Pop-up restaurants: dining for a new decade

pop-up restaurantsFirst, it was underground supper clubs. Now, everything’s coming up pop-ups. As with food trucks, this form of guerrilla cheffing borne of economic need has become a global phenomenon. Equal parts dinner party and dinner theater, a pop-up refers to a dining establishment that is open anywhere from one to several nights, usually in an existing restaurant or other commercial food establishment.

The impermanent nature of pop-ups means no real overhead or utilities, and little food cost and labor. They’re not enough to sustain chefs financially, but are instead a great way for them to make a name for themselves and draw some income in between (or during) gigs. Pop-ups also give chefs a chance to stretch themselves, stylistically or ethnically, although some prefer to let local ingredients shine. Most pop-ups give props to sustainability by sourcing product from local farms, which is part of what gives these fly-by-night operations such a wonderful sense of place.

I first heard about pop-ups while couch-surfing in San Francisco two years ago (my own pop-up form of survival after relocating back to the West Coast from Colorado). Chef Anthony Myint, the brainchild behind SF’s Mission Street Food pop-up, which started in 2008, was serving much-lauded, locally-sourced dinners Thursday nights, each time with the help of a guest chef. The food was unpredictable with regard to cuisine or style. The location? Lung Shan, a nondescript Chinese restaurant in the city’s vibrant Mission District (FYI, my favorite place for great, usually cheap, eats). I remember thinking at the time, “More, please.”pop-up restaurantsFast-forward 24 months, and while the pop-up is no more, the venture was so successful, Myint is now co-owner of San Francisco’s popular Commonwealth, as well as newly minted (har) chef at the forthcoming Mission Bowling Club. And Joshua Skenes of Saison, one of Food & Wine magazine’s newly crowned Best New Chefs, started the restaurant as a pop-up.

San Francisco has long been an incubator for innovative ideas involving food, so it’s no surprise pop-ups are, ah, popular there (click here for a recent round-up). Meanwhile, fellow 2011 Best New Chef Jason Franey, of Seattle’s Canlis, has also been getting in on the pop-up. In February, he cooked a one-night gig at “Hearth & Home,” held at one of the city’s Macrina Bakery locations (another tip: if you’re in town, visit Macrina in its own right. Four words: chocolate-orange pound cake).

The pop-up trend–which now applies to boutiques, galleries, clubs, coffee houses, and bars–has gone national. Los Angeles, San Diego, New Orleans, Chicago, New York, Boston, Portland (Oregon), Miami: all popular for restaurant pop-ups. Oakland has seen phenomenal response to its Pop-up General Store, which features a twice-monthly gathering of food vendors held at a catering kitchen. Founded by former Chez Panisse Chef Christopher Lee and his former sous chef Saimin Nosrat (of Berkeley’s defunct Eccolo), the venue features all the deliciousness you would expect when a group of mostly former Chez Panisse cooks and food artisans get together and prepare things to eat.
pop-up restaurants
Pop-ups are even crossing the pond. The New York Times reports that, starting today, Singapore is sending some of its top chefs and a pop-up kitchen on a yearlong trip around the world, with nine stops planned in Moscow, Paris, London, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Delhi, Sydney, and Dubai. Dubbed Singapore Takeout, the goal is to showcase the city’s eclectic, multi-ethnic cuisine. The kitchen is a converted 20-by-eight-foot shipping container. Also hitting the road is chef Thomas Keller of The French Laundry, Ad Hoc, Bouchon, and Per Se. He’ll be featured in a ten-day pop-up at Harrods, London later this summer.

Tip: Due to the nature of pop-ups, the best way to find them is to Google the words, “pop-up restaurant, ____ (city).” You can also go to Pop up Restaurants for news. Get popping!

A guide to America’s most “offal” restaurants

offal restaurantsEven when I was a finicky kid subsisting on Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, I was intrigued by offal. No way in hell would I have eaten what are politely known in the food industry as “variety meats,” but they sure looked intriguing.

As with most of my weird habits, I blame my dad for my fascination with animal guts. Growing up the daughter of a large animal vet, I spent most of my formative years raising livestock, assisting with surgeries and necropsies, and working cattle brandings, so I’ve never been squeamish when it comes to animal innards.

Not until I began working in restaurants, however, did I learn that offal, properly prepared, is absolutely delicious. Many of us were forced to eat liver cooked to the consistency of jerky as kids because it was “good for us.” When I ate my first tender, caramelized calf’s liver, however, the interior creamy and surprisingly mild, I actually enjoyed it. Ditto fried pig’s brains, calf testicles, smoked cow’s tongue, grilled chicken hearts…

In most of the world–Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Latin America–offal has always been a dietary staple due to poverty, and the need to utilize as much of the animal as possible. Glands, organs, and other bits and pieces fell out of favor in America in the late 19th century due to cheap meat (muscle cut) prices. Today, offal is gaining popularity in the States, thanks in part to the increasing emphasis on sustainable food production and supply. British chef Fergus Henderson’s The Whole Beast: Nose to Tail Eating has done just as much to inspire American chefs to get in on the offal revolution this side of the Atlantic.

