Blame it on the Short Pump location. The Far West End of Richmond is hardly known for its exciting food (with at least a few noteable exceptions). Or maybe it's the midsummer timing. Richmond is far quieter when there's a beach to occupy on the edge of our state. Perhaps it's the size of our market. We're a small city that may not have enough adventurous or financially capable diners to support 3 pop-up experiences in 5 months. Whatever the reasons (and mine are purely speculative), Richmond's third pop-up was a bit light on the head count.
Well, Richmond missed out.
"Meddle with spoons." was a collaboration between Secco's Tim Bereika (half of Meddle back in February) and Chef Johnny Maher (recently of spoon 1.0). I was fortunate enough to have attended each of the prior pop-up events here in Richmond, and I enjoyed them both - two very special meals for a city that is still in the process of a slow wake-up to what fine dining can be. I was, naturally, looking forward to a collaboration between these gentlemen.
The major differentiator for this meal was its setup as a pasta-tasting menu; sure, the amuse-bouche, intermezzo, and dessert contained no pasta, but the 4 major dishes each featured a different freshly prepared pasta component. There was cavatelli made with chick peas, fresh spaghetti, and two beautifully-formed filled pastas (one of which was black from squid ink). In every case the pasta was cooked perfectly - tender but with texture, and delicious.
I could say a lot of the same things about Meddle with spoons that I've already said about the first two of Richmond's pop-ups: statements about balance, craft, letting the ingredients speak for themselves. I'll save the details for my take on each course at the end of this post but, at the risk of a little redundancy, I do want to highlight how the flavor spectrum built and shifted over the course of this meal. Not only did Tim and Johnny transition from light and delicate to rich and meaty flavors, but the combination of spices, herbs, and other ingredients created a surprising sense of continuity from one dish to the next. It was like an expertly-assembled playlist for the taste buds. The charred, earthy flavors (and cumin) in the smoked scallop scarpinocc did a great job setting up my palate for the still richer squid ink agnolotti with chorizo inside (and that smoked paprika!). Likewise, the brilliant intermezzo - essentially a panzanella sorbetto - both cut through the richness of its predecessor and woke up the tongue a bit for the peach dessert that followed.
Yes, this was the third pop-up in our small River City since February. But the whole point of a pop-up restaurant is to experience a once-in-a-lifetime menu that showcases the skills of a chef (or chefs, in this case) and the best qualities of the ingredients involved. That being the case, if there's any reason that Meddle with spoons was lightly-attended, I sure hope it's not because Richmond diners are "over" the concept. Traditional full-time restaurants that last beyond 1 or 2 nights are great - even my own preference most of the time. But I'm always game for a chance to see what Richmond's creative and skilled cooks can pull out of their hats when left to their own devices, and I'll be keeping my eye out for news of whatever comes next. I'd love to keep a great thing going.
Okay, the main portion of my write-up is over, but for the completists out there, here's my breakdown of each course. I didn't take any photographs, as with spoon 1.0, because the excellent Kieran Wagner was again on hand to do the work of a professional. I'm looking foward to when his film is processed.
Amuse Bouche: Fluke Crudo with variations of summer squash, vanilla, and Manzanilla sherry
A lovely bite to kick things off. The fluke was delicate, and the squash variations made for a pleasant combination of textures. I tasted the vanilla lightly, and it worked well with the flavor of the sherry.
Course 1: Chickpea Cavatelli with tomato, fresh fenugreek, and ricotta salata
The pasta here was nice and tasty on its own, and the whole dish had a wonderful aroma. The grated ricotta salata provided a light saltiness and the tomatoes were just great - they seem to have been cooked (roasted?) and then charred on the outside, and they tasted sweet. It was a nice lighter course with the first of what would be several expert uses of herbs throughout the meal.
Course 2: Smoked Scallop Scarpinocc with roasted corn, huitlacoche, marjoram, and cumin
Confession: I knew what huitlacoche was before this meal, and while I'd never eaten it, I was bit hesitant. Readers of my blog already know my tragic pickiness (I'm always working on it), but the ingredient is essentailly corn infected by a fungus. It's considered a blight in the USA (called "corn smut" by farmers), but enjoyed in Mexico. It's an inky black color and mushy in texture, so the look of it, had it been on its own, doesn't add to its appeal. But I knew I was in good hands with Tim and Johnny in the kitchen, so I dove in when it hit the table. And you know what? It helped out the dish quite a bit. It added a bit of earthiness to what was a fantastic course. Scarpinocc is a filled pasta, and these were beautiful on the plate. The charred corn was excellent, and there was a pretty (and edible) charred corn silk garnish as well. Smokey, earthy, toasty, and well spiced, this was an enjoyable plate on its own that also led perfectly into the next dish...
Course 3: Squid Ink Agnolotti with chorizo farce, clams, greens, and smoked paprika jus
I could smell this dish before it arrived at the table, and I liked it already. This had to be my favorite full course of the night. Four or five lovely little black pasta purses sat on top of tender greens in a delicious broth. The spice level was just right, and I finished this course licking my lips.
Course 4: Pasta alla "Carbonara" with slow-cooked egg yolk, guanciale, and Pecorino-Romano
The textures in this dish were perfect - simply excellent spaghetti and an egg yolk that was like butter. But this was the lone disappointing course of the night for me, because the flavor just wasn't there for all but the last two bites. This is a surprise, too; guanciale is an Italian style of bacon made from the jowl, and while that particular component left a pleasing saltiness in my mouth afterward, it didn't stand out much throuout the course. Neither did the Pecorino, either - a sharp enough cheese that its absence stood out. I didn't need 10 pieces of bacon and a cup of cheese, but my dish tasted mostly like undressed pasta with some egg yolk. Again - everything in the bowl had fantastic texture. But I couldn't taste much until, for some reason, the last two bites where there seemed to be a little bit of creamy sauce.
Panzanella is traditional Italian salad made as a use for stale bread. Most folks know the contemporary version that's a bread and tomato salad with some olive oil, and perhaps a few other ingredients. What arrived at the table was a different animal all together - a quenelle of what seemed to be a tomato sorbetto in a small pool of olive/herb oil (I think?) with crispy bread crumbs. Taking the entire bite at once was magical - bright, salty, acidic, with a little crunch at the end from the bread. This little bite very nearly stole the show for me. It was a fantastic example of elevating such a simple poor man's food to a beautifully-presented and inventive spot of food between dinner and dessert.
Course 5: Textures of Summer Peach with bay lauel gelato, aroma of burnt cinnamon, kaffir lime and crème fraîche cake, and vin santo croquant
Oh my, what a finish. Slices of fresh peach, cooked peach, dense and lightly sweet cake, AMAZING gelato, and crisp candy (the croquant). The only trouble here was the "aroma of burnt cinnamon" because, you see, the diners behind my booth had just received their agnolotti. So I could only smell the cinnamon holding the plate up to my face - otherwise all I could smell was the smoked paprika and chorizo from the other table. Other than that, this dessert was outstanding - tasty, beautiful to look at, and a fun assortment of textures. And how can you go wrong with a dessert that contains fruit, cake, ice cream, AND candy? Summer indeed.