One of the more exciting trends in dining over the past decade or so has been the pop-up restaurant: a temporary restaurant, usually staged in a unique, non-traditional location. They’ve caught on with restaurateurs for a number of reasons: they’re an inexpensive opportunity for a young chef to showcase his or her talents; for more established chefs, they’re a fun excuse to break free from the daily grind of running a big operation and just focus on the food; and they’re a way for a restaurateur of any stripe to test out a new concept without a major commitment. For diners, pop-up restaurants are just fun and delicious, mini-culinary explorations that make you feel like you’re part of something new and exciting.
Though the trend has been popular in cities around the world, no one has really staged a pop-up restaurant around here. There are a handful of underground supper clubs, but they’re mostly closed circles. Now, along comes State Fare, our first full-fledged pop-up. The chef behind it is Kirby Dorius, who works in the kitchen for Russell Morin, one of the area’s standard bearers for fine catering. This is his first venture on his own, and he sees it as an e!ort to lay the groundwork for things to come. “This way I could bring local, fresh food to different parts of the state served in a not so usual setting,” he explains, “and serve fine dining quality without the white tablecloth, stuffy atmosphere.”
The first State Fare, a four-course prix-fixe dinner, was March 23 at Mad Dog Artist Studios in Pawtucket. Not knowing what to expect when we arrived, we were quickly greeted by a hostess who brought us into the space, brought over a member of the wait staff to take our coats and instructed us to enjoy some cheese and house made pickles while we waited for service to begin. With the sun setting in the background, we had the chance to peruse the cool body paint work of artist Paul Roustan. We were seated at tables spread with paint speckled linens and table settings with a similar motif. It was a fine presentation, with all the charm and professionalism one would expect of a staff made up primarily of off-duty Morin employees. But, of course, we were there for the food.
“The March menu was inspired by the ingredients that were the freshest at that time of year and what was available at the farms,” says Dorius. The first course was a trio of mushroom crostini: thyme mushroom chutney over goat cheese spread; grilled, quick pickled oyster mushrooms over arugula; and pastrami-spiced portabella over Swiss cheese topped with dijonaise. From the first taste it was evident that Dorius is the type of chef who prefers to choose great ingredients and let them speak for themselves. Next up was a smoky fish chowder with leeks and potatoes, and a petit filet of seared scrod that was cooked to perfection. This was followed by pork two ways – roasted loin and belly – with potato pavé and Brussels sprouts. The surprise dessert (our menus informed us what the first three courses were going to be, but listed only “coffee and dessert” without detail) was a white chocolate bread pudding with dark chocolate sauce and freshly whipped cream – it may have been the biggest hit of the night. Dorius says that all the courses were seasonally driven, but the first two were a bit of an exploration while the last two were his money in the bank. “We had those in our back pockets. We knew the pork entree and dessert would be a hit,” he admits.
While the first dinner was a success, it certainly wasn’t a simple thing to pull together. The menu was the easy part; the myriad other things that go into a restaurant – even one that’s open for only one night – are another effort entirely. “I assure you whenever you think you have everything, you don't,” Dorius comments. In addition to finding a venue willing to serve as his dining room, there is still the matter of staging the kitchen, which he was able to arrange through his industry connections. Then there is all the front of the house stuff: staffing, utensils, tables, chairs. The biggest learning experience, however, was the marketing side of it, which Dorius did himself through social media. While it was an experiment for him, it was a successful one: the dinner sold out in advance.
Of course, Dorius and his crew didn’t put in all this e!ort for just one dinner service – State Fare will pop up again. The plan is do one dinner a month: the second is April 12, again at Mad Dog Artist Studios. Though Dorius hasn’t announced May’s State Fare yet, he hopes to try out a new location this time around, and as of press time, was still scouting. “I want it to be a sought after dining destination one night of the month that food lovers of all kinds can attend,” he says, adding, “The possibilities are endless for the future.” And that’s the beauty of a pop-up restaurant: it’s only for one night, and he can always try something new next month. Email State Fare for information on their next event.