The Populist’s Jonathan Power, on Shock and Serenity in the Dining Experience

The philosophy major-turned-acclaimed chef turns the concept of comfort on its head
April 16, 2014
by Ruth Tobias

While working on Denver's Most Decadent Chocolate Desserts, we went wild over the sound of a chocolate-avocado-lime concoction at The Populist, only to discover that it was no longer available - customers couldn't quite get the hang of it. It got us thinking about the paradox that is this pioneering RiNo eatery. On the one hand, it lives up to its name with an effortlessly easygoing neighborhood vibe; on the other hand, chef-partner Jonathan Power doesn't hesitate to challenge diners in all sorts of creative ways. So we asked him about his ability to walk the line between comfort and adventure - and got his take on squid ink and soy-sauce cocktails along the way.  

We once read in Cafe Society that you have a bachelor’s degree in philosophy. Have your studies influenced your culinary sensibilities in any way?
No - to say that would give me and my food too much credit [laughs]. I’m drawn to philosophy and cooking for similar reasons, though: they’re both based in hard science, but they also leave a whole lot of room for creativity. Philosophy is all about that gray area between what we know as existence and what we feel to be true. With food, we know what we need to be nourished, and we know cooking technique. But where we go with that knowledge and how is up to us.

Of course, you have your own philosophy about what The Populist should be and why, right down to the descriptions on the menu, which are only two or three words long. Some might find them refreshingly straightforward, others dauntingly cryptic.
Yeah, the menu’s got a chalkboard feel to it, but with a little bit more polish. First, strictly from a service standpoint, I think it’s really beneficial. In our vision of hospitality, we really want to encourage that conversation, that relational aspect. Second, there’s more to a dish than a short description. Not even a full ingredient list lets you know what you’re getting; we trust our staff to give you the information you’re looking for. And on a deeper level, I offer a title and not a recipe because I want there to be some level of surprise. Take the seared diver scallops: they’re served over polenta nera, basically black grits. Unless you’re familiar with squid-ink pasta, the sound of that is not automatically appealing. If you want the CliffsNotes version, that’s what the servers are there for. But this gives us room to play without guests going, “This has a tiny bit of chervil of it, so I don’t want it.”

You also studied law. Are there culinary laws you never - or always - break?
I still believe in serving food that’s balanced according to appropriate methods: [Auguste] Escoffier on the one hand, Modernist Cuisine on the other. I love restaurants like Alinea that push things to the point where it’s not just food. But we’re not that restaurant. You have to know your audience. Recently I was at Marvel Bar in Minneapolis, where the bartender made a drink for me with Laphroaig, which is a really peaty Scotch, and soy sauce instead of bitters, garnished with nori. It wasn’t balanced at all [laughs] - super-briny and smoky, with no acid and no sweetness. But it wasn’t supposed to be; he knew me and he knew what I’d be into. Someone else might have been like, “What the hell did you just serve me?”

Well, that’s just it - you’re not Alinea, but you’re hardly Applebee’s either. Your wine list, for instance, is a dream for oenophiles looking for Crémant d’Alsace and Ruché but could intimidate, say, Pinot Grigio drinkers. 
We made a conscious decision to gouge ourselves on wine; it’s basically retail markup. An expensive, obscure wine list looks pretentious. But an affordable, obscure wine list? It’s like, “Look at all this really cool stuff we’ve found for you!” True, we’ve got no Coors, no Maker’s Mark, no buttery Chardonnay. But that’s again where the service comes in: “Hey, you’re a Maker’s Mark drinker? Try this and see what you think.”

So walk us through what you think the ideal Populist meal would be right now.
Well, so much of what we’re about is this high-brow/low-brow thing: doing the seven-course tasting menu at a picnic table in a crowded room keeps the experience communal and social. I’d probably start with good bubbles, working into cocktails. I’d do the smoked-trout rillettes - we make them with olive oil, so they’re relatively light, and serve them with whipped cream cheese, cornichons and apricot preserves. With so many courses, soup is great, so I’d probably do the leek-and-potato soup next. The quinoa salad is our variation on tabouli - a hearty grain salad with smoked cucumbers, fresh chickpeas, tahini foam, lemon relish and a pea shoot-mustard green salad. The bacon and egg is a classic we’ve had on the menu since we opened: bacon-onion jam mounted with cherry vinegar and sherry, then served with a poached egg and toast spread with lardo Americano. I always love our pasta; we’re about to add our spring agnolotti filled with spinach from Oxford Gardens and goat cheese, garnished with pesto, lemon, chives, toasted breadcrumbs and pistachios. Then our heritage pork chop: we get half a pig in at a time and butcher it in house, and it gets moved all over the menu. Right now we’re doing it char siu style, in a 72-hour marinade of rice wine, rice-wine vinegar and a hoisin sauce we make with beet juice and honey - no food coloring. It comes with quick-fermented slaw and a sushi-rice cake with sesame, ginger and scallions that's kind of like arancini, but in a brick shape. For dessert, probably the passion fruit curd in a pastry crust with salted-chocolate ganache, mint syrup, mint glass and crème fraiche ice cream.

Wow. To those who wish the menu were more descriptive: now you know.

3163 Larimer St.; 720-432-3163