The pop-up restaurant trend seems to have finally popped up on the East Coast, after gaining some seriously popularity and momentum on the West Coast and in Europe. But what exactly is a “pop-up restaurant,” you may ask?
Inspired by the idea of making something from nothing (a concept which I am very much on board with), a pop-up restaurant, similar to a pop-up retail store, is a dining establishment that takes over an otherwise unoccupied space and operates just like any other restaurant would, only on a semi-permanent basis. Pop-up dining has been called as much as a “phenomenon” in Los Angeles, where in late summer 2010, chef Ludo Lefebvre temporarily transformed several restaurants and diners into gourmet dining experiences.
Here in New York, a group of foodie-restaurant-biz-alumni are undertaking a similar quest by starting up their own pop-up “rogue restaurant” concept, The Owner’s Table. Though The Owner’s Table founders Matthew Lunetta and Adam Austin both began their professional careers with a business background (business-folk-turned-foodies, imagine that), their experience and passion for the restaurant industry drove them to found this endeavor, which they assert, shall, “combine an intimate, warm, and communal dining experience with some of New York’s hottest young chefs.” In my initial conversations with Matthew, he expressed his feeling that New York would provide the perfect backdrop for such a venture, as the city’s foodie culture has recently transitioned from an undercurrent to decidedly mainstream. As one who follows New York City food culture, events, and general ramblings quite often, I agree that this city’s society is one who would gobble this concept up.
I was fortunate enough to be invited by Matt to dine at The Owner’s Table for their opening night, which was hosted at Ciao for Now, an East Village cafe and bakery that is closed on Monday nights. Though initially surprised that the opening of a pop-up restaurant business would be held at a small, neighborhood-y cafe, rather than a swank, urban restaurant, I immediately understood the intent once I crossed Ciao for Now’s threshold. This small establishment embodied The Owner’s Table’s mission statement of an intimate, warm, communal dining experience, with its exposed brick walls, roughly hewn wooden tables and benches, and warm, low light that came namely from small tea candles flickering on each table. It’s the sort of setting that puts a diner immediately at ease – whether they are looking for camaraderie and conversation, or romance, or relaxation, they’ve come to the right place.
I was quickly seated with some friends, and offered a flute of celebratory champagne, which bubbled elegantly in the sparkling light. Matt and Adam both came over to our table to greet us and explain their concept further, elaborating that one of the key facets of The Owner’s Table premise is that the menu is constantly changing to accommodate the freshest seasonal foods – “farm-to-owner’s-table,” if you will. Our hosts dispersed the menus, which they explained were price-fixed with one selection per each of the four courses. In order to create more of a gourmet food experience, Matt and Adam explained, The Owner’s Table creates a fixed menu for each week, based on ingredients that are ripe, in-season, available, and of course, most pleasing to the chef (for now, Mario Tolentino, champion of Chopped Season 4).
Again, Matt and Adam expressed that above all, they are aiming to create an experience that caters to food lovers who seek a gourmet, unique experience, one that showcases the foods themselves and how they are prepared, rendering other menu options unnecessary. The meal is the show, and the space merely a backdrop.
This mission was clear with a single glance at the menu – the flavors of winter jumped off the page, with cauliflower, butternut squash, fingerling potatoes, huckleberry, and Bailey’s cream swirling through each course to create a completely seasonal meal. Perhaps because it was opening night, or perhaps just because this concept operates so well in actuality, each course followed each other in perfect succession – no dish was rushed, but once complete, it was aptly cleared and a new course was in front of you before you had time to wonder when it was arriving, regardless of the pace at which the other diner’s ate.
To start, we were served a lovely cauliflower soup laden with thick tender diver scallops, and topped with brussel sprout relish and toasted almonds.
