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Pop-up restaurants go mainstream as top chefs experiment with format


The dosa waffle is one of those beguilingly simple dishes that make even the most jaded of food writers sit up and take notice. The clever layering of flavours — mild sweetness and fermented sourness juxtaposed with caramelised notes from pineapple slices on the side — is refreshing for palates numbed by routine onslaughts from hamhanded culinary inventions. It is, therefore, natural that we savour each bite with care, at the end of what has been one of the laziest, longest brunches of this season. The Paowalla brunch at The Bombay Canteen, Mumbai.

Paowalla, of course, is New York-based chef Floyd Cardoz’s latest casual-chic Soho outing, post Tabla that downed its shutters in 2010. The restaurant opened in July this year and has been garnering rave reviews. Naturally, there has been a fair amount of curiosity about it back home. In November, Mumbai finally got a stab at some of the quirky, casual plates that make up the Paowalla menu in NYC, courtesy of a two-day, pop-up brunch at The Bombay Canteen, which Cardoz also partners.

On the Sunday I am there, The Bombay Canteen is buzzing with frenetic activity. Mumbai’s foodie set is in attendance and then some more. There’s not a free table to be found, special requests have had to be accommodated with difficulty or not at all. Thomas Zacharias, head chef of the restaurant who is executing the pop-up menu, has been pushing out plates without a pause from the kitchen window.

These come bearing ghee roast chicken Benedict (a take on eggs Benedict), momos filled with fish, shrimp and kashundi that remind you of the Bengali steamed paturi and a red snapper-solkadi ceviche. The last is a dish that is breathtaking in both its concept and restrained execution. It is one of those unexpected dishes with a twist whose very genesis you marvel at.

“As children, we would drink solkadi and have our fish,” says the Goan-born Cardoz, whose food memories from his formative years have gone into the Paowalla menu. “One day, it occurred to me to put both on a plate as a single dish,” he chuckles, gently, about his brainwave. The Konkani kokum drink has been transformed into a light froth surrounding slices of raw fish. Its acidity is different from the lime’s that flavours a regular ceviche. However, it is only apt in an India-inspired dish.

Then, there’s ginger for the bite, reminding you of how you would eat sashimi — which, of course, has also inspired the South American ceviche in the first place. This solkadi ceviche is undoubtedly a dish both for the mind and the palate. Does Cardoz plan to bring more of these unexpected, clever flavours to other tables? “Pop-ups are risky. It is necessary to have control of your kitchen, which is not entirely possible when you are in someone else’s kitchen,” says Cardoz honestly. He is not quite a proponent of these temporary restaurants. However, since The Bombay Canteen (TBC) and Paowalla are siblings, we may just see TBC popping up in New York next year.

Noma & More
When pop-up restaurants started as an off-mainstream phenomenon globally a few years ago, they were set up by amateurs who could ill-afford permanent restaurants. Tables were laid out in parking lots in London, milk shops in
Melbourne, apartments in New York and at art galleries, farms and by rivers, and “authentic”, casual food was served up by non-professionals at prices cheaper than at restaurants.

That model has been turned on its head. In the wannabe-hipster world, pop-ups have become so cool that they are hot property. From being the poorer cousins of mainstream restaurants, pop-up restaurants have been transformed into something uber-luxe and aspirational. Top chefs the world over are experimenting with this format, cooking in restaurant kitchens not their own.

Noma’s Rene Redzepi kick-started a trend when he uprooted his entire restaurant, taking it first to Japan in 2015 and then Australia this year. In 2017, Noma is set to pop up in Mexico — its team is already in the country, looking at local produce and cooking methods, all carefully tweeted and Instagrammed by Redzepi and instantly lapped up by legions of his followers. All 90 members of the Noma staff are to move to Tulum for the pop-up, where the menu will be Mexican-inspired.Noma Mexico will serve dinner five nights a week at a stiff $600 a person. Yet, when reservations open on December 6, seats are likely to be snapped up in a jiffy.

“He is having fun with these travels and experiments,” says chef Manish Mehrotra of Indian Accent, on the phone from New York one early morning. Mehrotra, who runs two high-profile kitchens across continents, may not have the luxury of dabbling in transient restaurants like Redzepi does, but he is experimenting with the pop-up format nevertheless.

