There’s a giddiness among the McKinney locals about Poppy’s Garden Cafe. Everyone loves a winner, and Poppy’s seems to be the deal. It took over the rambling house vacated by Sweet Tomato and spruced it up, polishing the floors and landscaping the sprawling backyard. After some initial personnel misfires, owner Carrie Garner and her husband Jim have the players in place, too, with chef Jeff Qualls and general manager Junior Wakefield, who came from Jasper’s.
A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Qualls has already had his own restaurant west of Sherman, where he grew up, and worked at TPC at Craig Ranch in McKinney. At 26, he qualifies as a baby chef, pledging allegiance to seasonal ingredients and rejecting adherence to any single cuisine.
Poppy’s best dishes started on an Asian note but then embellished. One appetizer called Thai beef jerky had delicious dabs of tri-tip steak, marinated, fried, and doused with cilantro-chile sauce. Curried squash bisque hit first with its lush, creamy texture before stealthily depositing a subtle stroke of heat.
Leaf-wrapped halibut was marinated in Chardonnay, ginger, and lemon grass, then grilled, then steamed with peppers and Thai basil. Given all that TLC, the fish’s perfect texture and robust flavor hardly seemed a surprise. Every restaurant does short ribs these days, but Poppy’s came with soft, green onion polenta; baby green beans; and braised, tender cipollini onions. True-to-form dishes, such as the stir-fried chicken with vegetables, were the least inspiring, but they’re probably popular with the lunch crowd.
Desserts were smart and tasted good. Chocolate s’more tart, a thick, fudgy mound, came topped with housemade marshmallow squares, singed till golden. Bread pudding got extra rich with dried apricots and luscious chunks of white chocolate.
Service and atmosphere veered from casual to mildly chaotic, though not fatally so—and certainly not for the gleeful folk of McKinney.
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