Savory panna cotta.
Chef Ian Mullen.
Recently I attended a dinner at the new-ish venue Naked Kitchen—part pop-up, part underground supper club. Although many like to classify pop-ups as an ephemeral trend, the dinner reminded me that these fleeting, semi-covert dining experiences aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Mission Street Food brought pop-ups to the masses when it became a platform for burgeoning chef talent in 2009. It was the very same year Josh Skenes started serving $60 four-course menus via an experimental idea called Saison at Stable Café in the Mission. Today the pop-up format has gone mainstream. Established chefs like Ravi Kapur are doing it and fledgling restaurant concepts like Juhu Beach Club and Ken Ken Ramen used them to get their start. There are even pop-up juice bars.
Although the format provides low overhead—useful for restaurateurs—Naked Kitchen reminded me why pop-ups are so compelling to the dining public as well. The chefs at the dinner I went to, Ian Mullen and Jason Smith, cooked a lovely tasting menu that began with caviar-topped savory panna cotta and wrapped up with truffle-dusted beef and milk chocolate for dessert. The ten ticket holders sat in the actual kitchen, so we could watch every move the chefs made and learn little tidbits like the fact that Mullen and Smith met on the line at Fifth Floor about ten years ago. If someone had a question about the meal—i.e. “Why does the parmesan-dusted pasta taste like popcorn?”—then that someone got an immediate answer from the chef’s mouth: “The noodles are handmade with masa!”
People aren’t just there for the food, they come for a level of intimacy that you won’t find at any restaurant in town, at least not at the relatively low $100 a head price tag. There’s also the unsaid hope that the guys in the kitchen are on the verge of celebrity chefdom. Paul Canales of Duende and Michael Hung of La Folie both did a few dinners at Naked Kitchen before they joined their respective restaurants. Of course there’s always the chance that the meal will be a dud, but—like seeing a breakout rock band at a venue like Bottom of the Hill—good performances at the pop-up level provide a level of exhilaration you won’t find at a full-fledged brick and mortar.
Mullen and Smith will be back at Naked Kitchen doing a “pig and pinot” dinner at the end of February, and judging from the quality and portion control at their last meal, they’ll balance the courses so diners feel more civilized than porky. This particular chef duo will continue doing monthly dinners at Naked Kitchen, and the dates will be announced three weeks prior to each event. There are several other chefs moonlighting at the venue as well. Check out the full range here, and book soon if something strikes your fancy. Like every pop-up—and unlike at restaurants—no dinner event will ever be repeated exactly the same way twice.
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