Back in the 1970s, I worked with a couple of dazed and confused waiters who liked to fire up their bongs every night and prattle on about their dream restaurant: a laid-back joint that would serve nothing but potpies. In their stoned reverie, most of the culinary creations would be made with the finest-quality sinsemilla, though there would be a few pies on the menu not actually made with pot — such as the Pol Pot pie, named for the Khmer Rouge mass murderer, which would be an empty pastry shell; or the Potsie Webber Pie, in honor of the nerdy character on Happy Days, which would be filled with Velveeta, Spam and marshmallow cream.
As far as I know, those two goofballs never saw their dim-witted — and illegal — idea to fruition. (The last I heard, one was a clean and sober accountant, and the other guy had moved to Florida to become a professional drag queen.) But it wasn’t just the herbal haze that made the concept of a potpie restaurant so funny; it was also the idea of building a restaurant around a dish that had been rendered campy and lowbrow by that 1951 innovation, the frozen potpie. In 1958, seven years after C.A. Swanson & Sons started mass producing them, more than 400 million of the things were sold. People loved them because they were a cheap, easy-to-prepare comfort food in a convenience-loving world.
Thanks to the frozen versions, even the from-scratch potpie has taken on an increasingly unglamorous image.
It’s “kitschy,” according to 29-year-old chef John Williams, who named his tiny new restaurant after the dish almost as a lark. Originally, he intended to name the place San Souci, which roughly translates to without a care. But anti-Francais sentiments before the war in Iraq frightened Williams and his business partner and girlfriend Sarah Ponak. They decided they liked the warmer, home-style PotPie instead.
“It was kind of an in-joke between Sarah and me,” Williams says. “On a very cold night last year, we made a bunch of potpies from scratch and had such a good time doing it, the name kind of stuck.”
They might have been smoking something, because it didn’t occur to them that customers would take them at their word. Williams still hasn’t started offering potpies at the two-month-old restaurant — he ordered the dishes to bake them in only two weeks ago — and he’s shocked that patrons have come in looking for the dish. “We’ve even had a couple of people walk out when they found out we didn’t have them,” Williams says.
“I’m guessing, just by the number of people who come in and ask about potpies, that they’re going to become our biggest seller by this winter. And I’ll probably learn to hate them.”
Impossible. There’s nothing anyone could hate about PotPie. Williams and Ponak took over the space formerly occupied by the Stolen Grill, a boutique bistro with a great reputation but a slightly snooty ambience. The lovable PotPie, on the other hand, has an atmosphere almost as retro as its name. If there were bongo music playing and ashtrays on the table, the place would feel like a beatnik coffeehouse. Maybe it does anyway, sans fumée de cigarette. The only menu in the house is printed on a giant (and well-lighted) chalkboard on the back wall. The pregnant Ponak, often dressed in black, waits tables with a beatific smile. There’s even a platform with an ersatz living-room arrangement near the picture window, outfitted with a sofa, two chairs and a coffee table. You bring the bongos, cat.
“We envision people sitting there and hanging out, once we get our liquor license,” says Williams, who is crossing his fingers that the permit will arrive by October. “After the dinner service is over, we’ll let people smoke in here.”
The bar on the north side of the dining room just begs to be loaded up with booze (Zin’s Alex Pryor has designed the wine list), and its stools seem to await a couple of beret-wearing hipsters sharing a spinach-and-brie tart.
Instead of a traditional menu, Williams’ chalkboard lists five hot dishes and five cold ones. The idea was to change the offerings daily, but two of the hot dishes have become so popular that he’s keeping them for a while. Those two choices — a succulent roast chicken and a thinly sliced New York strip — are already among my favorite things, particularly the beautifully grilled hunk of red meat, served with a creamy mound of freshly mashed potatoes. On the night I dined with my friend Bob and the acerbic Ned, we had differing opinions on the spuds. I thought they were a shade bland but still a delicious accompaniment to the beef, lovingly ladled with a rich mushroom-and-red-wine sauce. But Ned called Williams out of the kitchen and chided him in his thickest Southern-fried accent. “Honey, my mama would have told you these potatoes need a lot more butter, salt and pepper!”
Bob rolled his eyes. “Give him two glasses of wine and suddenly he’s Tallulah Bankhead.”
Happily, Ned liked everything else on his plate, and by the time he stuck his fork into a steaming bowl of apple cobbler, his accent had lightened up along with his mood. “This place is like a little bohemian dive from the 1960s,” he said. “They need to do some poetry readings from that little stage over there.”
We paid the tab and hustled him out of there before he started reciting Ginsberg’s “Howl” to the rest of the dining room. On my next visit, I brought my friends Marilyn, Libby and Bob (who smuggled in a bottle of vino). The place was empty when we walked in at 7:30, but it filled up fast. Not with hipsters, alas, but with members of the Johnson County gourmet contingent who like to eat at every new restaurant — once — before anyone else does.
Libby wrinkled her nose at them and launched into a long monologue about her psycho boyfriend, which was so complicated that the rest of us were completely lost by the time our server arrived with appetizers: a “fondue” of tomato and crabmeat, and a chilled rabbit rillette. Williams’ idea of fondue doesn’t jibe with any traditional culinary definition, but it is a lovely combination of crabmeat, chopped fresh tomato and queso blanco held aloft by a flaky tower of puff pastry. The pale rillette, a chilled paste of slowly cooked rabbit and fresh herbs, was as silken as the best pâté. “We’re eating Bugs Bunny,” Libby giggled as she spread a swath on bread from the nearby Napoleon bakery. Bob, who loves rabbits, simply blanched.
He perked up at dinner, lavishing praise on the New York strip — Williams refuses to change to Kansas City strip; “That’s just how I was raised,” he says — and the mashed potatoes, which tasted more buttery and peppery this time. Libby had ordered Crispy Salmon, grilled to a hint of a crackly crust on one side, then mounted on a cool summery salad of marinated cucumber, tomato, purple onions, avocado and fresh mozzarella.
It was a gorgeous presentation, and it tasted fabulous but not as good as my own dinner: a robust slab of perfectly grilled sea bass on sautéed potatoes over a puddle of satiny purple-beet emulsion. Wanting to save room for dessert, I had planned only to nibble on the fish, but I accidentally ate the whole thing.
It didn’t matter. We all dipped into the generous serving of bubbling, brown apple crisp, fragrant with cinnamon and nutmeg, and a luxurious chocolate layer cake blanketed with fudgy icing. Both of the desserts had been prepared by Williams’ grandmother, Grace Crispin. I don’t know what Grandma Grace is putting in those pastries, but that cake certainly was mood-enhancing. “Chocolate is a drug, too,” Libby said.
No wonder I’m high on PotPie.