In the seven and a half years since Poppyseed Markets opening, the term farm-to-fork has become almost obligatory on area menus. Pork belly has replaced sushi as the food that people once shuddered at the thought of eating and now cant get enough of. Elderflower liqueur is no longer considered an esoteric ingredient at bars, a growing number of which tout their seasonally changing lists of craft cocktails.
Meanwhile, Poppyseed market has thrived by bucking trends.
More than just thrived, in fact. Barely six months after Julia McGovern opened what she called a deli with cafe aspirations in a North Raleigh strip mall, she expanded into the neighboring space. This allowed the owner/chef to broaden her menu a bit, and to increase the selection of wines that she featured at Thursday night tastings (and which were also available for retail sale). A new dining area offered more alternatives to the sidewalk patio, whose umbrella tables had previously provided the bulk of the seating at the tiny sandwich shop.
In 2011, the restaurant expanded again, enabling McGovern to realize those cafe aspirations. Finally she was able to offer a dinner menu with full table service in a warmly inviting setting with impressionist prints on wainscoted walls of parchment and poppy red. At the back of a cozy second dining room, racks behind a semicircular bar displayed a thoughtfully assembled collection of wines from all over the world.
You wont find any elderflower liqueur among those bottles. And youll search in vain for pork belly on the menu.
What you will find is an eclectic offering of time-tested favorites, some of which proved their worth at those Thursday night wine tastings (which continue to this day).
Thats not to say that the menu is a catalog of tradition-bound classics. McGoverns signature Not Yo Mamas pimento cheese is a prime example of her talent for experimenting with the culinary heritage of her native North Carolina. Her recipe omits the mayonnaise that every Southerner knows Yo Mama considered essential, with the result that it melts beautifully on Poppyseeds half-pound burger, where its joined by caramelized onions and smoky bacon.
At the same time, any Southerner will surely give an enthusiastic thumbs-up to the dense richness (and just a touch of cayenne) in McGoverns pimento cheese when it takes a star turn in a more traditional presentation, as a spread with toasted baguette rounds in an appetizer she calls Southern Paté.
Like most starters here, the Southern Paté is ample for sharing. That includes a salad of roasted red and yellow beets with Bosc pear, candied walnuts and goat cheese over organic greens lightly dressed in a honey-ginger crème fraîche dressing which your server will happily split at no extra charge.
An entree offering of broiled red snapper served over angel hair pasta with a lemon caper white wine sauce doesnt pretend to blaze any new culinary trails. Its a reasonably satisfying dish, though I for one could do without the old-fashioned touch of giving the fish a heavy dusting of paprika. Butternut squash lasagna erred in the other direction when I tried it, with a disappointingly bland creamy four cheese sauce. Given the popularity of the dish, Im inclined to chalk up my experience as an anomaly.
Chipotle-rubbed mahi mahi, on the other hand, offers well-seasoned evidence of McGoverns ability to change with the times. And a hefty slab of meatloaf, slathered with a Midwestern style barbecue sauce, serves up rib-sticking proof that the chef happily ventures outside her native South.
So does spiedie, a regional specialty seldom seen far from upstate New York where it originated. Here, marinated grilled nuggets of chicken are showcased in their traditional form as a sandwich, as well as a topping for hand-tossed pizzas and an optional supplement for a salad or pasta alla vodka.
I had to marry my husband to get his recipe for the marinade, the chef jokes, adding that Jim McGovern hails from Binghamton and gave her the recipe on their wedding day. Another windfall of her marriage to McGovern, longtime general manager at the Angus Barn, is that the venerable steakhouse supplies the ground beef for Poppyseed Markets burgers.
Julia McGovern is quick to share the credit for much of her restaurants success with her family. She named the restaurant for her grandfather (Poppy) and credits her mother with the butternut squash lasagna recipe. Her husband and father built many of the tables, counters and other furnishings. Other family members work at the restaurant, including Jims brother, Matt, who she says grew up tossing pizzas in New York and is responsible for their addition to the menu.
It all adds up to a distinctive blend of North and South, family-friendly and casually romantic, tradition with just a touch of adventure. It isnt trendy by any means, but as the lines at the order counter at lunchtime and well-filled dining room in the evening attest Poppyseed Market has captured the spirit of a region thats rapidly changing, but still rooted in tradition.