Sensory overload is only a bad thing if you are a toddler.
Popoli, Cedar Rapids' newest restaurant in the 1912 People's Savings Bank building designed by Louis Sullivan at 101 Third Ave. SW, had my senses spinning, in a good way, on two separate visits during its first week open.
A dining experience that stimulates all of the senses - sights, taste, smell, service - is rare these days.
At Popoli, the space is beautiful. Modern pieces accentuate but don't distract from the restored historic detail, like a mural that wraps around the vaulted ceiling.
It's unique, too. Restaurant decor can feel like a neighborhood of snout houses, tables and chairs interchangeable from one place to the next. At Popoli, the upholstery and furniture are distinct. Plus, how many places can you can dine in a space that was once a vault?
The service was impeccable from front door to exit. Everyone was attentive, including the general manager who greeted us, offered bread and between clearing tables checked in and inquired about our experience.
Fortunately, the food and drink meet the high expectations set by the space and service.
The cocktail menu is simple. It doesn't reach as far as Prohibition or egg white concoctions, but includes classics like handmade Margaritas with salted rims, or side cars with raw sugar accompanying each sip. There are local brews from Lion Bridge, and the names of the drinks like Popoli Rapidian, Louis Sullivan and The One Tim Loves reference the city, neighborhood and staff favorites.
The menu is short but strong. The appetizers are so appealing that within two visits in 24 hours (I take my food and drink seriously), I had sampled several.
The pork and veal meatballs were peppered perfectly and tasted like a recipe handed down from someone's grandmother. The polenta was buttery and tempered the pickled chili and salty meat. Of the five bruschetta options - traditional; date jam; marinated artichoke; shaved Brussels sprout and chili marinated shrimp, I settled on the one topped with brussels sprouts, golden raisins, pistachios and goat cheese.
Don't be deterred by the brussels sprouts. They are shredded finely and serve as a fresh complement to the sweet golden raisins and tangy goat cheese. A hint of lemon vinaigrette brings the flavors together and keeps it light. One warning: Don't order it if you are dining with someone you want to impress. It was impossible to take polite bites without the sprouts spilling all over.
The scallops were artistic and tasty. Creamy lemon swirls and salsa verde surrounded and paired well with the chick peas, salty, seared scallops and sliced asparagus.
The lone entree item I sampled was the buccatini carbonara. The saltiness of the pancetta and pecorino was balanced with the warmth of the black pepper. I also couldn't stop eating the buttered focaccia bread once I bit into a soft piece of baked garlic.
I'm disappointed to report that despite two visits, I have yet to taste anything from the dessert menu. Each time, though, I was tempted to ask the obliging staff if I could take a tiramisu in my purse to go. All the dessert options were traditional Italian with a twist - salted caramel creme brulee, pistachio cannoli, tiramisu with Patron X, chocolate ganache cheesecake.
After both visits, I left feeling overloaded. Again, in a good way.
Popoli is beautiful. But there was more I wanted to see. I was stuffed. But there was more I wanted to eat. I drank. But there were many more I wanted to sample.
Opening week - Popoli opened on April 16 - the place was packed. If I wanted to "show off Cedar Rapids," though, I would happily wait at the beautiful bar, taking it all in, until my table was ready.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
HOURS: Monday to Thursday 4 p.m. to midnight; Friday and Saturday 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.
HAPPY HOUR: 4 to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to midnight