by Todd O'Dowd
“Do you want to come with me to a top-up dinner at The Strip Club?” my friend Kris Vruno casually asked one day.
“Absolutely!” I replied, with just a little too much enthusiasm.
I have always been a fan up pop-ups. Though the trend has been co-opted by everything from non-traditional museum exhibits to random performance art pieces to shopping experiences and more, the pop-up has and will always be the domain of the restaurant world. Pending on the culinary brains behind it, a pop-up can run the gambit from a restaurant trying out a new menu, a chef previewing a new concept, or a chance for the kitchen staff to let their hair down and have fun in the kitchen.
All of these things, and more, happened on Monday night at The Strip Club in St. Paul as co-owners Tim Niver and JD Fratzke threw the first of two pop-up dinners in honor of Saint Dinette, their new restaurant opening in Lowertown St. Paul later this year (or “mid-soon” as they like to say).
A packed crowd of eager foodies, food lovers, friends, and family filled the intimate confines of The Strip Club to its maximum. The room was prepared with lovely table settings over paper tablecloths (which would come in handy for the dessert course-more on that in a minute). Niver himself led the gracious front of house staff who floated around the cramped space with dexterity, plying everyone with refreshments. Being a pop-up, the beverage menu was reduced but spectacular. All three of the wines (a fruity Vouvray and silky Beaujolais from France and a savory Rosaenovae from Italy) were chosen with precision to go with the meal that was about to come. The cocktails (a bitter orange tequila cocktail with notes of coriander and caramel, a marvelous spin on the vieux carré, and a beet beer made with beet-infused gin and Summit Southern Cape sparkling ale) were expertly made.
While the food was spectacular, it was the experience of it all that made this particular pop-up so memorable. Even though the room was filled with tons of old friends (like Brenda Karunya Peters of Amsterdam Bar and Hall who was celebrating her birthday, or publicist Kate O’Reilly who was sharing a table with food blogger Lizzie Breyer who was covering the event for City Pages‘ The Hot Dish) the joy of the evening was meeting new people. At our table was Gary and Jean, a former constitutional law teacher and finacial advisor who had insider knowledge on the place (their daughter was our table’s server). It was lovely sharing a meal while meeting new, fascinating people filled with humor (Gary: “We’re not foodies, we just like food!”) and surprisingly good advice (Jean: “I think people, women in particular, should say ‘No’ more often. My trick has always been to say ‘That doesn’t work for me.’”)
It was clear that as much as the guests were enjoying themselves, the staff was having more fun. From a subduded but soulful sountrack (featuring everyone from Dessa to Blossom Dearie to Talib Kweli) to the playfulness of the staff (especially during the dessert course as they engaded in drive-by churro-ing), it was a warm and inviting experience that played into Fratzke’s mission statement for the Saint Dinette on the menu; to create a warm inviting neighborhood place that echoed the French maison style of dining. So enraptured by the experience that the crowd cheered when Fratzke and Saint Dinette chef de cuisine Adam Eaton came out to say hello to the crowd (which led to the comic moment of Eaton hitting his head as Fratzke tried to hoist him up for the crowd for the crowd to see).
But how was the food, you ask? In a word, delicious! Fratze’s mission statement for the Saint Dinette was to celebrate the cuisine of the river; from the mouth of the St. Lawrence, down the Mississippi, and through the Gulf Coast, the cuisine made nods to Montreal, St. Paul, New Orleans, Mexico, and every point in between. The six courses were, in order…
* Duck Carpaccio on a bar of fresh watermelon with achiote, cilantro, and lime
* Fried Oyster on cornbread with pickled onion, arugula, and a slight dash of house-made hot sauce
* Cucumber Consommé with pumpernickel crostini with lox, caviar, and crème fraîche
* Wild Salmon topped with razor clams and wild rice with lamb lettuce and buerre blanc
* Chicken Presse topped with bacon, chow chow, baby tomatoes, a homemade creole mustard, and pain perdue
* Churros with a trio of dipping sauces; bittersweet chocolate, homemade lemon curd, and cayenne caramel
As you can see, the food was dazzling. That said, while the dinner was amazing, the experience of the pop-up (especially in this case being a preview for Saint Dinette) and the people that were there took it to some place extraordinary!
The Strip Club will be hosting a second pop-up dinner / preview for Saint Dinette on Monday, September 29. While this one is sold out, there is talk that there will be a third pop-up dinner in October. For more information, please visit Saint Dinette’s Facebook page or their Twitter feed.
Photo Credits: Todd O’Dowd