An Uparwali Chai tea party

They are your city’s besand probably most well-kept secrets. They pop up out of the blue at random locales and, as suddenly, they disappear. Pop-up restaurants — a cross of sorts between home dinner parties and mainstream diners — are quite the hush-hush, exclusive affairs for foodies who thrive on gastronomic binges. #

If you do manage to wangle out an invite for one, know this, you have hit pay dirt.

Deconstructed, it goes thus. Imagine a one-night stand – and before you jump to risqué conclusions – with food. It is the very raison d’etre behind a pop-up restaurant when an amateur chef, who hopes to open his own restaurant one day, experiments and puts together informal dinners for people within the precincts of his home.

“The idea is to recreate the feel of a five-star meal at home with an authentic spread being laid out on the table in the course of an evening,” says celebrity chef Nikhil Chib, who anchors television food shows and owns the highly acclaimed pan Asian restaurant called Busaba in Mumbai.

In India, a select set is offering an intriguing mix of high tea, casual dining and fine dining menus within the pop-up restaurant setup for a limited audience of 20-30 guests. The carrot: an incredibly competitive price for a few hours’ experience that is in fact half the cost of an evening out in town. Then, there is the icing on it all — the opportunity to meet people from different walks of life.

For Jeremie, a French expat who owns a cute little creperie called Suzette in Mumbai, the experience of stepping in for an evening at a pop-up setup in the city was unique. “It is eye-opening to see what a chef can do within a limited kitchen. Cooking professionally and cooking at home are completely different. On top of which, I meet a host of other people I would have never met otherwise, all of whom are bound by a common passion for food,” he says.

These roving restaurants have been dubbed a favourite internationally. If the Brits refer to them as underground restaurants, the Americans know them as supper clubs, and for Cubans they are better known as paladares or private restaurants that are likely to spring up in old crumbling mansions.

“It works for a niche crowd that is tired of frequenting the same old eateries. It is in love with the concept of the pop-up restaurant and how? We get about 80-90 applicants for each evening that we host,” says Kanika Parab who runs an online weekend guide called Brown Paper Bag (bpbweekend.com) in Mumbai along with co-founder, Mansi Poddar.

The two young 28-year-old women who keep a tab on underground lifestyle in Mumbai through their online guide, commenced with Turning Tables, a pop-up restaurant, in December 2010 in the city. They define it as an underground kitchen club that comes together in a private home once every month.

Expect an experimental and elaborate five-course fare rustled up by celebrity chefs of high-end restaurants in Mumbai who come in armed with equipments and a small team. Some of the names who featured at Turning Tables include Chef Nikhil Chibb of Busaba, Chef Vicky Ratnani of Aurus, Chef Then Kok Leong of San Qi at Four Seasons and Chef Ashutosh Nerlekar of Olio at hotel Novotel.

How elaborate? Take a cue from Chef Chib who laid out a lavish spread for one Turning Tables event. He started with small plates of aubergine carpaccio with arugula, chilli and sesame, popcorn shrimps with black pepper among others and followed it up with main dishes of the likes of steamed fish with lime, chilli and garlic, beef bulgogi with Korean chilli paste, lettuce and sesame and Vietnamese sizzling vegetables in coconut juice and tamarind. “For dessert, we made chocolate fondant and lemon tarts,” adds Chib. All at a minimal price of Rs 500.

“We have kept it to a Bring Your Own Booze (BYOB) concept. People come in with two pints of beer or even the occasional bottle of Single Malt,” points out Parab.

Meanwhile from the terrace of a Bandra house, a young couple in their twenties, Rishaal and Tatiana, have introduced Mumbai to a weekly vegetarian supper club that they started along the same time as Turning Tables. At this charmingly informal affair that the duo calls Umami’s (the fifth taste bud), Rishaal himself cooks with fresh, organic ingredients and challenges the ubiquitous notion that vegetarianism is boring.

