An appreciation of vegan pop-up dining.
THE POP-UP DINING team have been putting on some stunning one-off vegan dinner events in the past months, and I was lucky enough to attend the Middle Eastern night just over a month ago.
We hope to have a Q&A with Pop-Up Dining’s Ben Barton sometime soon. We had a brief chat on the night, and he explained that while he’s omnivorous, and some of the Pop-up events are quite meat-oriented, he’s very interested in meat-free cuisine, and that has manifested in the vegan nights his team has held thus far.
The venue on this occasion was Kokako café in Grey Lynn. What happens is that the menu is designed and mostly prepared at an industrial kitchen, then finished on the night. The Pop-Up crew literally take over the venue. Of course in this case, the match was fitting. Ben knew that there wouldn’t be any possibility of cross-contamination from meat or fish, because Kokako is already vegetarian, with a very clean food policy – that is, lots of vegan food and some of the best salads around!
As Ben explained, for the Pop-Up events, “Seating is at large communal tables, so large parties are advised to come early and smaller bookings may be asked to shuffle tables. Service is relaxed, social, family-style and will take two-to-three hours. We think of it as a public dinner party.”
And that’s exactly right. One of the best things about the Middle Eastern dinner was the ambience. Myself and my wife Yoko were lucky enough to meet up with some friends and shared part of a very large table with them, and there was a general feeling of friendliness that permeated through the place that made it quite different from a normal restaurant experience.
The dips came first, and they turned out to be the dish favoured by the majority of hungry eaters on the night. The carrot jam with mustard seeds and cumin really kicked the taste buds into overdrive, and the crushed white bean with preserved lemon and garlic, and parsley with tahini and lemon, also rocked.
The spiced caramelised onion soup with crisp kale and yeast was our least favourite, mainly because it was so spicy that it was hard to determine any subtle flavours.
Everything else, however, was simply different kinds of delicious.
There were the autumn greens with courgette, rain, bulgar and lemon oil; then the sprouted chickpeas, black tahini, smoky aubergine and garlic ‘yoghurt’. Another plate featured cauliflower couscous, majool, pistachio, and root vegetable tagine. As I’m not personally big on that very rootsy turnip-style flavour, I tried to eat around the edges a little – there were just enough ‘wow’ flavours to the dish to distract me from worrying about it!
Finally, there was the almond, chocolate and cardamom cake with almond milk sorbet, citrus and mint salad, and on the night, I could have sworn it was one of the most perfect desserts I have ever encountered.
What happens at the Pop-Up dining events is that sharing plates are delivered to tables, so it does rely to a certain extent on people not being greedy. Luckily, everyone at our table was intelligent enough to make sure that everyone got something, but I’m so super-sensitive that I have to admit I found it just a little stressful; that is, I’m constantly worried that I might be taking more than I’m supposed to, and that someone else might be missing out because of my gluttony!
The amazing thing, however, is that there was more than enough for everyone, and I, for one, was very nicely full by the end of it, and felt that for a really rather humble $60, it was well worth it. In fact, it was worth it for the food alone; double that for the experience.
Literally the only thing I didn’t enjoy were the acoustics: Kokako really must do something about the echoing sound, which makes it so hard to hear what your companions are saying, and after awhile, simply becomes intolerable. But that’s Kokako’s problem, not specifically Pop-up Dining’s!
And since this event, there’s already been a Latino vegan night. Who knows what else they’ve got up their creative sleeves. GARY STEEL