Last month, the first Indian Accent pop-up happened in Mumbai, at The Magazine Street Kitchen. Mehrotra and his team served up three ticketed dinners and two ticketed lunches of 7-8 courses for 40 diners per meal. The tickets were priced at Rs 8,500 for dinner and Rs 5,500 for lunch, pegging them firmly at the highest end of food retail in the country. Yet, the events were sold out. Tables were booked for dinner within four hours of the announcement.

There were popular dishes from both the New Delhi and New York menus, including the recent bestsellers in the Big Apple such as the tofu medu vada and aloo-mutton chila. “We never planned to do a pop-up in Mumbai before because we thought we would open a restaurant there. When the restaurant did not happen, we decided to do a pop-up and bring our food to our followers there,” says Mehrotra.

Shuttling between continents, Mehrotra does not have time for many such events, but one pop-up a year is currently being planned and not just in India. Salzburg is on the anvil for February. Working in different, international kitchens gives exposure to his team, believes Mehrotra.

He points to an event he did in Israel earlier this year, as part of something called Round Tables, an American Express-sponsored event, with 13 restaurants from around the world participating. These restaurants were paired with an Israeli restaurant each and invited to present meals for five days in a “global festival”. Mehrotra and his team cooked up lobster with Kashmiri haaq and their trademark blue cheese naans and papads and found a surprisingly receptive audience that already knew about their restaurant and food.

New Nordic in Mumbai
If pop-ups by top chefs are making the food world go round, India is waking up to these off-beat experiences.

Two years ago, Bangkok-based chef Gaggan Anand cooked in Mumbai and Delhi to much excitement but mixed results. Other high-profile international chefs are planning collaborations with Indian counterparts. Mumbai seems to be the epicentre of these experiments.

One of the most interesting pop-ups (as yet hush-hush) early next year will be at the newly opened Masque restaurant in the Laxmi Woollen Mills compound. The restaurant, which does only tasting menus based on seasonal and local produce sourced directly from farms across the country, is a unique offering on Mumbai’s foodscape. Prateek Sadhu, its head chef and partner, has based the concept on Californian-style, farm-to-fork gastronomy and has been doing some interesting plates in the two months that the restaurant has been operational.

In January, the restaurant will see a collaborative between Sadhu and chef Matt Orlando from Amass, Copenhagen. Orlando was the head chef at Noma before leaving it to start his own venture, which is highly rated for its Noma-style new Nordic food. Sadhu, after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, had done a stint at Noma, where he got to know Orlando.

Amass is fairly similar to Masque, and not just in the way their names sound. Both are hipster cool in their formats — located off busy commercial districts and with industrial, warehouse facades. Amass had to find a space away from the city centre because of its food philosophy. The restaurant grows much of its own ingredients and has a garden and even beehives on its premises. Masque, built on the same local-gastronomy theme, has recently acquired a farm from where it will source much of what it needs.

Orlando clearly had an impact on Sadhu and now the two chefs will travel through India next month to explore ingredients, find inspiration and finally present a 12-course collaborative meal, which will be ticketed. Mumbai’s penchant for culinary experimentation makes the city a top choice for such events. In November, the city also enthusiastically received chef Himanshu Saini.

A Delhi boy and former alumnus of Indian Accent and Farzi Café, Saini is with TresInd, the Dubai restaurant that has been making a name for itself, including within the growing tribe of “travelling foodies” from India. His Mumbai pop-up, put together by food events company Cellar Door Hospitality, was the first time Saini returned home to cook in a restaurant.

The event was apparently put together at short notice at the Four Seasons but was sold out. “Mumbai thankfully has a fairly experimental audience. They didn’t know much about the chef but were open to trying something new. Next time we can create a bigger wave,” says Nachiket Shetye, director, Cellar Door Hospitality. Shetye says the company will have more such high-end pop-ups next year as well as other large-scale formats like a sadhya in a wedding banquet hall.

Consumers seem more than eager to experiment with these dining experiences that take them away from regular restaurant meals. But for But for top chefs these cook-outs can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, pop-ups provide an avenue for expressing creativity in a format that is not bound by conventional retail. Chefs can collaborate, explore and create new dishes, referencing disparate culinary cultures. On the other hand, quality can easily slip. To be in an alien kitchen and turn out the kind of flawless food you are known for is no mean task. Chefs run the risk of disappointing potential customers drawn to these one-off experiences. Yet, as they say, there’s no gain without pain.

Source: Economic times

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