Pop-Ups: A Trend in Three Acts
The setting is the same, but the story changes.
Chef Eman Loubier
JEFFERY JOHNSTON PHOTOGRAPHS
A wave of new pop-ups has rolled through New Orleans, underscoring a year defined by innovation and creativity at the casual end of the dining spectrum. A restaurant-within-a-restaurant concept promoted through social media, pop-ups can be fleeting entities with a short shelf life. If you’re interested, go now. However, if you miss it, the popularity of this trend suggests that new ones will pop up in their place.
Act 1: Diversify, with Pie. Underserved ramen fans have a new option in Noodle & Pie – a Monday night pop-up by the Dante’s Kitchen crew. Operating out of Coulis on Prytania Street, Chef Eman Loubier and pastry maven Kris Bouley bring the two namesake concoctions together under one roof.
The menu, chalked up nightly, typically revolves around a selection of ramen bowls along with a short list of appetizers inspired by Southeast Asian street food. “We are always going to have the ramen bowl, of course, and a vegetarian option because there are a lot of vegetarians out there,” says Loubier.
Loubier makes the noodles from scratch with high-gluten wheat flour. Almost all of the supporting cast is made from scratch as well, including the kimchee, the togarashi (a dried pepper seasoning mix) and the hoisin sauce. Basic ramen bowls can be optioned out with pork and crab meatballs and hoisin-glazed short ribs. Braised pork, oxtail and pork belly are frequently featured. For vegetarians, a recent veggie bowl offered tofu marinated in homemade ponzu, a citrus-infused sweet vinegar sauce.
Bouley’s pies, lined up on the long counter, include traditional versions like apple made with heirloom Limbertwig apples from Georgia. “Kris also makes this one pie – honey and pine nut in a custard-like base – which everyone loves. It sells out right away.”
Act 2: The Itinerant Chef. Pete Vazquez is first up. Operating out of Stein’s Deli on Sunday nights, Hush Supper Club is a way to keep busy before the launch of his new place on Freret Street. “I got a little stir-crazy in September with all this time on my hands after Mimi’s, and I wanted to do the bad-ass ethnic stuff on more of a low-key level,” he says.
Vazquez, eminently quotable (regarding time served at Mimi’s in River Ridge, he’s said: “Needs another 50 to 75 years before there is any kind of dining pulse out there. If they still want 1979 food at ’79 prices, well, nothing I can do about it”), picked Stein’s in part because of his friendship with owner Dan Stein, but also because of its wide selection of beers. “It works out great with my changing from Indian to Chinese or whatever the hell it is I happen to be doing that week. Whatever I do, he can pair something with it.” Its Sunday availability sealed the deal.
Vazquez’s cooking here is reminiscent of his work at Bacchanal in the early post-Hurricane Katrina days. Now his weekly menus are more elaborate and consolidated around a single theme, which is crowd-sourced through the Hush Supper Club on Facebook. Vazquez floats a couple of ideas, and diners vote on them. “It has turned into these elimination-type bouts where I suggest cuisines and just let them battle each other out.
France never seems to win,” he notes. “Just like in real life.”
Vazquez launched with a Burmese Menu, featuring dishes such as Pork in Burmese Black Bean Sauce and Prawn Meatballs in Tamarind Gravy.
The following week he moved on to Latino fare, including Venezuelan Hallacas with pumpkin and cheese. What will next week bring? Finding out is part of the fun.
Even when his Freret Street place gets up and running, Vazquez hopes to continue the pop-up.
“It’s fun. And that is my main impetus for anything that I do that might be construed as ‘working.’”
Act 3: Follow Your Bliss. Husband-and-wife team Arvinder and Pardeep Vilkhu are the proprietors of Saffron NOLA, an offshoot of their catering company in Gretna that transforms into a full-service restaurant on Friday nights. A hotel executive by training, Arvinder is the general manager of the Pickwick Club, but has been doing catering on the side for the past 20 years. “Although I never took to cooking as a profession,” he says, “I have been cooking since I was 10 years old.” After moving to New Orleans in 1984 to help with the InterContinental Hotel, he and his wife cooked a lot for friends. One day a friend asked him to do the food for his daughter’s first birthday party – his first gig. “We’ve been doing it ever since,” he says.
Saffron’s innovative dishes meld traditional methods of preparation with local ingredients, such as the Lump Crabmeat Pudha. Akin to little pancakes, Saffron’s cooks use lentil flour as a binder, then incorporate crabmeat and pan-fry them. They come to the table garnished with homemade mango chutney. “The lentil flour is so rich it binds it all together – we don’t even need to add egg,” Arvinder says.
Sometimes, the inspiration itself is local. “When we came to New Orleans, we enjoyed eating out at Mr. B’s – particularly, its barbecue shrimp. We thought it would be nice to do something like that, but with Indian spices.” The result is their Tamarind Shrimp, a house specialty, where the distinctive sweet-and-sour pulp of the namesake fruit adds a completely new dimension to a New Orleans classic.
Saffron shines in their vegetarian offerings, a focus that was important to the Vilkhus from the get-go. “When I’d take vegetarian friends to local restaurants, there would always be these beautiful entrées for us but the options for them appeared to be afterthoughts. We made sure to have items on our menu for vegetarians and for vegans as well. Indian cuisine is about 80 percent vegetarian, so there was a lot from which to draw.” The complexity of the seasonings and the layering of the spices keep these dishes impactful – even for omnivores.
Pop On Over
Dinner, Wednesdays through Sundays
600 Poland Ave.
Hush Supper Club
Dinner, Sundays only
2207 Magazine St.
Noodle and Pie
Mondays, Dinner only
3625 Prytania St.
Dinner, Fridays only
505 Gretna Blvd.