Dining Out: Popover Cafe

I love to travel and try new places. I make lists. I surf my favorite blogs to see what other people are eating. I check the latest issue of Food&Wine. I pull out my Bible: Steingarten. Therein lays the truth of all food, the essence of gourmet, the experience of culinary love.

However, a day trip does not leave room for the kind of extended fooding that I like to indulge in. Especially when there is an appointment in the mix. The 7am bus put me at Port Authority at 11:30 with time for lunch before my 2pm interview downtown. Had to eat, wanted to visit with my uptown friend Von and had some time to kill. What to do?

Simple- lunch at noon at a place we knew: Popover Cafe. Not only convenient- on Amsterdam and 86th it’s just a block up and over from the subway- but they serve good food, which I hadn’t had in about a year. And did I mention the popovers? Wowzers.

Popovers are a late 19th century American invention, similar to the English Yorkshire pudding but without the drippings. My dad used to make popovers for us when we were kids, they were like big, airy, muffin/croissants- or muffssants, if you will. I loved tearing the open to watch the steam dissipate then spreading them with butter and jelly or just peeling them apart and stuffing the warm, damp, doughy fragments into my mouth. It was such a treat.

After a popoverless decade or two Von introduced me to this little gem with it’s fantastic brunch menu and eponymous treat. Most of the meals at the cafe come with popovers- huge, steamy, fluffy pillows with crispy brown crusts, with a small tub of strawberry butter. You can order them as a side. They are lovely. Miles more fun than plain ol’ rolls and more beautiful than regular bread.

The first time we went I called it “the teddy bear place” because they have teddies all over. The walls are yellow and it’s inviting and warm all year ’round. Even on the hotest day you walk in and feel… warm, which is good because it was wikkid cold so when I got there.

I was actually early, which is rare and slightly odd since Von lives 3 blocks from the cafe, so settled into a booth and ordered the Mexican hot chocolate. It was available without chili, but I made sure the waiter knew I wanted the chili. Very much. It was delicious- bittersweet with lots of ancho, very creamy and cinnamony. I thawed and listened to my waiter talk to the bartender about needing more creativity in his life. Me too, thought I. ssssllluuurrrrppp.

Von got a burger. She’s something of a burger connoisseur and likes her beef, so I’d have to surmise that Popover’s burgers are good. I didn’t ask for a taste because one does not intervene between a woman and a good burger.

Needing a good meal, but not one that would make me fall asleep and drool during my interview, I did something you only do at placed you know and love- I asked for something not on the menu. The Cafe Salad, adorned at my request with a seared but still rosey slice of salmon studded with garlic fit the bill and came with a smile. The salmon was perfect- crispy outsides giving way to flakes of tender fish. That was what I wanted and that is what I got. Fresh mesclun greens, mushrooms and some ripe tomatoes with a honey mustard vinegarette on the side. Even in winter a salad can hit the spot.

But first, the popover. I broke the puffy pastry open, letting the heat waft away, tearing pieces of the warm, fluffy insides. Smearing the bits of doughy bread with pink, strawberry seed flecked butter. Yummy. Of late I’ve not been that excited about the floury, yeasty pleasures of bread. But this is different. This is light and even the simplest things can satisfy.

I left Von an hour later, fortified with good food and stimulating conversation, and headed for the train, arriving downtown with 20 minutes to spare. The interview was longer than expected but interesting and I felt the sun in the windows behind me fade. The dark came with a sense of regret, Sorry but it has to end now. And suddenly it was like time had closed up shop: there was no time to meet Robyn for chocolate, or to eat a proper dinner or even order something from Yoshinoya, or buy a new handbag (and for once I really need one), or go to the Village for drinks with friends. And really, my day had peaked at around 12:30 when the waiter had placed my lunch in front of me and everything was warm and good.

Crossing 42nd Street, people shivering around me, breath wafting out in white clouds. All I could think of was warm popovers.

Here’s a great popover recipe.

Visit the Popover Cafe at 551 Amsterdam Ave at the corner of 86th or call them at (212) 595-8555 and have them murmur sweet menu items in your ear. And the magical phrase “we deliver”.

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