Saturday, May 14, 2011

Cali Chef David Kinch Pops Up in NYC

If challah and a croissant had a baby, they would pop out a popover: the best thing since sliced bread (sorry challah), and the best thing I ate this week. The kicker: it came all the way from California via a pop-up restaurant. Let me explain.
 
The pop-up restaurant is the latest trend to hit New York City. A brilliant concept of promoting a chef or cuisine by “popping up” temporarily in a desired location. David Kinch, chef of Manresa in Los Gatos (near San Francisco), brought his restaurant to me this week at JBFLTD, the pop-up funded by the James Beard Foundation, setting up shop in Chelsea Market for only 27 days bridging April and May.

JBFLTD Exterior: Counting down the days of existence
Interior flanked with communal tables

Part of their program to promote all things culinary is to invite chefs, local and abroad, to create a tasting menu showcasing their flare for food, which is then offered on specific days. Diners, like myself, purchase tickets to whichever menu they want to experience, which includes the fare, wine pairings, and gratuities. But nabbing tickets required timing and acumen I did not possess. All were sold out, so the best I could do was a waitlist - which also closes. Thus it was by sheer luck that a cancellation wedged me into the pop-up restaurant experience.

Dining Action

The Popover Puff
Berry Butter
So back to the popover dessert. Saving the best for last must have been Kinch’s strategy for his menu. Imagine the most fluffly and eggy savory puffed bread pastry slathered with sweetly pink hibiscus berry butter. Once you pop, you can’t stop. One was not enough and their size surely did not intimidate me. Manners was the only thing keeping me from breaching my helping, plus one and a half more. I’m no baker but would certainly master the recipe just to have these for my judgment-free, unlimited consumption. If this was not enough to seal the meal, party favor packets of mini sugar cookies and white chocolate-covered fortune cookies were doled out.
Basket o' Bread

Salted Butter
Now you know how it ended. This is how it began. Brut bubbles flowed through champagne glasses as diners waited to be seated at communal tables. Once seated, baskets of country-style baked bread and plates of  meticulously cut butter triangles dressed with coarse sea salt awaited us. After our first course New Zealand 2008 sauvignon blanc was poured, it was time for the accompanying dish to hit the table. Vibrant green gazpacho was poured into bowls, waiting patiently with their flower-petal arrangement of pickled green strawberries and almond milk ice. Garden-fresh glory was only amplified by the spinach beignets, perfectly doughy for dunking.
Edible Arrangement Pre-Pour
Gazpacho Glory
Beignet Bite
Keeping it green, the second course came in the form of a few romaine leaves coddling crisped abalone (a west coast sea snail delicacy), and grilled cucumber swimming in fresh avocado and seaweed dressing. Skimpy, but refreshing and paired with a bold Sonoma 2008 chardonnay, too round and oaky for the dish. Though light, the echoes of the sea were prominent and well-incorporated.
Abalone Salad

Then drastically abandoning the light fare, the main meat was dropped family-style, one plate feeding every quadrant of eaters. Suckling pink porcelet (fancy French for baby pig) sat rustically charred and chopped alongside a heaping mound of whey polenta toppled with slightly sweet spring onions and crushed hazelnuts. (The menu claimed rhubarb was in the mix, though I did not detect it in any morsel.) The substance of this satisfyingly salty plate was amply appreciated by my palate, despite thick layers of fat that often accompany cuts of pork belly. I'm pretty sure I stretched my designated quarter share and ate for two from the communal plate. The Sonoma 2007 pinot noir we sipped held up considerably to the dense swine and polenta pudding, uncharacteristically full-bodied and viscous.
Pig and Polenta
And now we come full circle right back to popover pleasantry and freshly pressed coffee. The chef even emerged, making his rounds to greet each table. Was it wrong that I felt compelled to kiss his hand in appreciation? Or should I thank the pop-up phenom for getting me well-acquainted with the popover? Regardless, the experience is a double-edged sword: the tease of something so good and the awareness that all good things come to an end. Until the next thing to pop-up, I'm left with the fleeting memories of Californian cuisine and the magic puff of a pastry.