Popping up at San Juan Café

Nov 6 • GRUB & GUZZLE, Restaurant ReviewsNo Comments on Popping up at San Juan Café

San Juan Café
3314 Wrightsville Ave.
Bottom line: Canapé delivers
innovative preparations with
lively local ingredients.

UNCTUOUS FUSION Pork-cheek-stuffed ravioli over yucca purée with green-peanut jus foam and parsley. Photo by Shea Carver

Pop-up restaurants remain one of the trendiest style of eateries in the culinary world. From Ludo Lefebvre’s LudoBites to Thomas Keller’s French Laundry, well-known chefs embark on interesting brand expansion, while lesser-known chefs get an inexpensive option to run a restaurant and test out their menu before incurring major debt to open their own establishment.

Pop-ups allow chefs to take over existing kitchens and offer meals not otherwise seen in the current kitchen. A fun departure from the norm, Wilmington’s first consistent foray into this gastro trend, Canapé, takes over San Juan Café every Sunday when it normally remains dormant. The Wrightsville Avenue eatery, known primarily for Puerto Rican fare, gets re-imagined as Chef Matthew Gould pulls the reins in the kitchen to transform the place into his own tasteful vision, offering short menus heavy on local ingredients and innovative preparations.

I loved it from the moment I walked in.

I like San Juan Café, but being there on a Sunday, knowing that very little of the permanent staff is on premise, has a certain clandestine feel—as though I were in the restaurant surreptitiously. It reminded me of nothing so much as being in a locked-up bar for another drink past 2 a.m. Academically, I knew the ownership of San Juan gives its weekly blessing to Canapé. In fact, diners at Canapé are handed two separate bills: one for dinner at Canapé and one from the bar at San Juan. Still, the sneaking sensation (false though it may be) was part of the fun.

Gould’s menus change week to week, and in some cases hour to hour. I made two trips to Canapé over a period of three weeks, and even though I’d received the menus well in advance by e-mail (folks can sign up through their website to get added to the list), in both cases I encountered changes upon arrival. Canapé’s dedication to quality ingredients often leads to changes as items prove unavailable or of lesser appeal. This guarantees quality, but it also means diners shouldn’t set their hearts on any particular dish before leaving the house as to circumvent any disappointment. Likewise, folks should make reservations early, because if Canapé runs out of a particular dish, they don’t replace or restock it.

Typically offering three appetizers, three entrées and two desserts, Canapé serves meals á la carte or in a prix-fixe style. I found the three-course offering a tremendous bargain. My first opened with a terrine of oxtail and beef tongue. Pâté can be a little overwhelming for some diners; Canapé’s terrine was a delicate treat. Rich without being heavy, the two meats melded exquisitely, but the real stars of the dish were the chef’s homemade mustard and pickled onions. The mustard blended sweet and spicy in such a lovely juxtaposition, I would have bought a jar had anyone offered. And the onions, steeped in the mildest of vinegars, proved unoppressive, even fragile. The combination of the three was more intoxicating than my cocktail.

I moved on to the pork and yucca entrée: braised pork cheeks stuffed into homemade ravioli served over yucca purée and topped with green peanut jus. Quite simply, it made my head swim. Somehow the combination of multiple culinary influences worked in ways I’d never imagined. The pork, unhindered by the vinegary styles all too common in our area, tasted unctuous (as it should). While I never got confirmation, I swore I tasted hints of vanilla in the yucca purée (something Gould called “Latin American grits”). The dish blended sweet and savory flavors rather elegantly. I find peanut to be an under-used flavoring agent outside of Asian cuisine. Using it on a dish with no other obvious Asian influence was a delightful treat.

Loyal readers know of my dedication to new and innovative foods, but even I have my favorites. Thus, I couldn’t resist the siren-call of the crème brulee. Thankfully, Canapé even had something new to say about the classic. Flavored with hazelnut and red chile, juxtaposing sweetness with a hint of earthy spice, the dish gave a new take on the beloved caramelized sugar coating. Instead of merely topping the dessert with sugar and taking a torch to it, Gould made a softer, more malleable sugar candy, which he then molded into centerpiece of abstract art known as a croquant. I’m ashamed to admit that at first glance I didn’t know what I was seeing.

I chatted with some friends before I left, and as I lingered I was treated to another appetizer: aerated Brie, melted and then refluffed by nitrous oxide to make a cloud-like texture, served with sugar-coated grapes and crostinis. Gould totally changed the creaminess though not the flavor indicative of Brie; it was unlike any cheese I’d ever encountered (and from what I understand a popular dish he served over a year ago at his debut pop-up at downtown’s Manna). I gladly could have foregone traditional dessert in favor of the fruit and cheese spread.

Just to be certain I loved Canapé as much as I thought, I returned two weeks later for their non-traditional burgers and dogs—all made in house. Offering elk, ostrich and alligator, I eventually settled on the elk, served with triple-cream Brie and bacon on a homemade pumpkin bun. I learned all of the breads were made in-house by Canapé’s resident baker Jayson Williams. In fact, they were so fresh there was a bit of a delay in the meal’s arrival—a late-start on the bread’s proofing, according to staff. It was worth the wait. The mild gaminess of the meat settled in beautifully with the autumnal appeal of the gourd—a slight hint which would make for a great pumpkin bread pudding base.

Because elk can run, the meat contains a substantially lower fat content than beef. Thus, it can dry out easily especially when ground. Though the burger was slightly parched than Gould’s traditional beef burger (made from ground short ribs nonetheless), the bacon and cheese handled the problem nicely. I particularly enjoyed the crusty outer ring of the burger, where the meat had turned crispy on the grill. The texture proved appealing and brought out a rich flavor.

I also got to sample the pretzel-bite appetizer. Too often we relegate pretzels to the crunchy bagged variety or the frozen microwaveable soft stuff. Few of us realize what a treat freshly baked, homemade hot pretzels can be. Again, Gould’s homemade mustard proved a hit, only this time a mildly spicy honey variety (he really should consider getting into the condiment game).

There’s a certain dedication required to dine at Canapé. Folks only get four or five opportunities every month, so they have to want it. From what I understand, that will change through the holidays, too. Still, Gould does an excellent job promoting himself through social media and his website, often listing the week’s menus well in advance (though subject to change by dinner time). His next venture on November 11th will be an “Allstars Menu,” featuring multiple items from his last seven weeks of menus. It will contain some of the items I reviewed; I highly recommend folks make reservations on Sunday to try an incomparable dining experience.

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