*Post by Mark.
Policy is the kind of place you walk past. I'd actually walked by the eatery's storefront a hundred times before I even realized there was a restaurant behind the poor signage. Once I finally did become aware of its existence, I was quickly surprised to discover it was a trendy lounge; a pre-concert hot spot, even. Then full awareness dawned on me, as I received a Living Social coupon offer (half-off a $50 dollar gift card) and realized that they had more than just a lounge menu. So, let me get this straight... this little storefront that looks like it should be a housewares store is actually a lounge that is actually a restaurant that may actually serve some pretty decent food?
Screw it. The only way to find out for myself is to just go, right? On a recent Wednesday night, Angela and I booked an early reservation. We brought a pair of empty stomachs and wiped our slate of expectations clean.
Click below to see what we ate!
While the host was friendly, our hopes of a really good meal sank upon first glance around the restaurant. Angela had an immediate negative reaction to the color scheme, a really aggressive mix of red and black - think bachelor pad for a balding, skeevy dude in his late 40s. Perhaps making matters worse was the lighting, which draped the shiny red booths in dark shadow.
I was happy to see three LCD tvs behind the bar so I could keep up with my baseball game in between bits of awkward conversation at the table.* I also checked to make sure I hadn't misplaced my iPhone a few times (i.e. my music player) as the dinner soundtrack sounded eerily similar to my own playlists. Our waitress quickly presented herself and told us that the menu featured tapas-styled small plates. I wouldn't normally mention a server by name, but I can say that (Katie?) was everything a good great server should be. She was super knowledgeable about the food and was eager to make recommendations and describe some of the seasonal specialties. She sensed our excitement about the menu and made a point to fuel our enthusiasm by talking about the chef (Brian Murphy, who formerly worked at L'auberge Chez Francois in Great Falls) and some of his ingredients. She made us both feel at home without being intrusive or unprofessional.
Before I get into the food, let me express my love for small plates. I love trying new things, but when relegating myself to only one entree I typically veer towards a comfort zone. On the other hand, when I get to choose several things? I pick a few comforting classics, but also get to try things I rarely eat. Few things make me more upset then when people bash tapas. I'm always hearing people complain that they don't get enough food at tapas restaurants. Yeah? Then ORDER MORE! (end of rant.)
Ahem... We started out by ordering six plates. The first to arrive was the Smoked Duck and Spinach Salad, with organic spinach, Medjool dates, feta cheese, and roasted shallot vinaigrette. It was topped with strands of crispy fried parsnips. If the dish had a low point, it would've been the merely average duck, but the blend of flavors and textures of the other ingredients really made up for it. The dates added a really nice sweetness while the parsnip and red onion gave it a unique touch of crunch.
Smoked Duck and Spinach Salad
The next plate to hit the table were the Madras curry lamb sliders topped with gorgonzola cheese and mint pesto. As Angela and I bit into the baby burgers, our eyes lit up in unison. One thing that's easily noticeable in the picture below is how perfectly portioned and perfectly toasted the bun looks. But more than just that, the lamb inside was amazingly juicy, and was well-complimented and contrasted by the additional flavors. The refreshing mint pesto was the ideal choice of condiment. And the creamy and pungent Gorgonzola was a very assertive and bold note to pair with the curry and mint. Here's where the brilliancy of small plates comes in. A regular-sized burger with these same ingredients would've overwhelmed my taste buds halfway through the sandwich. But thanks to the smaller portion sizes, the possibility for bolder and adventurous flavors really opens up. If the food at Policy is representative of anything, it's the potential of a small plate menu fully realized.
Madras Curry Lamb Sliders
By this point, I started realizing that even the worst selections at Policy could still be stand-out dishes at a majority of other restaurants. Out came the red curried lentils with cauliflower dumplings and pea shoots. I was a big fan of the fried dumplings. The light crisp on the outside gave way to the creamy goodness of the cauliflower puree inside. But, I wasn't particularly moved one way or the other by the lentils. Angela liked them, but I think after two amazing courses my palette was expecting to be pushed to new limits with every bite. For me, this was the lone B+ on the report card.
