Ever eat a gourmet meal in a man-made tunnel, on a rooftop under the stars or in a vacant historic hotel? It’s possible and its happening in Fresno.
Call them underground suppers or pop-up dinners, the big city trend is slowly taking root in Fresno. Although not as experimental or clandestine as some dinners in Los Angeles or San Francisco, Fresno’s dinners still have the element of surprise, curiosity and culinary sense of adventure.
The dinners work like this: A restaurant, caterer or private chef announces on social media that they will be preparing a special multi-course dinner at a specific time and location. The menus are purposely vague as a way to create a bit of mystery, and the food is definitely not your run of the mill type.
At times, the dinner is held in an uncommon location or in a borrowed restaurant. And the price isn’t cheap, ranging from $60 a person to more than $100. But those who have attended pop-up dinners say it is often worth it.
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Chef Catherine Heaney, owner of Char in Visalia, a French-inspired bistro, loves the idea of pop-up dinners, saying it gives the chef and customers the chance to experience something special.
“I think there’s a certain freedom that comes with a pop up, and the spontaneity of it all that sort of drives you back to the purpose of going out: to try something new, to try something different and to possibly have an experience that is, albeit fleeting, one that will make for one great memory,” Heaney said.
Jaye organizes the dinners under the name Fresno’s Underground Supper Series. You have to sign up on their website in order to score an invitation. Also staging dinners is David Hickok of The Little Shop of Boars.
Jaye, a native of Chicago and frequent traveler, said she saw what was going on in other cities and saw no reason why this couldn’t be part of Fresno’s dining scene. She chose Rod Hansen and Jeromie Hansen of The Painted Table for their creativity, chef skills and love of the community.
“At our first dinner we had 16 people and that was a good number,” Jaye says. “But at our most recent dinner we had 45 people that sold out in three hours.”
Jaye says part of the excitement was created by the location, the famed Forestiere Underground Gardens on west Shaw Avenue.
Crisp white linen-covered tables lined the inside of one of the hand-carved tunnels. Flowers from Botanique Floral Artistry of Clovis elegantly adorned the tables that were lit by candles and guests had their pick of vintage chairs.
Although the dinner was scaled down from the normal seven courses to four, because of space and time limitations, it did not lack in creativity. The first course was cured and braised pork belly with escargot served with parsley butter and garlic confit. It was topped with fried parsley and butter bread crumbles. The main course was port wine braised lamb shank on a bed of gorganzola polenta and oven burst heirloom tomatoes. Dessert was peach and plum saffron, almond olive oil cake.
Jaye says part of her goal is to offer a one-of-a-kind dining experience, but also a new appreciation for Fresno.
“I want them to walk out of here and say, ‘Wow I didn’t know Fresno had so many cool things happening,’”Jaye said. “And hopefully this will inspire people to try other things. We don’t have to settle for the status quo.”
Together, they’ve done five dinners this year, with the sixth planned for Aug. 14. Although the location has not been disclosed, Jaye offered this teaser: “It is an iconic place in Fresno that itself is seeing a resurgence and we are glad to be part of that.”
She’s also working on different locations, including a rooftop dinner.
“I’d also like to try and have a dinner in an old hotel, like Hotel Fresno,” she says.
Tickets for the August dinner may go fast, but don’t worry if you miss this one. She and The Painted Table are planning six more dinners next year. She is also thinking about doing a series of dinners featuring chefs from different cities.
“I am excited to see where this all goes,” Jaye said.
Equally excited is David Hickok of Fresno, founder of The Little Shop of Boars. Hickok earned his culinology degree from Fresno State and has been hosting pop-up dinners for about two years. His next dinner is Aug. 21 at Amir’s restaurant, 2023 W. Bullard Ave. in Fresno.
By day Hickok works in product development for a major local food processor, but by night he is pursuing his love of cooking. His cooking style: experimental and eclectic.
At one of his most recent dinners he served butter fish with hearts of palm, edamame, and sriracha powder. There were also scallops with celery root and a lemon curd vinaigrette and eggs with a truffle yolk, caviar and crispy prosciutto. For dessert he prepared chocolate cake with ovomaltine – a chocolately spread –, Japanese peanuts and cocoa coffee dust.
And in keeping with the name of his business, you will always find boar on the menu.
For his Aug. 21 pop up, he posted a few hints about the menu on his Facebook page. It lists: “duck mcnugget”, caviar, shrimp, artichokes, wild boar and speculoos, a crunchy, spiced Belgian cookie.
“The people who really like pop-up dinners are the kind of people who want something different and are not afraid to try new things,” Hickok says.
Donna Mott, owner of Ooh De Lolli Kitchen Works and Fine Edibles, sees the potential for this trend to continue in Fresno.
“It can be a vehicle to raise the bar in Fresno with beautiful dining and beautiful food,” Mott says. “There are people who seek that and a lot of people go out of town to try and find it.”