed from the original Pop's. Returning regulars will surely smile when they're greeted by the distinctive host stand repurposed from an antique washing machine, and the familiar whimsical painting of a chef by local artist Jane Filer.
The oven stays
Of all the items that made the short truck ride to the new location, though, the most important is the wood-burning pizza oven. In its new home, the oven turns out individual pies that are as crisp-crusted and seductively topped as ever, from the salty egg and prosciutto that has long been a personal favorite to the truffle-scented tapestry of Granny Smith apples, French brie and ricotta I enjoyed recently.
But pizzas are hardly the only attraction. Under the heading of Pop's Classics, you'll find a selection of perennial favorites such as the signature Big Bowl of Mussels, which lives up to its name with a bounty of plump bivalves in a white wine broth spangled with roasted tomatoes and red chile flakes. Or crispy calamari, tossed with crunchy shards of marinated cabbage and served with harissa aioli.
Among the still-popular dishes that trace their roots all the way back to the days when Howell was in the kitchen are chicken cooked under a brick, and risotto with North Carolina shrimp, applewood-smoked bacon, roasted corn and Parmigiano-Reggiano. An exemplary Caesar salad is made with Barker's classic dressing and rustic garlic croutons torn from bread baked at Rue Cler.
Creative seasonal menu
On the other side of the menu, under the heading of Pop's Seasonal, Stinnett and Vandergrift showcase their creative talents and their locavore leanings.
Summer's salad of arugula, roasted red peppers, maple-glazed bacon and gorgonzola morphs into fall's arugula, grilled apples and shaved fennel in a honey and white balsamic dressing. House-made gnocchi with meatballs and local tomatoes make way for linguine with littleneck clams, andouille, Swiss chard and roasted garlic in tomato broth.
On the current menu, grilled salmon is irreproachably fresh-tasting and flawlessly cooked, as are its companion asparagus spears in a sublimely simple pairing. The accompanying mushroom risotto was overcooked when I ordered the dish, but given the restaurant's track record with risotto, I'm willing to bet that experience was an anomaly. Another current offering featuring penne with smoked venison, parsnips and escarole in a bacon vodka cream sauce is every bit as satisfying as it sounds - even if the pasta is cooked past the al dente ideal.
On the other hand, I could find no fault with the paccheri, fat pasta tubes filled with braised pork and ricotta that I sampled a few weeks ago. The filling has since changed to a trio of cheeses with roasted tomatoes and herbs, a combination that ought to hit the spot just fine this time of year.
Dessert and service
The dessert offering covers the usual bases - crème brûlée, warm chocolate pudding cake and a respectable tiramisu. For my money, the standout is the shareable apple walnut brown sugar crisp.
Unfortunately, Pop's move doesn't appear to have shaken the erratic service that has been the restaurant's weak link over the years.
Depending on the server assigned to your table, your experience may be a pleasant and uneventful one. Or you may find yourself with a waiter who unceremoniously drops bread off at your table without breaking stride, or one who forgets your wine order and repeatedly serves the wrong dish to everyone at the table.
Still, it's no small compliment to say that a meal at the new Pop's is as good as it was at the old one. Who says a landmark can't move?