Bumps and bright spots off menu
by Lee Lawrence
"Pop-up dinner." For me, the name suggested a tantalizing meal, conjured out of the air with sleight-of-hand wizardry by a chef wannabe in an inspired setting. My husband's mind, though, leapt immediately to Pop-Tarts.
Once I'd explained the concept--a temporary dinner, usually held outside a conventional restaurant facility--his mind sprang to hard chairs, crowded tables, and forced conversation with strangers. I was trying to cajole him into spending his birthday at just such a dinner, but my naturally gregarious, extrovert spouse was unusually resistant.
The venue for the proposed dinner was intriguing--the Ann Arbor Club above Main Street, a bit of old Ann Arbor neither of us had ever seen. The chef was Brad Greenhill, a fellow we had heard spoken of in glowing terms but whose food we had never tasted. The meal was pricey but potentially subsidized by the Observer. What more could it take to sway someone? Eventually I convinced him that duty called--my duty, that is, as a reviewer--and we booked two reservations, one vegetarian, one regular, along with the optional drinks package.
Unfortunately, the evening, a warm spring night in May, did not begin well. We had reserved space at the second seating, and, though we arrived promptly at 9:15, the first seating didn't exit as promptly; we weren't seated until nearly 10. Along with the other trappings of a conventional restaurant, this pop-up dinner lacked a host or maitre d' to soothe us with reassuring words, a cocktail, or the promise of a free dessert. But the lively, friendly group at our long communal table eventually prevailed over my husband's initial grumpiness. We ended up having a splendid, if unorthodox, birthday dinner.
We had ordered the vegetarian option not because either of us is vegetarian but because it sounded delicious and allowed us to sample more of the cuisine. In fact, in the first course, in which crispy pressed tofu replaced chicken wings in nearly identical sauces of Calabrian chilis, honey, and fried
garlic (with soy replacing anchovy as the salty element), the tofu outshone its opposition. If I had been home, I would have licked both plates clean of their sauce.
Fresh garbanzos followed, roasted in their shells, seasoned heavily with sea salt, Szechuan pepper, and Aleppo chili powder. We held the beans in our mouth, pinching the casings until the garbanzos slid out, seasoned by the spicing that clung to the shells. More vegetables arrived--crispy asparagus dotted with chimichurri sauce, toasted bread crumbs, and a dollop of yogurt, and a small pile of deliciously charred carrots stunningly paired with pistachios, lemon, mint, and shavings of fiore sardo cheese.
The noodle course--pad thai--brought another vegetarian/meat divergence. The N'awlins (carnivore) version gilded the dish with robust hunks of pork belly and a fried oyster, while the Farmer's (vegetarian) option scrambled a duck egg into the mix. The main courses brought us rabbit alla porchetta, the meat wrapped in speck, thin slices of cured, smoked ham, or, in the vegetarian meal, smoked wild mushrooms, both flavored with preserved lemon and garnished with fennel and arugula. We divided the two plates equally and, eating the rabbit and mushrooms together, had the best meals in the house.
After so much inventive and delicious food, we found the dessert a bit too esoteric--the birch-sap granita (ice) was bitter yet oddly insipid, with matching berries and a discordant coconut creme. For the most part we enjoyed the optional beverages, a selection of cocktails, wine, and beer designed by David Landrum of Detroit's Two James distillery to complement each course, and if each drink didn't necessarily suit our tastes, it certainly offered an interesting pairing with the food.
An awkward part of this type of pop-up dinner can be service. Although your meal might cost as much as it would at a fine dining establishment, the extensive trained staff simply doesn't exist. Fine points of service go by the wayside, but the convivial party atmosphere hopefully makes up for that deficiency.
Zingerman's Events on Fourth occasionally offers another type of pop-up dinner, one with a limited, unique menu but with a full bar available and a staff of congenial, if untutored, servers. I missed a Brinery dinner in May, but a friend and I went to one in March put on by San Street, Zingerman's Asian food offshoot. Five-dollar glasses of wine won our votes over pricier exotic cocktails as we perused the menu, which featured the regional Korean cuisine of Kaesong, an old court city in what is now North Korea. We decided to order one of each item off the short menu.
