Foodie Confidential blogger
Canapé Pop-Up Restaurant
While most restaurants boast their number of years in service, Canapé does just the opposite: open for one night only—and proud. The chefs have an evening to lead their diners down a path of uncharted culinary territory. Foodies won’t find a “well-cooked steak” here; that is not what its founders, Chef Matthew Gould (Caprice Bistro) and Sean Pascarelli (La Gemma Fine Italian Pastries), are about. The chefs want Canapé to be about pushing limits. “Twice baked potatoes” or “creamed spinach” would make most of its clientele fall asleep face-first in their dishes. Upon awakening, they would get up and leave the restaurant. Better hungry than bored.
At Canapé, the chefs are willing to play roulette with the element of surprise, and that means there will be some dishes diners love and some dishes diners hate. Regardless, almost everyone will certainly walk away saying, “I’ve never had that before!”
Known as a “pop-up” restaurant, Canapé is mobile so to speak—a restaurant that opens in a rented or borrowed space for a brief interval of time. It can be anywhere from one night to two weeks to even a month. But most share the common quality of delivering foods which are exciting. Being open for such a short time allows the chefs to play with concepts that they would not normally try. Although they want to be successful, failure at a pop-up should not be a catastrophic event. Pack up, dust off, make some changes and try again.
Naturally, the pop-up concept is not new. To Wilmington it may be, unless one has been living in a major metropolitan area, like New York, L.A. or Chicago. Wilmington’s first chapter in its pop-up storybook began on August 22, 2011. This is one perspective of the night:
Canapé opened for business at 6 p.m., using the restaurant space and kitchen of downtown’s fine-dining, contemporary restaurant manna avenue (123 Princess Street). As soon as we walked in, the hostess was smiling and asked our name. She took us to our table, and from that point on, she referred to me by name. It was professional and made me feel at home. After taking my seat (we had a table for 10), I realized that we would actually have 11 in our party. I approached the hostess regarding this dilemma, and she graciously and immediately added a place setting. There were no intentional pauses to make me feel like I was being a headache or looks to indicate displeasure. She was exactly who you want at the front of the house. Excellent start.
After taking our seats, the waitress brought us water and asked if we would like anything else to drink. We perused Manna’s extensive wine list and ordered a bottle of 2009 Chablis Premier Cru, Côte de Jouan. It arrived promptly, wherein the waitress went through the appropriate tasting service before serving our table. While we talked and readied ourselves for dinner, Chefs Gould and Pascarelli came out and spoke to the guests. The room was full and the event was sold out, so they had quite the audience.
Humbly, the chefs pointed out that in addition to the menu, there was a “scorecard.” They instructed us that they wanted feedback, both good and bad, so they could incorporate these ideas into their next event. The card had comment space for each of the 11 courses. This was a very inviting thing to do, and it set the tone, as if they were saying, “Relax and enjoy! We know everything won’t be perfect, but let us know what to change, and we will fix it for the next time.”
As I read over the menu, I noted there were some changes from their teaser menu posted online, which I assume resulted from some lessons learned at their trial run a week or so prior. Like all things, practice makes perfect. These chefs deserve kudos for taking the time and expense to test their execution prior to the actual event.
They were careful to use fresh, local ingredients, which I applaud. For example, the rabbit was from Carolina Pete’s Rabbitry in Conover, NC; the produce was from the local downtown farmers’ market, held every Saturday. Herbs came from Shelton Herb Farm and Canapé’s own garden! The fact that these ingredients were fresh and local added an element of soul to the meal, which cannot be overcome by technical skill.
Before we get to the specifics of the courses, let me say that I felt they were generally well plated and well timed. Courses did not roll out too quickly, such that we felt rushed. By the same token, there were not any extensive delays. Each course was scored on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the best. We also scored as a table the best dish of the night and the least favorite dish of the night. Here was the outcome:
Course 1: Applewood bacon, wrapped around NC peaches, with hints of roasted, smoky
vanilla, served on a bed of mustard greens, with a drizzle of fig balsamic reduction.
I scored this dish a 7. The thing that I loved about it: The peach was warm and somewhat fooled the mind into thinking I was about to eat a bacon-wrapped scallop. Rather than a scallop, the sweet, juicy taste of the fruit was both delicious and a surprise. It gave a salty and sweet balance of perfection.
