A disgruntled reader recently e-mailed me with criticism about my columns: “Why you gotta be so eclectic and booshwazee? It’s Utah—review some salt-of-the-Earth places with real good food, not this NYC nonsense.” Well, buddy, you’re not going to like this one ...
The first time I recall hearing about “pop-up” or “guerrilla” restaurants was in England, where they’ve been happening since about 2000. Increasingly, these one-off eateries are taking hold here in the United States. The idea is that a chef or chefs stage limited-run—sometimes just one night; sometimes for a month—set-menu dinners, frequently utilizing social media to get the word out to would-be customers. In some cases, the organizers of pop-up dining events make use of underused restaurants or, in some cases—such as Mist:SLC—host dinners in restaurants that have permanently or temporarily closed (Metropolitan).
Pop-up dinners are also a way that chefs who work in different restaurants can team up to work together—and, like food trucks, they are also an avenue for chefs who might not work in a restaurant to gain exposure and test their skills on the public without having to invest the time and capital it takes to open an actual restaurant. Most guerrilla dinners are BYOB and—maybe contrary to what you might expect—tend to be pretty pricey. The Mist:SLC dinners I wrote about a few months ago were $187 per person with tip, not including booze. The one I’m discussing here was $150 per person, BYOB.
I know a lot of “celebrity” chefs. But I only know one chef who’s been featured on TV for his survival skills. Jonas Otsuji appeared on the reality show Survivor, but his real skills are in the kitchen. Most recently, he worked as sushi chef in one of the highest-rated sushi bars in Las Vegas: Sushi Roku. Otsuji teams up with chef Katie Weinner on occasion to create pop-up dining experiences under the moniker SLC Alchemist. Weinner was head development chef for the Mist Project and is a culinary instructor at the Art Institute of Salt Lake City, and also hosts her own pop-up dinners called SLC POP (SLCPop.com). Together, Otsuji and Weinner are a formidable team in the kitchen, creating dishes deserving of the alchemy label. Frankly, I thought the SLC Alchemist dinner I attended in April blew Mist:SLC out of the water.
It was held at the expansive Ferguson showroom, in its gleaming exhibition kitchen, stocked with Wolf ranges, Sub-Zero fridges and other luxurious goodies that cooks drool over. Otsuji and Weinner took a tag-team approach to the dinner, trading courses throughout the 16-dish affair. That might sound like too much food, but the courses weren’t overwhelming—many were just a bite or two. I really like this style of eating: lots of tasty nibbles rather than one huge chunk of protein and a side dish or two.
The evening began, elegantly, with a glass of sparkling cider poured over a hibiscus flower, along with Otsuji’s escolar “Caprese,” which was small bits of escolar served on a skewer with grape tomatoes, followed by Weinner’s bite-size papadum “taco”—a very creative way to kick off dinner. Otsuji then kicked things up a notch with his very clever Japanese “fish & chips.” This was tempura-style rock lobster tail (“fish”) with thinly sliced fried taro (“chips”), wrapped up in Japanese newspaper and served with a dollop of wasabi and soy dipping sauce. It was a brilliant presentation, and one that tasted as great as it looked. That’s not something I can say about a lot of guerrilla dinner dishes. Too often, I find that cleverness and creativity overtake common sense; that was the case with some of the Mist:SLC dishes, which were cleverly conceived, but ultimately unpleasing on the palate. Of the 16 SLC Alchemist dinner courses, I can only think of one that I didn’t really enjoy.
During the dinner, we had the pleasure of sitting with Matt Caputo (Tony Caputo’s Market & Deli) and his wife, Yelena, who seemed to enjoy the parade of SLC Alchemist food as much as we did. The iSi culinary company makes professional kitchen products such as cream whippers, soda siphons, nitrous-oxide chargers and such, used for creating foams, infusions and the like. Katie Weinner gets a kick out of experimenting with these gadgets and put one to use in creating her blockbuster “45-second buckwheat bread with a trio of compound butters.” The light, airy buckwheat bread morsels looked almost like sea sponges, while the bodacious butter had the appearance of an otherworldly, rich—but light—pāté. Impressive.
Not knowing in advance what pop-up dinner menus look like (which is typical) makes selecting wines for the dinners a challenge. Obviously, you’re not going to find one wine (or even two) that’ll pair perfectly with all 16 courses. So, versatility is key. We brought a split of sparkling wine, along with one red and one white. There wasn’t much to complain about during the SLC Alchemist dinner, but I did think it was a little chintzy that each attendee was issued a single wine glass and told they’d have to make do with that. This made it impossible to switch from white to red and back again during the course of dinner. For the $150 per person cost, I’d expect the same sort of stemware options that you would have in an actual restaurant.
Additional SLC Alchemist highlights included Weinner’s excellent beet curry with coconut daikon over forbidden rice; Otsuji’s lamb shumai dumplings (one of my favorites of the evening); an exotic dish of seared kangaroo nuggets (yes, I said kangaroo) with roti and pea tendrils; a brilliant dried-fruit palate cleanser presented with the fruit hung by tiny clothespins on a miniature clothesline; sea-urchin creme brulee; sweet-potato-wrapped banana with jasmine whipped cream; and miracle fruit with citrus and rhubarb.
As of this writing, Weinner said she is working on an event tentatively scheduled for June 16, with a focus on “modernist cuisine,” but she and Otsuji are also looking for a new venue in which to host SLC Alchemist dinners. So, if you have any suggestions, contact Katie at the Art Institute. Otherwise, stay tuned for news of more kitchen alchemy.