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Review: Poppy Den a welcome, needed addition to Tivoli Village

I have to hand it to the people at Tivoli Village: They seem dedicated to improving the shopping center’s previously pathetic food collection. First came The View wine bar. And now Poppy Den has replaced the atrocious Greek restaurant Petra. The new place is the brainchild of celebrity chef Angelo Sosa, whom Bravo viewers might remember from Season 7 of Top Chef as well as Top Chef All Stars. He’s billing it as an Asian gastropub and promising food that’s approachable to Summerlin residents.

The space has been completely remodeled. Downstairs features an eclectic collection of Asian art, plush booths, retro art deco mirrors and china that looks like it belongs in your great grandmother’s cabinet. When the weather breaks, seating will be available on an outdoor patio — and hopefully they’ll remove a few of the tables from the overcrowded dining room. There’s also an upstairs lounge called The Den that features music, cocktails and small snacks.

The main dining menu is fairly small, consisting of one page each of small plates and traditional entrées, as well as a list of beer and cocktails. It’s presented rather awkwardly, with the pages stapled together and attached to a wooden clipboard. The format, however, isn’t nearly as frustrating as the lack of menu descriptions. About half of the items give virtually no indication of the creative concoctions Sosa has put together. What, for example, should diners expect from “jarred tuna”? Why not inform people that Amma’s homemade tomato soup is topped with a wonderful curry cream? And if you’re going to add yuzu juice to a dish like shrimp and grits, you really should tell people. The fact that the servers seem very familiar with every dish is of little consolation unless you want to ask them for a description of a few dozen items.

The best way to sample the chef’s creativity is to start with a pupu platter ($21). The beautifully presented tower offers tastings of five or six small plate dishes for two people (the menu lists five, but my order had one extra). The tomato soup was one of my favorites, along with some pretty traditional meatballs. But the real surprise was the watermelon salad with goat cheese, which provides a perfectly balanced contrast in flavors. I was lukewarm on the pea soup, fish fritters and jarred tuna, but we nonetheless finished nearly everything on the platter.

Then my wife and I split the shrimp and grits as our entrée ($23). The huge portion looks deceptively traditional, but the use of that yuzu juice, coupled with a hint of parmesan cheese, makes it unlike any other version I’ve tasted. Yuzu is a Japanese citrus fruit that’s becoming increasingly popular in American kitchens. But with hints of orange, kaffir lime, grapefruit and lemon, even many of the town’s top chefs often have a hard time describing its flavor. If you’ve never had it, or never been able to pinpoint its flavor in a complex dish, this is one of the purist offerings you’ll find. My wife wasn’t a big fan, but coupled with the perfectly cooked shrimp, I loved it.

As impressed as I was with the food, the service was even better — which is saying a lot considering the restaurant had only been open a few weeks. Nearly everyone I encountered welcomed me, introduced themselves, asked if it was my first visit and informed me of upcoming special events. On the rare occasion that my waitress couldn’t immediately answer a question about a dish, she asked the chef. Poppy Den clearly wants to become a neighborhood hangout for the Summerlin and Queensridge crowds, and that kind of treatment is exactly what it will take to make it happen.

While Poppy Den isn’t perfect, it’s still a huge step forward for Tivoli. I’ve recently been hearing rumors of another new restaurant in the works at the complex, featuring another celebrity chef. Whether it proves true or not, I’m already impressed with the improvements to its dining scene.

POPPY DEN Tivoli Village, 440 S. Rampart Blvd., 802-2480. Read more about the Las Vegas dining scene on Al Mancini’s blog,