The mustard greens had a distinct but subtle horseradish taste and were served at room temperature. I wonder if they might have been better if cooled as a contrast to the warmth of the bacon and peach. With that said, I am not entirely sure how they fit in with the dish or if they were even necessary.
The fig reduction was not perceptible, nor was the vanilla. Then again, this may be a case of where it would be obvious to me if I tried the dish without them. Maybe.
No one at our table ranked it their favorite and one person ranked it their least favorite.
Course 2: Heirloom tomato, watermelon and avocado served with house-made preserved lemons and limes, an herb-infused vinaigrette, made with Spanish olive oil tossed with coriander, basil and chive.
I have to confess now: I do not eat whole tomato. Thus, I did not score this dish. I did scrape off the watermelon, which was sweet and tasty. There was no perceptible preserved lemon/lime. The avocado was smooth and delicious but needed a touch of salt. Also served with it were microgreens to add an extra crunch.
One person voted this their favorite dish, and no one thought it was their least favorite.
Course 3: Aerated brie ventilated by nitrous oxide, garnished with fresh grapes, mint and balsamic reduction, alongside music paper.
I scored this an 8. I loved this dish. I would not typically list brie among my favorite cheeses, but the presentation and flavors here were amazing. The grapes, when eaten alone, tasted of mint. This was a delicious surprise. I am not sure how they did it, but it worked.
The brie was light and fresh, and perfectly paired with the music paper (from La Gemma), which is a type of bread native to the island of Sardinia. Pretty much like a cracker, it worked well. In the end, it was the classic “cheese, grapes and wine” only with a twist.
A fairly substantial criticism of this course was the execution. Although mine was perfectly plated with a well-formed portion of upright aerated brie, the two people beside me had melted brie which was a runny mess on the plate. Although they ate the dish, it did not have the same appeal as those plates which were executed well.
Three people, including myself, scored this as their favorite dish of the evening, and one scored it as their least favorite due to the problems noted above.
Course 4: Green melon and lime sorbet, with burnt honey custard, dehydrated candied culantro and dusted with fresh Cuban sage.
This dish was a hit with most everyone at our table. Fresh and sweet, balanced with citrus and culantro, providing a “I don’t know what that is, but I like it!” spin on the dish. Culantro is a Mexican/South American herb that tastes like … cilantro!
The honey custard was smooth and pleasing, but mine lacked any aspect of being burnt. This dish was served as a palate-cleanser. For that reason, I would not have listed it on the menu. Guests love a surprise. The sorbet would have taken the guest’s perception of the night to a higher level if it was perceived as “free” or some kind of bonus.
Scores ranged from 7 to 9. Three guests at our table listed this their favorite; no one listed it their least favorite.
Course 5: Scallops and cucumber with toasted pistachios, served on a bed of tomato and lychee gazpacho, accentuated by flavors of lemon and Spanish olive oil.
Scallops seem to pair well with many things. I have had them with bacon, vanilla, banana and various salads. Without a doubt, this would be my first go with cucumbers and pistachios! Unfortunately, there was a lot of inconsistency with the scallops. Some had a beautiful dark sear, while others had little sear. Mine was of the latter, but it was cooked well otherwise.
This dish was my first disappointment of the evening, as it was lukewarm and bland. I appreciate that getting 50 scallops out at once and keeping them hot must be a challenge, but the dish suffered. I scored this dish a 5.
One person in our group listed this as their favorite, and I have no doubt that with a little heat and salt, it may well have been mine.
Course 6: Foie gras and shallot chutney—a ficelle of foie gras mousse, served with shallot chutney over homemade brioche, accompanied by raspberries.
I became a fan of foie gras in Chicago, as soon as they made it illegal in 2006! The ban was overturned in 2008, but its allure has stuck with me. Foie gras is typically smooth, rich and delicate. Although the foie gras was prepared as a mousse, mine was more coarse and grainy than I have previously experienced. It also lacked the richness I expected—it was actually rather dry. The shallot chutney was a nice complement and contributed some moisture but could not rescue the dehydration of the dish.
For me it was a miss; I gave it a 5. With that said, two of the 11 at our table scored it their favorite, with one commenting that it was the best foie gras he had ever eaten.
Course 7: Rabbit, onion, radicchio—a duo of rabbit: house-prepared sausage and a tenderloin wrapped in speck, with rosemary and peppercorn sauce, atop a bed of radicchio, with baby pearl onions.