If a different cuisine is served up every week at the gatherings here, the price for a 4-5 course meal generally ranges between Rs 600 to Rs 900, with a few cocktails thrown in per person.

“Usually we have a communal punchbowl filled with a drink of the night. Every night is a new social experiment with a new mix of people, new energy and a new batch of dishes,” says Rishaal, an expatriate cook from Toronto who met Tatiana, a French event co-ordinator from Paris in Rishikesh. “Umami’s was our productive reason to be and stay together for a purpose other than romance,” he adds.

In Delhi, Scottish baker Pamela Timms recreates the traditional British high-tea through her two-year-old pop-up tea party concept called Uparwali Chai – it literally translates into high tea. If she lays out luscious tables on mellow winter afternoons laden full with scones, macaroons, pates, tiny cucumber sandwiches, florentines and different types of tea, she adds a local Indian touch to every event of hers. Prepare to be surprised by chicken curry puffs that resemble little gujiyas, pastries with gajar ka halwa (carrot confection) or even baingan bharta (smoked and curried eggplant) paired with Melba toast.

“Uparwali Chai can come up anywhere – from within the confines of restaurants like Gunpowder in Hauz Khas Village to the leafy environs of a well-hidden place such as the Sanskriti Kendra or even the rooftop of my own house,” notes Timms who adds to the high-tea experience with an enchanting ambience of colourful tablecloths, delicate crockery, tiered tea cake stands, menus printed on handmade paper, milk jugs and dainty tea pots.

For entry to Uparwali Chai, you have to shell out roughly Rs 800 for an adult and Rs 400 for a child.

The only other pop-up restaurant in this coterie is Ammi, a place by filmmaker Arun Kumar TR that specializes in lip-smacking coastal cuisine lunches in winter. Kumar came up with Ammi (Malayalam word for a pestle and mortar) to give vent to his passion for cooking up a range of dishes from Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu with a spill-over into coastal fare from Maharashtra.

Some of his signature dishes include Achamma’s Curry (grandmother’s meat curry from North Malabar in Kerala), Thoothukudi Kori Kari (chicken curry dish from Thoothukudi/Tuticorin in Tamil Nadu) and Kaidha Chakka Pachadi (pineapple cooked in chutney of coconut and curd from Kerala). Kumar lays out 6-7 dishes, keeps the price at Rs 1,600 and includes Champagne as part of a lunch.

“While last winter, the location was a sprawling bungalow and its lawns in South Delhi, this winter you can find yourself in a restaurant that will host Ammi on any random Sunday,” says Kumar. From the level of recognition he has got, he has started catering services to restaurants like Ritu Dalmia’s two eateries in Delhi.

But hold on. There are rules that the pop-up restauranteurs adhere to. They do not really advertise because they are under-the-radar events, so they rely on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter. “It’s mostly word-of-mouth,” says Timms who also puts up news of Uparwali Chai on her popular blog www.eatanddust.com. Within a few days the seats sell out, with a waiting list of 30 or more in the bag.

Every month before 20 guests come together around a table at a private home during Turning Tables, Poddar and Parab carefully screen the professions of the applicants to get an interesting mix of individuals in an evening.

“You have to be careful. After all these dinners are hosted at homes of our Brown Paper Bag subscribers,” says Parab. They do not repeat guests at Turning Tables and they have yet another key condition – they want people to come as singles. “Not because we treat it as a dating platform, but because we want people from diverse areas of life to meet and socialize because they hardly move beyond their own friend circles,” adds Parab.

Maybe it’s time to go underground, eh?

(A version of this piece was published in the September 11, 2011, issue of The Telegraph)

3 thoughts on “The Underground Gourmands

  1. Pingback: Serving It Up | Hand of Ananke

  2. Interesting arrangement this appears. But it is not too mainstream I am guessing. An experience worth having – but then, how does one get invited to one? A very nice piece to read and savour.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s