Temporary restaurants in London: just popping up
With a sprinkling of short-term restaurants in unlikely places spicing up the London dining scene, the sommelier Emily O’Hare couldn’t resist the idea of doing one with some friends on top of a houseboat.
Last Easter I attended my first pop-up restaurant, organised by two friends and colleagues, Joseph Trivelli and Stevie Parle, chefs from the River Café where I am a sommelier. In a boat club in Hammersmith, west London, they cooked an Easter lunch of roast kid for 50 people on long trestle tables.
I sat next to a photographer from Chelsea and a butcher from Battersea. Opposite me sat Kerstin Rodgers, or Ms Marmite Lover, a pioneer of the supper club movement. Rodgers has been serving dinners to paying guests in her home in Kilburn, north-west London, since January 2009.
Six months later I served wine at a pop-up restaurant, open for only eight weeks on the top floor of Selfridges. It was fine dining in the most glamorous of settings; a designated lift took customers into a world of white lights, white carpets and panoramic views. Secret, special and fully booked from the start, it marked the return of a legendary chef, Pierre Koffman, one of the few to achieve three Michelin stars at a London restaurant (La Tante Claire), and pig’s trotters, the dish that every foodie wanted to taste. (His new restaurant, Koffman’s, opened a few months ago at the Berkeley Hotel in Knightsbridge.)
You never know what to expect at pop-up restaurants. They are intimate and, usually, informal. You eat only what the chef loves to cook, and you sit wherever there is space on the tables. Since late 2008, London has seen a profusion of pop-ups, popular not only because they represent good value for money but also because they open only briefly in places where you would not normally go, such as Frank’s Bar on the 10th floor of a multistorey car-park in Peckham.
It was at a pop-up at an artist’s studio in east London, run by the food writers and stylists Alice Hart and Georgina Fuggle, that my friend Eliza Murray-Wills, a full-time chef for a headhunting firm, and I decided we had to have a go. We wanted to add something special – wines to match each of the dishes we served – and I knew from previous experience working as a sommelier at Fifteen, with an evening tasting menu where wines were chosen to match each course, how people enjoyed the dynamic of changing wines, rather than sticking with one bottle throughout the meal.
One evening in early June I met Eliza and her friend Charlie Capehorn, a chef running her own catering company (charliefood.co.uk), at Charlie’s home, a beautiful houseboat in Chiswick that she had offered as the perfect venue for our pop-up. We drank prosecco and discussed potential dates. We wanted to start our pop-up soon, to make the most of the short British summer and the boat’s large sun terrace. We planned two services, sitting 80 guests across lunch and dinner, suggesting that people make donations towards covering our costs: £30 for the set lunch of three courses with three wines and £45 for dinner with an additional cheese and wine course. We would advertise our event on Facebook.
Menu ideas came easily, but many were quickly dismissed. We wanted a menu above the average dinner party fare but that was not overly complicated, as the boat had only a small oven with two gas rings, an unreliable range cooker and limited fridge space. Most of the work would have to be done in advance.
Eliza said that she and Charlie were ‘used to cooking in temporary kitchens, marquees and the most basic Scottish lodges or ski chalets, so this should be simple.’
Eventually we put together a menu that would mean as little cooking as possible on the day itself. To start, a light crab salad served with homemade flat bread, then rare-roasted fillet of beef – quick to cook and it can be left to rest for longer than most people imagine. The downside was that fillet is expensive, but Charlie has, over the past few years, developed a friendship with her Acton butcher, Mike, who gave us a great deal. Beetroot dauphinoise makes an ideal summery accompaniment to beef, and it could be made in advance and cooked on the day. Charlie and Eliza could not decide on one pudding, so chose to make three: elderflower jelly with black and white currants, topped with lemon syllabub; almond feather biscuits served with whipped cream and raspberries; and chocolate brownies. Nibbles were also important, not only to keep early arrivals occupied but also to give us time in the kitchen. So we had prawns marinated in chilli and ginger, and bowls of large green olives and salted almonds.
On Friday night I worked at the River Café and served more than 180 people in just over four hours. I went to bed at 1am and lay there worrying whether we would find 80 people – at that point we had only 20 confirmed for lunch and 25 for dinner. Meanwhile, Charlie and Eliza, after finishing their day jobs, were prepping at Charlie’s mother’s kitchen in Shepherd’s Bush. Four hours after going to bed they got up to make bread and wash salad. I awoke to find new emails from friends wanting to book a place. It was nerve-racking, but by 11am all 80 spaces were taken.
We had arrived at the boat at 10am. My first job on board was to set the tables and get the wines in ice. I had forgotten to order ice in advance, but my dad was on hand and so I sent him to the nearest supermarket to buy 40 bags to tip into the bath, which was full of bottles. While he sat in traffic on the Hogarth roundabout, I set up on deck and Charlie and Eliza organised the kitchen downstairs. My dad returned to find me tiptoeing in duck poo at the river’s edge, attempting to fish out a parasol that had blown into the water. ‘This doesn’t smack of good organisation,’ he shouted, unhelpfully.
Incredibly, by the time the first guests arrived at about 1pm everything was under control. As each guest boarded I handed them an aperitif of Aperol spritz (an orange-based liqueur served over ice with fresh orange and prosecco), regularly topped up by our friend and waitress, Vanessa Hartley. Once all our guests were seated, Charlie and Eliza plated up the salad. As the chenin blanc was poured I explained a little about the wine and why I had chosen it. Next, a mencia from Bierzo, Spain; a peppery, medium-bodied red wine to complement the beef and beetroot dauphinoise. The trio of desserts accompanied by moscato d’Asti rounded the meal off beautifully. As the lunch guests disembarked, I heard one say, ‘Any other restaurant will seem boring now’ – though this could have had something to do with the naked man who paddled past us on a tyre between the mains and dessert with only a can of lager to protect his modesty.
But with no time to feel smug, I went back up on deck to clear the dirty glasses and plates off the tables to prepare for the second sitting. To my horror I discovered that all the tablecloths were filthy; even with careful placing of candles and flowers we couldn’t hide the wine and food stains. Leaving Charlie and Eliza to start baking bread for the dinner service, I dashed across to a restaurant, fortuitously right opposite the boat. In exchange for a couple of bottles, I managed to nab some clean tablecloths and set about laying the tables for dinner and mopping the decks.
But disaster – first I dropped a pot of marbles I had been carrying upstairs to weigh down vases of flowers, then while I was picking up the marbles a bag of dough exploded, knocking over a batch of jellies. With no time for new jellies to set, we went through our guest list and selected people who we thought would not mind – or notice – if they didn’t get one.
At 1am our last guest, Ms Marmite Lover, left, full of praise for the cooking and wine choices. We finally sat down to eat and to drink from the leftovers in the bath. We agreed it had been buzzy and brilliant, though exhausting fitting prep work around our full-time jobs and spending our day off working as intensely as on a day at work.
I returned to work on Sunday morning, relieved that all I had to do was serve. No deck scrubbing, no bartering, no fishing parasols from the Thames. I checked my emails in my break. Ms Marmite Lover had written about us in her blog under the heading, ‘The English Can Cook’. The following Monday we began planning our next culinary voyage – as long as we could find a full-time washer-upper.