On a recent Friday, the front entrance at Pops is mobbed. Couples step into the basement-level restaurant and anxiously query the hostess about when a table will be available. Others line the steps waiting for their turn. A large party whoops delightedly when a cone of French fries is set down in front of them, and an older couple in the front linger over coffee. The bartender, who seems to wear a permanent smile, juggles orders behind the bar, doing an intricate two-step with his assistant. Outside along Tremont, hopefuls line up, exchanging comments about how long the wait might be.
In a neighborhood chockablock with high-end restaurants, it looks like everybody was waiting for comfort food. At least comfort food done Felino Samson-style.
Samson, who previously was chef at the now-shuttered Bomboa, is making diners delirious with chicken fricassee and stuffed clams, chopped Cobb salad, and bread pudding. In a phone interview, he calls his style "the democracy of food." After being involved in the fine-dining scene for years, Samson says, he decided to take another approach, serving what he calls "good food for everybody."
So his osso bucco starts with veal breast instead of a higher-priced cut, and he mixes cod with lobster for croquettes on the appetizer list. His steak is skirt, and there's a cheeseburger on the menu.
You wouldn't confuse Pops food with a greasy diner, though. That veal breast is meltingly succulent, and its sauce deep and flavorful with a slight edge of lemon and a whiff of sage. Escarole finishes the dish, its green offsetting the mahogany-shaded meat and sauce and its bitterness cutting through the richness. Hearty lamb bolognese over tender pappardelle is another surefire way to warm an evening. Duck confit has a little more flair with the tang of a balsamic cherry sauce but still manages to seem comforting, and not haute. And though the French fries tend to be the crowd-pleaser with their crisp exterior crunch and moist interior, the grilled steak has just enough texture to underscore its meaty taste.
The menu at Pops could be approached several ways. The appetizers are large and fairly hearty, good choices for a light meal or for sharing to start. The chopped salad is deconstructed so that the eater can decide to have a bite of greens, then of bacon, a little avocado, and then some blue cheese, or to mix them all together, adding the creamy dressing at will. Those lobster and cod croquettes are pretty much irresistible. But not as irresistible as the sambal chicken wings, their flavoring revealing Samson's Filipino heritage. The tender chicken on the bone has a little kick from chilis and a little sweetness, too, making them so delicious that we lick our fingers to get every bit of sauce.
Though my complaint about the menu is that it's a little on the heavy side - a salad without cheese, creamy dressing and/or bacon might be a good addition - that's not to say that there's nothing light. Salmon gains texture from a crisped skin and flavor from miso and a thin julienne of cucumber. A special one evening of escolar is a thick, white cut of fish seared on the outside and beautifully flaky and moist inside. The fish is clean against the palate, the kind of dish I could eat over and over again. Chicken stew over wild rice dumplings certainly falls into the comfort food category, but the care with which the bird was browned and the lightness of the dumplings elevate a homey dish.
The heaviness does mar a risotto of mushrooms and taro root. The mushrooms are good, but the combination of taro and rice plus lots of cheese ends up bland. And the desserts need some leavening, too. A coconut bread pudding holds our attention with its taste, but a bite or two is plenty. The black rice pudding is intriguing with its play of barely sweet and slightly sticky, but next time I might stick to the fresh fruit after the main courses.
Because by that time, the other drawback of this space is really settling in. Pops is cramped and noisy, but the energetic waitstaff helps to make it a pleasing experience nonetheless. But the ventilation is dreadful, and by the end of the evening you feel you're wearing the kitchen cooking aromas on your clothes and in your hair. I remember this from the earlier restaurants here, and maybe there's nothing to do about it.
But fixing that would make dinner at Pops as appealing as its owner's philosophy and his food.