They've been one of the hottest food trends lately. Pop up restaurants, made popular by Celebrity Chef Ludo Lefebvre in Los Angeles, are starting to appear in other cities (like Boston!) as well. The concept is simple. A chef sets up a temporary restaurant in a vacant (often unusual) space for one night and serves a dinner there.
Usually, the dinners are prix fixe, reservations are required, and the menu is ever changing. More often than not the meals are creative, upscale, and multi-course experiences. In general, it's difficult to score a reservation. Seating is often communal, so be prepared to socialize, meet some new friends, and enjoy a different sort of dining experience.
People have dined in banks, sandwich shops, basements, and . . . in this case . . a chocolate factory!
I had the privilege of trying out my first pop-up experience at the Taza Chocolate Factory over Valentine's Day weekend.
I had a blast.
I first visited the Taza Chocolate Factory over a year ago when they had opened it up for tours. They have since upgraded most of their equipment, so all of this was brand new to me. I must say, there's something very, very cool about walking around inside a chocolate factory. How fortunate are we to have something so unique and interesting right in our backyard in Somerville?
A chocolate factory is not set up for cooking, by any means, so Will Gilson had to bring a lot of his own stuff. They set up shop in the "kitchen" area (which had a fridge). Will brought his own immersion circulator (yay sous vide!) and a mini-oven. It's pretty fascinating how he is able to creatively make use of what he has to produce such an interesting meal.
Since it was Valentine's weekend and we were in a chocolate factory, naturally the theme was chocolate. Will Gilson definitely took a very creative and whimsical approach in how he carried out that theme. Case in point: the first course? A HUGE "kiss"! What was inside?
Spice roasted butternut squash kibbeh “chocolate kiss” with pistachio, buttered leeks and braised duck
Well, there was no chocolate, but there was a lovely flavored kibbeh (typically a Lebanese dish made from bulgar wheat) that reminded me a bit of cous cous but with a chewier texture. The flavors were fantastic, and you can't beat the presentation.
Black Truffle and chestnut soup with white chocolate
The second course was probably the most unique dish of the evening. This was Will Gilson's spin on cream of mushroom soup. Normal mushrooms are replaced by black truffles, while the "cream" has been replaced by white chocolate. The soup was interesting. It wasn't bad, but it was quite weird. You could definitely taste the sweetness of the white chocolate, yet at the same time the umami of the soup was quite strong. The way one person put it, "if this soup were just a hair sweeter, it would taste like dessert."
Winter greens and herb salad with crispy speck and guaca “mole” dressing
The salad's chocolate link was the guaca-"mole" dressing. Mole is traditionally a Mexican sauce that contains chili and chocolate (among other spices). Will Gilson took a creative spin on this by using traditional mole spices (sans the chocolate!!) and mixing them with avocados to make his own version of a green goddess dressing. Speck, sort of like prosciutto, is cured ham (knowing Will Gilson, he probably made it himself). It added a nice crunch and saltiness to balance out the creamy dressing.
Marinated lamb with cocoa nib jus, whipped potato, French curry and cabbage dolma
The next course was sort of a take on lamb in two different ways. One piece of lamb was marinated with cocoa nib jus and cooked sous vide in the immersion circulator for hours. The other piece was ground lamb mixed with spices and wrapped in a cabbage leaf. Bryan and I both agreed that the cabbage dolma tasted much better with its flavorful, juicy meat. The marinated lamb was OK, but both of us would have preferred something a bit more rare. In this case, although it was soft and tender, it was basically cooked all the way through.
Mexican Hot chocolate tasting
Warm chocolate espuma, chile and chocolate terrine, and dulce de leche
The dessert was where we finally got to see some true chocolate! Of course, the chocolate was Taza Chocolate. Will taught us now to make dulce de leche (so easy! just boil a can of condensed milk for an hour). I always love the combination of chili and chocolate (the Taza disc with guajillo chili is my favorite!) so it's no surprise I enjoyed the terrine, especially with that tiny sprinkle of salt on top.
Every so often curiosity got the best of me and I would sneak into the kitchen to see what was going on. Will had a small team of people helping him out both with plating the food and serving it.
Before each dish, Will would come up with Aaron (the organizing mastermind behind this whole event) and explain the dish. It made the whole evening a bit more personal, communal, and fun.
A big part of these events is the communal dining aspect of it. You sit at these longish tables next to people you've never met. Bryan and I ended up sitting with a bunch of folks who worked at Taza Chocolate, which was super fun. I met Stephanie (sales), Mike (the original chocolate maker!!), and Sarah (the "pulse", social media, marketing person).
We asked them all sorts of interesting questions, like "what is it like to be a chocolate maker?" or "what new flavors have you tried making?" or "how often do you get to take chocolate home with you?"
Several of the employees had been with the company since close to the beginning, and it was really cool to hear stories of how Taza has grown through the years.
I even asked them whether they could make the chili chocolate disc with a darker chocolate (currently the discs are around 55%, and I personally love 70%). I was thrilled when they told me that they are actually coming out with those really soon!! Hot off the presses!
Heck, I don't think they've even told anyone else about this yet! So, BREAKING NEWS! Coming soon: new chocolate flavors at Taza will be orange, chipotle, and ginger. These will be available with the 70% chocolate.
The factory now has a store, which is a great place to buy interesting small-batch "research" chocolates that never make it out to normal stores. Examples of some recent pieces include chocolate with pieces of candied ginger as well as chocolates with cashews.
Ha ha, got your attention, didn't I?
Mike, the chocolate maker, is actually the guy posing in all of Taza's promotional postcards. The other two Taza employees, Sarah and Stephanie, somehow convinced Mike to pose with the postcard in his hand. That's the picture on the left.
On the right? Will Gilson showing off his awesome eat tatoo.
This pop up meal was $80 per person inclusive of everything. Considering that you get a 5-course dinner, unlimited wine (provided by Bear Flags Wine), full service, and a gift bag full of goodies at the end (including Taza Chocolate discs, locally made Elaine Hsieh Chocolates, and I <3 lamb stickers), it's really a good value.
Granted, there are some limitations on the quality of the food mostly from the fact that the chef is quite constrained in a makeshift kitchen. Still, Will did an admirable job of executing a very delicious and enjoyable dinner in a really unique environment.
In the end, the food is only one aspect of this entire dining experience. The pop up experience is unique and fun because 1) it's a one-time event in an unusual space 2) the chef creates a very personalized dining experience for you and 3) you get to meet all sorts of interesting people.
Of course, all this is even more fun when there's excellent food involved (which, in this case, there definitely was).
Next Pop Up "Mothers Day In March" at the BCAE
Will told us during this event that his next pop up will be benefiting his mom, Jodie Gilson, owner of J. Gilson Greenhouses, a wholesale grower of herbs and perennials. Sadly, all of his mother's greenhouses collapsed under heavy snow this past winter. These greenhouses are her livelihood and it's crucial for her to be up and running in time for the spring season.
Will's next pop up has an impressive line up of chefs, including Colin Lynch (Menton), Jamie Bissonnette (Toro/Coppa), Joanne Chang (Flour), Ian Grossman (Russell House Tavern), and Will himself, (Garden at the Cellar) of course. See the entire list here.
The dinner will be Saturday, March 5, 2011 at the Boston Center for Adult Education. You can buy tickets here.
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