Soapdish: 'Pop-up' creativity sates local appetites

The term “pop up” has become quite fashionable in the cultural lexicon as of late, applying to everything from retail to restaurants to picnics. Cincinnati is no exception to the trend. In the foodie realm, talented chefs are plying their trade in unconventional ways—to use a tired cliché, going “outside the box”—both literally and figuratively, as festive pop up dinners in chefs’ homes become more commonplace.  

In my neverending quest to ensure that this column is indeed au courant (not to mention de rigeur), I have appended the phrase “pop up” to this edition of Soapdish, thereby ensuring my bona fides for the time being. While calling this a “pop up column” is, essentially, no different than a normal column, I have found that it has instilled a soupcon of vim and vigor in my composition skills (while also having the added benefit of inexplicably causing me to utilize a boatload of Francophile phrases).

Moreover, I have embarked on a journey to find more about this whole “pop up” phenomenon, traveling far and wide (in this instance, a few blocks down the street to Coffee Emporium in Over the Rhine), where I ran into several movers and shakers on the "pop up" chefs circuit. 

I first encountered chef Ryan Santos several years ago, at the Essencha Tea House in Oakley. Santos was living in Cleveland, but was putting on a food pairing with a flight of various teas. Famed local mixologist Molly Wellman invited me, knowing full well that, as a freeloading member of the local media, I would never turn down a free meal. Suffice to say I came away impressed with Santos’ skills, and was encouraged to later hear that he had decided to move to Cincinnati to set up Please, his local catering shop. 

The idea of starting a regular pop up dinner germinated while Santos was still in Cleveland. Last May, in collaboration with the Brush Factory, in Brighton, he launched Arts & Lettuce, a pop up dinner which occurs monthly in his home in the hillside, near-downtown neighborhood of Prospect Hill. 

While initially two evenings a month, the format has now expanded to four—Tuesday/Wednesday and Friday/Saturday—and the dinners usually sell out within the first week of their announcement. Each dinner has 12 guests, and the evening’s offerings range from four to seven courses.

A recent dinner included mussels poached in whey, potatoes cooked in yogurt, dill and celery; edible bouquet of flowers, herbs and greens with goat's buttermilk; green gazpacho with oysters, squash, fennel and borage; “a dish inspired by the worst Midwest drought in half a century”--seared scallops with parsnips, garlic, beets and cauliflower with sea urchin crème; lemon cake, lemon curd, lemon herbs, candied lemon, powdered corn and corn silks; and pink peppercorn and strawberry mascarpone macaron.

The $50 per person dinners are BYOB, and held at a communal table built by the Brush Factory, which also crafts the placemats, aprons, coasters and the general aesthetics. Guests do not know the specific menu until they arrive, however it is announced in advance whether it will be pescetarian, vegetarian or omnivore. Guests can linger as long as they want, and Santos will typically mingle after the last course to get feedback.

Similar to Arts & Lettuce, and just a few blocks away, is Date, started by chef Stephen Shockley. Date began 13 months ago as a regular Sunday night fixture on the Neon’s patio in Over the Rhine. Once the weather turned chilly, Shockley moved the dinner inside and up Main Street a few blocks to his apartment. 

The size and price structure is identical to Arts & Lettuce, although Date typically only does two dinners a month, though Shockley recently started up a brunch for $25. He enjoys coming up with themes for each dinner, the most recent being the “Mexiterranean” evening, featuring chevre and brie quesadillas on flour tortilla with spicy dark chocolate, black bean puree and sautéed tomatillos; pan-seared Dorade fish tacos on corn tortillas with chick peas, parsley, apple and white anchovy and roasted garlic puree; duo of fresh pasta--gnocchi and cauliflower gratin with queso blanco and red pepper puree; coriander and pink peppercorn campanelle, black olive puree and coriander; and prosciutto stuffed lamb roast, creamed corn polenta, melon and eggplant ragout.

Guests at Date have been known to linger until 1 or 2 in the morning, depending on their wine supply. Shockley notes that he enjoys the informality, breaking down the wall between the kitchen and the table, and relishes talking with guests about the food on the plate, “how it works…or…doesn’t work….people love the behind-the-curtain stuff about how it all happens…why not beef cheeks instead of the lamb?”

In both cases, Santos and Shockey note, the guests are usually a mix of recurring veterans and rookies, all of whom enjoy the opportunity to experience inventive cuisine in a communal, informal, setting.

As pop up aficionado and noted Soapbox “agitator” Eric Avner observes, “There's lots of talk about food trucks being the entry-point or proving ground for chefs ultimately interested in getting a restaurant open. It seems to me that in Cincinnati, all these pop up dinners are actually serving that purpose.

"We're seeing phenomenal skill, personality, creativity, and experimentation from these chefs, leading to some incredible food at these dinners. I think it's only a matter of time until we start seeing more of them transitioning into formal restaurant operations. For those folks currently running restaurants, watch out.” 

These are but a few of the pop up dining concepts taking hold in our fair city. (See also, Feast.)  As the trend gains traction, it’s a safe bet we will see more of these operations popping up.

For adventurous diners seeking to break down the walls and go behind the scenes—perhaps even to the chef’s home—it is certainly a welcome trend.

Read more articles by Casey Coston.

Soapbox columnist Casey Coston, a former corporate bankruptcy and restructuring attorney, is now involved in real estate development and construction in and around Over-the-Rhine and Pendleton as Vice President at Urban Expansion. He's also a civic activist and founder of a number of local groups, including the Urban Basin Bicycle Club, the Cincinnati Stolen Bike Network, the World Famous OTR Ping Pong League and LosantiTours: An Urban Exploration Company.
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