Red Curried Lentils
Course number four featured sauteed herbed gnocchi with Path Valley goat cheese, oven roasted tomatoes, basil and caramelized onions. The flavors were rich and creamy, and the gnocchi was cooked about as perfectly as I could imagine. If the dish had any flaw, it would be that I wouldn't have minded a little contrast. Maybe some acidity to cut through the richness? Maybe a few pine nuts to introduce a little texture? Otherwise, it was top-notch gnocchi.
Sauteed Herbed Gnocchi
While we were convinced that the lamb sliders could not be topped, the crispy pork belly, with kim-chi, peanut and green onions took aim and conquered. I was really excited to find the chef working with Asian flavors on this one. The pork belly was cooked absolutely perfect with a brilliant caramelization on the exterior. Inside was some of the most tender and fatty pork meat I've ever had, and it had absorbed what tasted like gallons of flavors in the cooking process. So often, it tastes like meat is cooked and then combined with its sauce, but this pork belly was living in blissful matrimony (or shacking up in sin...? either way, they'd formed the perfect union) with all its flavors. Combined with the kim-chi, peanut, and green onion, the dish was unapologetically sweet, spicy, salty, tangy, nutty and refreshing. Again, an entire dish of this indulgent treat would've worn out its welcome, but a few bites each was the perfect allotment.
Crispy Pork Belly
Our sixth and final plate was the crispy veal sweetbreads, with butternut squash, almonds, and parsley gremolata. Maybe my palette had already been around the world and back, but I wasn't completely blown away by this one. It was certainly tasty, if maybe on the plain side. Part of the problem is that one of my favorite dishes ever is the veal sweetbreads at Zaytinya . The brilliance of that dish is that zesty orange segments are used to cut through the taste of the sweetbreads with something acidic. In this dish, the orange you see in the picture is unfortunately no citrus. It's butternut squash, and as much as I love my butternut squash, it matches the heaviness of the sweetbreads a little too closely, and the parsley gremolata didn't quite lend enough acidity to cut through all that. While, it's not really fair to compare it to Zaytinya's masterpiece, I can say that the individual elements of the veal sweetbreads at Policy were executed close to perfection.
Crispy Veal Sweetbreads
In fact, everything we'd had so far had been executed pretty flawlessly. We'd found that the cooking and seasoning of every single dish had been done with the utmost attention to detail. So, in a common move of over-consumption on our behalf, we asked the waitress for the menu. "The dessert menu?" "Uh, no... the dinner menu..."
Katie gave us an understanding smile, and before long we were enjoying our seventh course, the Alaskan halibut, with fingerling potatoes, white clam sauce, sorrel, and ramps. The halibut was lightly breaded and perfectly pan-fried, and... well you get the point. Everything was great.
On to dessert! As a rule, when I encounter any combination of the Holy Trinity: Chocolate, Peanut Butter and Banana, I don't even read the other options. Generally to save time (and get to my dessert as quick as possible), once I'm handed a dessert menu, I flip it open quickly and look for the buzz words. If I can find them fast enough, I order before the server can even walk away.
Father, Son & Holy Spirit share their respective vices
Policy features a 'Banana Split' with cherry and peanut butter ice creams, peanut butter brittle, banana bread, caramelized banana and a chocolate sauce. The banana had an excellent caramelization (shocker!!) and the banana bread was a nice, unexpected twist. Also, the Holy Trinity has been holding auditions for a fourth band-mate and I think they found it. The cherry ice cream was an excellent addition alongside the peanut butter ice cream.
I'd hardly heard anything about the food, so I had no expectations for Policy before I set foot inside the restaurant. Upon walking in, we were slightly put-off and kinda confused by the message the interior design was trying to send. But after we walked out, all of those negatives had become a foggy blur. While Policy may not be have a big sign out front, or be getting the buzz and acclaim its food deserves, the memories we took away from Chef Brian Murphy's menu stand out like billboards with neon lights.
*Angela's note: He's joking. We are a tornado of intelligent, interesting conversation and witty banter at all times. You're joking, right, honey? Sweettart? Hello?