Pop-up restaurants are the latest craze in culinary. They’re so popular, the James Beard Foundation dedicated an entire month to all things pop-up, Martha Stewart popped up with pies and tarts, while the New York Times chronicled the underground world of San Francisco pop-up lovers. Behind every pop-up is a chef who’s free to experiment, cook and share — then go back to their daily lives. It’s guerilla dining and it’s a lot of fun. Some pop-ups last for a few hours while others can go on for days or weeks.
When Jeannie Pierola announced her pop-up concept in Tampa, I was excited to make a reservation. Florida is often regarded as a culinary wasteland: a vast sea of chain restaurants, old-fashioned cuisine or over-hyped media celebrities. Jeannie Pierola, however, is someone who can change that.
The celebrated chef behind successful ventures like Bern’s Steakhouse and Sidebern’s, Pierola is a master at combining savory and sweet flavors using local ingredients and earthy proteins, creating artful, eye pleasing plates and selective pairings with wonderful wines. Adding another notch in her belt is the ability to find ways to keep her dishes affordable for the average diner. I’ve always had a fondness for chefs with the business acumen to understand and monitor food costs accordingly.
KitchenBar is Pierola’s second attempt at a pop-up and it’s a resounding success. From masterfully grilled arctic char with a coconut glazed pork belly to a fines herb rabbit stew or a crispy duck confit, Pierola is “rocking the dinner party” just as her invitation promises. See my photo gallery here.
There are quite a number of challenges and risks that come with operating a pop-up. Like any new restaurant, the opening weeks are tumultuous. Double that pressure for a pop-up, where a limited engagement restricts any time to “work-out the kinks.” Suiting your clientele ends up being a lot of guess-work, as you never know who’s going to show-up (like vegetarians or other sensitive diners) who demand flexibility on menu items.
Admittedly, there are a few pains in Pierola’s pop up — reservations being the primary. Reservations are only taken by phone (which is never answered). While the message promises a return call, it doesn’t happen. Once you show up to the restaurant, the staff scrambles to find any trace of your name (which they can’t) and you’re left standing while a table is assembled.
If you can get over that kind of hiccup (I recommend patience, the laughter of good friends and some sort of alcoholic beverage) then you’re in for an amazing dining experience. Pierola has hired some of the most gracious and attentive servers, while she personally supervises the preparation of every dish that comes out of the tiny makeshift kitchen. Personally, I think a little scramble at the host stand is nothing compared to a fantastic evening meal. But to each their own. Fussy diners shouldn’t go to a pop-up. It just won’t work out.
For the rest of us, KitchenBar will be around for two more weeks — get in before it’s gone.