Best by far was the jorangi rice cake soup, a deep, rich oxtail broth loaded with tender pillows of figure-eight-shaped rice flour cakes--absolutely savory and comforting. Gosoo gutjuri, a cilantro salad in spicy dressing, provided a striking juxtaposition, the bright, fresh, green flavor of the herb contrasting beautifully with the dressing's dried red chilis. We also loved Kaesong moo jjim, a flavorful slow braise of unctuous pork, beef, and chicken in soy and garlic, served with rice. A vegetarian version with large chunks of tofu and vegetables, however, was boring, the sauce lacking flavor and body. Both meat and mushroom pyunsoo, traditional square dumplings, were also disappointing, the encasing dough mostly uncooked, the meat filling unremarkable, though the mushroom one was nicely tangy. Prices for all the dishes were reasonable, and although our waitress knew nothing about the unusual food she was serving, she was friendly and pleasant.
Since last year, San Street has also shown up Tuesday nights at The Bar at 327 Braun Court, which hosts a hybrid of the pop-up concept, one with a fairly regular schedule. Cafe Memmi, another Zingerman's offshoot featuring Tunisian food, stars on Thursdays. And for the last few months, Central Provisions, a duo in search of a regular gig, has provided food on Wednesday nights. Besides the space, the bar, of course, provides excellent cocktails and helps with service. Be warned that, especially during the school year, the crowd can overwhelm the cozy, intimate place, and the music level, which starts out loud, grows even louder as the evening wears on and the clientele gets younger. Also, the food is served on the second floor, with no handicap accessibility.
Colleagues had raved about Central Provisions, and I looked forward to trying its fare, which is based on seasonal flavors. Two friends joined me one Wednesday in June. With three of us and a menu of just six dishes, we ordered one of everything.
Crostini with homemade ricotta, lemon, and garlic scapes came out first, a lovely paean to spring. Herb salad with rye croutons, beets, pickled asparagus, and a caraway dressing offered sharp, earthy contrasts, and the pork rillettes that followed were satisfying, if lacking in depth of flavor. We found the romesco that garnished roasted zucchini a dull version of that typically robust sauce, and the steamed mussels with a garlicky tomato sauce, white beans, chilis, and mint fine but not outstanding. Dessert, described as pistachio shortcake, was really a scone, quite nice, and nicely paired with whipped cream and a strawberry-rhubarb jam. While all the food was carefully prepared and tasty, nothing "wowed" us that night, but I trust my colleagues, so I intend to try Central Provisions again, later in the season, when Michigan produce is at its height.
On the other hand, later that month Cafe Memmi did thrill us with similarly careful preparation and extraordinary tastes. Fried chickpeas, accented with a bazaar's worth of spices and fried in olive oil, were addictive--crispy on the outside, creamy within. Ajlook, a salad composed of long shavings of raw zucchini, summer squash, and onions dressed in a preserved lemon vinaigrette, fairly sparkled with bright flavors. Preserved lemon also accented the tomato sauce of ojja aux petits pois, eggs scrambled in that seasoned sauce and dotted with peas. Brick au maquereau featured a fragile, incredibly delicate semolina pastry leaf masking smoked mackerel and rounds of new potatoes, garnished with a raw radish and turnip salad. Dessert brought fresh strawberries drowning in a pool of lemon balm custard. From beginning to end, we could not have been more delighted with the meal.
Pop-up dinners, then, are an adventure--this one a cross between friendly dinner party and fine dining restaurant, another an indoor journey to an exotic locale or a celebration of the season. Perhaps you join old friends or make new ones. But because all of these dinners are put on by people who like to cook, yearn to cook, and who hope, one day, to have their own restaurants, the one guarantee is that ingredients will be thoughtfully considered, the dishes meticulously constructed and the dinner a personal expression of the chef's vision.
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Multi-course dinner approximately $60/person, with an optional $20 beverage package
Zingerman's Events on Fourth
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Dishes about $5-$15
The Bar at 327 Braun Court
Pop-up schedules on Facebook and Twitter
Dishes about $5-$18
[Originally published in August, 2013.]