Following the jump, my picks for some of the best restaurants in the United States to specialize in or honor offal (having the occasional sweetbreads or tongue on a menu doesn’t count). Read on for where to find these temples of, as one chef put it, “offal love.”

[Photo credit: Flickr user The Hamster Factor]

offal restaurantsIncanto, and SPQR: San Francisco
It’s hard to turn on the Food Network these days without seeing Incanto chef Chris Cosentino’s mug. The “Iron Chef” contestant also appears on a handful of other shows, but he’s best known for his obsession with offal. At Incanto, you’ll find Italian-rooted local cuisine heavy on variety meats. Lamb fries (testicles) with bacon and capers; kip (veal) heart tartare Puttanesca style; creative endeavors with cockscombs. If you want to discover how good esoteric offal can be, this Noe Valley spot is it.

SPQR–sister restaurant to the wildly popular A16–is a bustling little sweet spot on boutique-and-restaurant heavy Fillmore Street. The name, an acronym for the Latin version of “The People and Senate of Rome,” is a tip-off that rising star chef Matthew Accarrino’s menu is littered with animal parts. Look for delicacies like a delicate fritto misto of offal (liver, tripe, and sweetbreads), and braised pig ears deep-fried, and served with pickled vegetables and chili oil.

Animal: Los Angeles
As you will see, this round-up is unwittingly a tribute to Food & Wine magazine’s Best New Chefs, past and present. But a great chef is a great chef, and it just so happens that 2009 F & W winners Jon Shook and Vinny Dotolo love them some animal parts. At their first restaurant, Animal, the down-to-earth duo–former culinary school classmates and longtime co-workers–serve up fancified down-home, finger-slurpingly good treats like pig tails, “Buffalo-style,” with celery and Ranch; pig ear, chili, lime, and fried egg, and veal brains, vadouvan (a spice mixtures), apple sauce, and carrot.

Clyde Common, Porland (Oregon)
The menu isn’t always bursting with offal, but this lovely communal dining spot in downtown’s Ace Hotel knows its way with variety meats–it’s where I first fell in love with tongue. Savor Euro tavern-style treats like chef Chris DiMinno’s chicken-fried chicken livers with cress, cucumber, and lemon aioli; pig trotters, or hearty charcuterie boards with excellent (heavy on the bourbon, gin, and rye) house cocktails.offal restaurants

Amis, and Osteria: Philadelphia
Arguably one of the nation’s most talented chefs, Marc Vetri trained in Italy, and now runs a three-restaurant (and growing) empire with his partners in Philadelphia. The award-winning chef’s restaurants Amis, and Osteria, are heavy on the offal, in two very divergent ways. At Amis, chef/co-owner Brad Spence turns out earthy, Roman trattoria specialties, including a menu section called “il quinto quarto.” In ancient Rome, this “fifth quarter” refers to the four quarters of an animal that were butchered and split up amongst the noblemen, clergy, and soldiers. Peasants got the fifth quarter (also known as “what falls out of the animal). Expect hearty fare like trippa alla Romana, Roman tripe stew.

Jeff Michaud, chef/co-owner of the industrial-farmhouse-styled Osteria, turns out intensely rich dishes like Genovese ravioli stuffed with veal brain, capon, and liver, served with a braised capon leg sauce; crispy sweetbreads with Parmigiano fonduta and charred treviso, and grilled pork tongue spiedini with fava beans and pancetta.

The Greenhouse Tavern, and Lolita: Cleveland
Chef/owner Jonathon Sawyer of downtown’s The Greenhouse Tavern is more than just a 2010 F & W Best New Chef. He’s a man who isn’t afraid to make “Roasted Ohio pig face” one of his signature dishes. Granted, this is a hog gussied up with Sawyer’s signature Frenchified gastropub style: cola gastrique, petit crudite, and lime. But Sawyer, who lived briefly in Rome, also pays tribute to the eternal city of love by serving a daily-changing il quinto quarto “with tasty bits.”

the Publican: Chicagooffal restaurants
Spicy pork rinds; blood sausage; headcheese; neck bone gravy with spaghetti and Parmesan; sweetbreads with pear-celery root remoulade. the Publican executive chef/co-owner/award-winning chef Paul Kahan is innovative with more than just offal. He uses scraps, blood, and bones to create charcuterie, as well as elegant, “beer-focused farmhouse fare (his father owned a deli and smokehouse; no wonder).” Chef de cuisine Brian Huston leads the show, carrying on the tradition.

The Spotted Pig, New York
Having just received its fifth Michelin star means this Greenwich Village hot spot will continue to be nearly impossible to get into. But it’s worth the wait for chef/co-owner April Bloomfield’s (yet another F & W Best New Chef alum) soulful gastropub cuisine. In the never-too-much-of-a-good-thing category: Calf’s liver with crispy pancetta and house-made bacon.

I’ve only tapped the surface of what talented, creative chefs are doing with offal in the United States. Have a favorite restaurant doing something noteworthy with bits and pieces? I’d love to hear about it!