If a miniature cobb salad tucked into a similarly-sized Lilliputian tortilla shell does not intrigue, try plucking it off a tray balanced atop an astonishingly flat and toned tummy.
“Oh no, we have to eat off her body?” exclaimed Susan Menville, as she walked into an otherwise empty Perkins Rowe restaurant space and spotted the bar topped with two supinely bronzed and bikinied models with trays of hors d’oeuvres breathlessly balanced across their midsections.
“Oh, OK. Well at least they have clothes on,” Menville offered a bit later, already easing into an evening where boundaries would be, if not pushed, at least expanded.
“I love the fact that it’s different,” Menville remarked, commenting on, if not the idea of serving mini crab-dill-Havarti grilled cheese sandwiches and other tasty snacks atop “body buffets,” the evening in general.
This recent Saturday night dinner was part of Baton Rouge’s first “pop-up restaurant” weekend, where a whole restaurant emerges for only an evening or two.
It is the brainchild of Manuel Valencia, who moved to Baton Rouge less than two years ago from New York, but is quickly becoming a man-about-town. Valencia may be best known for his 300seats initiative — which could be thought of as part idea and part movement — to grow Baton Rouge’s creative and cultural life. The group is an event series, which hosts evenings like the pop-up restaurant, but also by next year plans to have a space downtown to screen independent films.
Valencia’s pop-up restaurant idea was born a few months ago during Startup Weekend, where 47 entrepreneurs from around the country spent a weekend in Pleasant Hall at LSU developing new business ideas in a competition setting. In that contest, 300seats took second place.
“Look for another 300seats pop-up restaurant before the end of the year,” Valencia said.
This particular pop-up restaurant weekend premiered two weeks ago on a Friday night featuring Andean cuisine with dishes like braised beef cheeks and fire-roasted tomatoes and a cheese plate served on a freshly-sawed plank of timber, all prepared by Edible Event.
Saturday’s lunch event set the table of an Italian bistro, prepared by Zolia Bistro. Saturday night’s decidedly more clubby oeuvre married New York diner food with south Louisiana staples like shrimp and grits or braised short ribs with Tasso mashed potatoes, prepared by Culinary Productions.
All three events were set in an empty restaurant space next to California Pizza Kitchen in Perkins Rowe, where the wood-paneled Grillroom once operated.
Tickets for each of the pop-up restaurant events were $50 each, which was all-inclusive — tax, gratuity open bar and pre-meal appetizers. All events sold out, Valencia said. The Friday dinner had about 50 to 75 people, and about 40 people showed for the Saturday night event. The evening was financed through working capital held by 300seats as well as other funds, Valencia said.
At the pop-up evening of South American dining, the cuisine was only part of the allure. “What is Andean food?” wondered Sue Johnson, of Baton Rouge, during Friday night’s cocktail hour, where the chatter was about the “experience.”
As dinner was being served, Jacquelyn Dupree, an “American Idol” television show contestant who now lives in Baton Rouge, performed two original songs: “If People Never Dreamed” and “I Want to Remember This.”
Suzanne Buerkle, a flutist from the Baton Rouge Symphony, gave a brief performance.
Local spoken word poet Xero Skidmore recited several works Saturday offering commentary on topics as delicate as the Tea Party and racism.
“Sorry, don’t fire any black people when you get to work tomorrow,” Skidmore told the room to slightly nervous laughter.
“Each of our events is a true experience,” said Valencia. “For our seatings, we wanted to integrate cuisine with culture, and performance art.? We also wanted to provide a view into the background of our artists.”?
“This is more about culture than it is about food,” observed Ron Menville Jr., a Saturday night diner, adding, somewhat incredulously, the body buffet appetizers were “actually edible.”
For all of its freshness among local foodies and others, the pop-up restaurant idea is trending and one of the fastest-growing dining concepts this year, according to the National Restaurant Association, which surveyed 1,500 chefs nationwide in its “What’s Hot in 2011” survey, said Annika Stensson, director of media relations at the association.
Think of it as this year’s food truck craze, Valencia said, adding the idea is capturing attention and headlines in cities like New York and London.
“Temporary restaurants can be a great way for chefs and restaurateurs to experiment with concepts and menus without making a full commitment to starting a new business,” Stensson said in an email. “Especially during the economic downturn, accessing capital and or credit for a start-up has been challenging, so many entrepreneurs have explored other options, including pop-up locations and food trucks.”
Given its entrepreneurial DNA, the start-up restaurant dinners easily hit the radars of a number of folks from Baton Rouge’s growing entrepreneurial milieu. Wendy Overton Luedtke, from the E.J. Ourso College of Business at LSU who organized Startup Weekend, was there. Also on hand was Sean Simone, an LSU student and founder of the web development firm BluReach and also one of the founders of the local entrepreneur support and advocacy group known as SeNSE. Eiad Asbahi, a managing partner at the Prescience Investment Group, was there, as was R. Giles Whiting, the 30-something executive vice president and chief operations officer at the Baton Rouge Area Chamber.
“This is a way to do something different in a trial sort of way, to see if it works or not,” Overton said, surveying the room.
Most chefs would seem to agree that what makes a restaurant work is an imprecise bouillabaisse of location, menu, price and that most intangible of ingredients — ambiance. But even in the ersatz, Disneyized setting of Perkins Rowe, the dining experimentation seemed to transport some guests to lands far beyond Baton Rouge.
“One table at the Saturday bistro seating commented that they enjoyed the four-hour dining experience,” recalled Valencia. “They said it reminded them of a trip to Europe, and how they often feel rushed by the merchants when they dine out at local restaurants.”
It’s all about giving Baton Rouge a few more cultural options and transforming this at-times conservative government and business town into one with a little more edge.
“One of our goals is to give a platform to artists and creators to try new, innovative concepts and showcase their talents to our following of patrons and consumers of the arts,” Valencia said.
Repeatedly over the weekend, against the backdrop of cocktails and smart Latin beats like the Gypsy Kings or Elvis Crespo, pop-up guests remarked on the originality of Valencia’s idea.
“I think it’s really cool, what he’s doing,” said Brennan Miller, 26, a staff accountant in Baton Rouge who was there with web and graphic designer Brian Rodriguez, 27, along with friends from New Orleans attending the Friday night dinner. “I like that he’s bringing these neat, progressive events to Baton Rouge.”