As the dishes were placed down before us, one of the owners was again at our table side, explaining the dish, and why each ingredient was so important – something that, I felt, brought a level of intellectual and sensual engagement to this meal that is often lacking in a dining experience. We learned that the cauliflower were not typical, but in fact, were a veritable “albino” variation, where the florets of the cauliflower are wrapped up in the outer leaves to prevent the vegetable from oxidizing as it grows, which can diminish the vegetable’s natural and vital flavors. The cauliflower had been picked just that morning, and were as fresh as could be. The anticipation garnered by this preface was not unjustified; one spoonful into this dish, and I could honestly say that this was the best soup I had ever tasted. The natural sweet and savory tones of the cauliflower were matched perfectly to the similar sweetness of the scallops, of which there was no shortage. Each chunk was moist and decadent, exploding with flavor in your mouth as the soup became somewhat of a sauce enveloping it. And the seasonality was unmistakable, as the hints of an earthy, roasted flavor from the brussel sprout and almond gave each spoonful a suggestion of autumn, despite the summery scallop on board.
Next up was the pasta course, which consisted of fingerling potato gnocchi resting in a creamy butternut squash puree, sprinkled with bits of braised pork belly, caramelized Brae Burn apple, and pickled Japanese white turnip. As Matt reminded us, everything on our plates was local – except for the turnip. We willingly forgave him.
This dish defined culinary synergy. The ingredients, while each very different and standing alone in its own right, together created a flavor palate that gained momentum with each bite. If on one’s fork was placed a gnocchi, a bit of pork, an apple, and a sliver of turnip, all grazed through the squash sauce, here’s how it would hit you: first, you would get an enjoyable warmth, followed by an explosion of sweet and tart, as the apple and turnip were crushed by your teeth and the juices flowed over your palate. Then, your tongue would press the gnocchi to the roof of your mouth, and the potato would provide savory comfort laced in the richness of winter, from the squash. Finally, you would be left with a smooth smoky finish from the pork belly, and a resonating satisfaction from the richness of the fat. And that – that was just the first bite.
With the first two dishes astounding, I was pleased to note that the main course, the spice-crusted lamb loin served alongside a celery root puree with a roasted fennel and chanterelle mushroom ragout, over a huckleberry sauce, was very good.
While not the show stealer, this dish was extremely well done. The lamb was served rare, as it should have been, and the huckleberry sauce carried the theme of winter’s bounty through to the third course as snow began to swirl outside. The crust on the lamb must have included some sort of curry blend, because the lamb itself was reminiscent of Indian cuisine, while the sauce and sides spoke more to rustic, homestyle cooking, all melding surprisingly well together. This dish was a satisfying, savory lead-in to dessert, which I had been eyeing with a lustful eye.
But before dessert could be served, just after the third-course plates had been cleared, a wonderful surprise occurred that changed the course of the evening for the better and the strikingly more memorable. Matt approached our table, and suggested that he’d like to introduce our party to the owners of Ciao For Now, a married couple who were dining in the corner.
We gratefully obliged that we would love to be introduced – I for one was dying to pay my compliments to the owners of the space – but was pleasantly astounded when owners Amy and Kevin asked us to join their party. What followed was a meandering, spirited conversation about not only food culture in New York, but of the ups and downs of owning your own cafe in the highly-regulated city of Manhattan, how the Lower East Side has changed since the original days of the Fulton Fish Market, and what really happens when you introduce a three-year-old to a convention of Santa Clauses. By the time dessert arrived at our table, I felt as though I’d known Amy and Kevin for years, and understood how clearly their warm and welcoming personality had translated into the ambience of their cafe.
Dessert was, for lack of a better phrase, a grand finale that night.
Chocolate Stout Cake made with cacao and Guinness, topped with whipped Bailey’s cream and a peanut brittle that has an immediate need for a more divine name. I literally could not stop eating this dish, a feat considering how stuffed I was. The brittle was crunchy and caramelly, and stuck in your teeth in a wonderful, old-fashioned way. The chocolate cake was dense, unbelievably moist, and rich as could be. Oh, and the Bailey’s cream? It speaks for itself.
I was on cloud nine as I walked out of The Owner’s table into the chilly December night. With the obvious benefits that this evening provided to an aspiring food journalist like myself aside, I had experienced exactly what Matt and Adam had set out to accomplish with The Owner’s Table. I had had a completely unique, gourmet, intimate, and bar-raising dining experience that was unlike any I’d had before, and left with both my intellectual and epicurean senses satisfied. For the New York foodie looking for something new in this city of constantly aging trends, I highly recommend you check out The Owner’s Table. You will not regret it.
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