By Brenlee Coates
The North End will always be home for Talia Syrie.
“I love the North End. It’s my heart,” she says, plunked on a curb behind the Sherbrook Inn, the new home of the Tallest Poppy.
“But it’s a hard sell. I think they’re wrong… but it’s nice to not constantly be fielding questions about safety.”
While the Sherbrook Inn isn’t exactly the farthest cry from the Poppy’s former digs in the Occidental Hotel on Main Street, the biggest difference is the West Broadway neighbourhood, which is bustling with foot traffic destined for its many restaurants.
“The neighbourhood is blowing up,” remarks Syrie, who had visited the opening of The Handsome Daughter the night prior. “I can’t really imagine us anywhere else.
“It’s a nice middle ground. A lot of people feel comfortable so then we can just focus on the food.”
Anyone who was enthusiastic about the staples at the old Tallest Poppy can rest easy, because a lot of them are back on the menu at 685 Westminster Ave.
Fried chicken and waffles for breakfast and a pickerel po’ boy recall the Southern spin on local eats; and its renowned pulled pork is like the return of a tender lover.
The usual response to the Tallest Poppy’s fare regularly rides the line between enthusiasm to full-out fanaticism.
“They’re really knocking me out, honestly, the amount of love,” says Syrie, of her loyal customers. When the former Poppy closed, “I knew people were sad, but the response has just been… quite humbling.
“I’m very reverent about it. I don’t take it lightly.”
The most popular new additions to the menu are liquid – the Tallest Poppy is now licensed, and chef Syrie brought business partner Steven Ackerman into the mix, who has a way with creating considerate cocktails and spurring thoughtful conversation at his bar seats.
His inventive ways with some of the usual suspects – and more unlikely ingredients, like black pepper syrup – are going to keep a lot of people in their chairs until the 11 p.m. closing time Tuesdays to Saturdays.
“A bartender, in a way, you’re making soup in sixty seconds,” muses Ackerman. “You need everything to be balanced… to work together.”
Approaching his craft as if every drink were a dish, he even sanitarily samples the flavour of each drink from the drippings on a straw before sending it out.
The caesar he serves up at the Tallest Poppy is a prime example of his sensibilities, which combines jalapeno hot sauce, cilantro, a fresh salsa verde, and pickled heirloom tomatoes from his mother’s backyard as a garnish – and lets the complementary flavours compete for the last impression.
“I think (a cocktail) should take you several places,” he observes. It does – and they’re all really good places.
If you get the chance, ask Ackerman about his time bartending at a popular watering hole in New York while he was there working as a photographer. “Photography – especially in a place like New York – it needs to be supplemented heavily,” he relays. He spent most Sunday evenings serving James Gandolfini while others were home watching him on HBO’s “The Sopranos.”
Truly, if you can sneak a few minutes of Syrie’s time on a rare break, or hover over Ackerman’s well-stocked bar for any length of time, you are treated to easy conversation in about as comfortable a public setting as you can ask for.
The décor of the Poppy’s reinvention is still super cozy, but more polished than its predecessor. The wood grain is hand-painted onto the walls, the colourful drop-ceiling treatment is warm and understated, and gentle, homey lighting brims from lamps on two tucked-away tables.
Comfort and familiarity radiates from the owners and staff who help run the Poppy, many of whom have hopped over from the previous incarnation.
Customers regularly remark that it feels like they’ve never left.
“It was good to take a break – but I was really, really ready,” says Syrie. “It’s very comfortable for me to be back at it.”
The feeling is so mutual.