I had never eaten rabbit until Canapé. Sadly, this dish was also a miss for me.The rabbit was prepared two ways: as a sausage and as a tenderloin. The sausage was bland. It tasted a bit like dry turkey—a valiant effort to make the sausage, but it did not come through in flavor. The tenderloin was better than the sausage, but it was still like chicken, with a dense consistency. The speck, somewhat a variation on prosciutto, was unremarkable on my palate. The sauce of rosemary and peppercorn made the taste a little harder to tease out when comparing to chicken, but on the whole the tenderloin was not bad.
As a whole I gave it a 6, with one exception: I gave the pearl onions a 9. They were some of the tastiest onions I have ever eaten. They popped with a tangy flavor that really livened up the tenderloin. This dish had one vote for best and one vote for worst of the evening.
Course 8: Nectarine and white pepper—white pepper cotton candy and nectarine pop rocks, infused with touches of lemongrass and saffron.
Excellent idea. Had it not been listed on the menu, it would have been another joyful surprise of the evening. Unfortunately, it was listed on the menu and received 5 votes as the worst dish. I rated it a 5.
The concept was beautiful: a brief interlude with wait staff coming around to each person, handing them a lollipop from a “cigarette girl” rack hanging around their necks. This dish was a small cotton-candy lollipop filled with tang and included the chefs’ take on “pop rocks.”
The lemongrass flavors came in on the finish, so diners wound up with developing flavors that transported them away from the table and back to childhood. In other words, there was a lot of action in this lollipop. It was interesting.
Again, the problem is that it was listed as a course. Left off the menu, people would have been talking about this in a positive light. Great idea, and I hope the chefs will develop and improve on this concept.
Course 9: Dark chocolate and marshmallow foam atop chocolate cremeux, served with graham crackers and burnt sugar.
The marshmallow in this dish was delicate and rich. It was not too sweet, which was the main complaint with the chocolate. The chocolate was overly rich and sweet. Luckily it came at the end of the meal, because it left me with a feeling that I had enough. It’s not that the chocolate was not good, as much as it was with timing and context. It overpowered the other elements, including the marshmallow and graham crackers. The burnt sugar was not perceptible to me while eating the (overly) sweet, rich dark chocolate.
For two people at our table this was their least favorite dish. For me, it was a 5.
Course 10: Cherry and cream macarons made with almond powder, stuffed with a Grand Marnier cherry mousse and fresh chopped cherries, dusted with meringue powder.
Redemption! This dish was a great way to (almost) finish the night. The macarons were soft and smooth in texture. The taste was like an orange creamsicle (thank you, Grand Marnier) with luscious cherries. The macarons teased by being slightly sweet, and the cherries swept in and delivered satisfaction. A perfect balance of texture and flavor.
By far, this was the best dessert of the night. It was a solid 8.
Course 11: Bourbon and mint sorbet served with blueberry coulis and lemon.
This dish was good, but it was similar to the green melon and lime. The taste was crisp and clean. The mint taste certainly was a nice end to our evening’s adventure.
I scored it a 5. It was good but nothing predictable as an ending. Conceptually, these guys had really been creative, but this dish didn’t seem as imaginative.
On the whole, the dinner was a huge success. It took courage and determination to execute an 11-course tasting menu for 50 diners at one time (and, actually there were 65 in the house, as they accounted 15 for family and friends). Everyone with whom I spoke enjoyed the experience.
Canapé brings an element of culinary adventure to Wilmington that is typically only enjoyed in larger cities. In addition, by being an infrequent event, the chefs are able to cater to that small, cult-like, foodie clientele who want to eat food cooked in liquid nitrogen or nitrous oxide—who want to eat unusual foods and try new things.
Even with the items we have eaten before (for example, scallops), it is exciting to try them in a new context, regardless of whether or not it was a hit. While some of these dishes did not completely blow me away, the chefs get an “A” for effort. From my perspective, they gave me what I wanted: an adventure. The fact that not every dish was a “10” is of no consequence.
It is interesting to note that at our table of 11, six different courses were voted as someone’s favorite. Six different dishes were voted as someone’s least favorite. Wasn’t this really the point? We all tried flavors and combinations out of our comfort zones—things we normally would not. In many cases, we found something to love. I greatly look forward to Canapé’s next effort.
Mike Nichols is the founder of www.FoodieConfidential.com, which boasts all things food, wine and even fitness.