A "creative think-tank for a rotating lineup of the nation's best chefs" might just prove that, lacking stability, pop-ups can be let downs.
I love the idea of pop-up restaurants. I remember being quite bummed the last time I wrote about them that the temporary, often envelope-pushing eateries seemed like more of a West Coast phenomenon. So when LTO (Limited Time Only)—a "test kitchen, preview restaurant, and creative think-tank for a rotating lineup of the nation's best chefs" opened up right around the corner from my apartment, I was so there.
Chefs Zak Pelaccio (Fatty 'Cue) and Leah Cohen (of Top Chef) had already done weeklong stints at the attractive space deep in New York City's Lower East Side. And now Eddie Huang (Baohaus) was about to kick off his stay with a four-course blue crab-themed dinner. As Huang describes the menu: "It's inspired by the Chinese South. In New Orleans, you see Vietnamese people bringing their flavors to crawfish and po boys. In Atlanta, Koreans set up shop alongside Waffle Houses. Well, this Chinaman came to New York, and this is what he eats." How could I resist? (And why isn't there a Waffle House in New York? Well, that's fodder for another post.)
My boyfriend Theo and I opted for the $25 beverage pairing (champagne, red and white wine, beer, and Pimm's Cup) to go with the $88 set menu and waited for the dishes to appear. There were addictive fried oyster po' boys (even better with a squirt of Sriracha), deliciously gelatinous duck wings, tasty sesame noodles. Juicy roast chicken with lovely, crispy skin. And yes, piles of steamed crabs dusted with Old Bay. Yummy.
But there were also missing courses (we never did receive the Chino Boudin Sausage, which sounded intriguing), missing drinks (no red wine or beer, which we saw other tables enjoying) and what may as well been a missing dessert (the soy caramel bread pudding was so salty it was inedible). That, combined with spotty service (we had several waiters, so we often had to ask for things more than once), made for a mixed experience.
I know opening a restaurant isn't easy—there's a reason why restaurant critics give new establishments a few weeks to work out the kinks before running a review. But that's the fatal flaw of pop-ups: there will never be enough time to fix food and service missteps because the restaurants are transient by nature. That said, Theo and still I had a great time. The food was interesting and it was something fun and different to do on a Friday night. But for $250, it would have been nice to have a little beer to wash down those crabs.
CLARISSA CRUZ is the Fashion Features Editor of O, The Oprah Magazine. She is the former Style Editor of People magazine and has written for Entertainment Weekly, InStyle, Food & Wine, and Budget Travel. @clarissanyc1