The first SJO Pop-Up Restaurant is history, and overall it went very well. Actually it went great considering that the space for our dining room just hours earlier had been filled with fish guts but was cleaned up in time for the evening’s guests to arrive.
We gathered at Gary’s Seafood Specialties, the area’s leading provider of fresh fish and other gourmet food items to restaurants in Florida and around the country. From the industrial plant on West Amelia Street just a couple of blocks from the Amway Arena where the Amway Arena used to stand, Gary’s takes in whole fish and processes them to orders throughout the U.S. They’re packaged in huge polystyrene crates filled with crushed ice -- overhead ice machines constantly rain down frozen water like so much sleet -- and the fish are positioned in the ice as though they are swimming upstream. If you’ve enjoyed a piece of fresh fish in an Orlando restaurant, chances are very good that it first passed through this building on its way to your plate.
On Saturday, we saved the fish from the extra travel by cooking and serving them right there at Gary’s. With the expertise of Cuisiniers Catering and Erin Allport of Vibrant Rioja, not to mention the unfettered assistance of owner Gary Reed and his crew, the room where salmon fly through a specially designed filleting machine and the rows of stainless steel tables are usually occupied by workers cutting up fish was transformed into a dining room, with tables covered with full-drape cloths, black napkins, Riedel stemware and centerpieces of fresh herbs in Mason jars.
A dining room, albeit a very cold one. Because of mechanical requirements, the room cannot get too warm or it will generate so much condensation that it would seem to be raining indoors. As it was, the floor of the room stayed slightly damp throughout the evening. I had warned the pre-registered guests for the sold-out event to bring a jacket or sweater and wear non-slippery shoes. It seemed everyone got through the climate challenge fine.
After a demonstration of how to fillet a fish by one of Gary’s master cutters, the guests took their seats for what turned out to be an overwhelming meal.
The menu was a collaboration of Hari Pulapaka of Cress in Deland and Henry Salgado of Spanish River Grill in New Smyrna Beach. I had approached the two to be the chefs for the pop-up for a couple of reasons. Both have been James Beard Award nominees for best chef South region and are darned fine cooks. And because their restaurants are outside the central Orlando area, I thought it would be fun to bring their talents to an audience that may not have had the chance to drive to their fine restaurants.
The meal began with a collaborative amuse bouche of local Cedar Creek clam steamed in sherry tomato water from Salgado and from Pulapaka a Darling Downs wagyu beef hanging tender with jerk spices and Parmigiano-Reggiano cookie.
Salgado’s first course was what he called “hot, sour, salty, sweet” and featured candied kurabota pork belly, cider glazed Mote Marine sturgeon with eggs and migas extremadura. At the end of the evening, many guests would still be saying their favorite was either the pork belly or the sturgeon, a fish not often seen on local menus.
Pulapaka’s fish course featured Florida Gulf Coast snowy grouper with house-made andouille and Cress’s signature organic grits.
But the dish from Pulapaka that had the crowd raving was one most didn’t recognize. It was a goat stew served in a pappadum horn. I dare say some goat fans were made that night.
Salgado contributed a “surf and turf” of seared sea scallop with sake braised beef cheeks. I’ll never think of surf and turf in the same way again. Delicious.
But we weren’t over yet. Pulapaka prepared tenderloin of domestic ostrich with a blackberry habanero reduction sauce and parsnip puree, topped with cardamom foam.
Instead of a conventional dessert, the chefs grabbed some delicacies from Gary’s cheese room, which may just have the best selection of cheeses from around the country and the world than any place else in the southeast. When I die, I would like to lie in state inside the cheese cooler at Gary’s; just tuck some of the Cabrales under my arm.
The wines were from the wonderful Vibrant Rioja, courtesy of Dhane Chesson, and included a 2010 El Coto Blanco, 2008 Bodegas Riojanas “Monte Real” Crianza, and a 2010 Marques de Caceres “Satinela” demi dulce blanco for the cheese course. We also sipped the 2011 El Coto Rosado and were the first people in the U.S. to do so -- they had been shipped over especially for our dinner.
The chefs were assisted by their wives, Jenneffer Pulapaka and Michele Salgado, who also work with them in their restaurants. Mark Thompson also came with the Spanish River Grill team. (You might remember Thompson as the chef/owner of Two Blondes and a Shrimp in Sanford a few years ago.) Throughout the evening, guests were entertained by Camryn Wessner, who sang and played piano and ukelele.
The initial idea to have a pop-up restaurant at Gary’s was Jamie McFadden’s of Cuisiniers and barJme. Cuisiniers handled all the logistics of getting restaurant finery -- tables, chairs, linens, plates, flatware, etc. -- in place. And David Friedman and his crew of servers -- Eva Czokoly, James Welchance and Tracy Potter -- whisked the dishes from the back staging area to the waiting guests with impressive alacrity.
It was a great night with wonderful food and delicious Rioja wines. I can’t wait to see where we pop up next time. Stay tuned.
The chefs cooked in a make-shift kitchen on a rented stove and oven.
Guests were given a demonstration on how to fillet a fish.
Plating the goat course.