It was a good night of good eats Sunday as Nicholas Rodgers’ pop-up restaurant in Howell — the first of what he anticipates to be many in the county — was a sold-out success.
“It went very well, very smooth. People were excited,” he said. “People seemed to be really into it. I went out and talked to all the tables.”
Rodgers, a Howell resident and the sous chef at The Root Restaurant and Bar in Oakland County’s White Lake Township, held the one-night-only, bring-your-own-bottle event at Mexicali Allies, 117 N. Michigan Ave. in Howell, starting at 6 p.m. The evening included one seating of roughly 40 guests, and the event was sold out weeks in advance.
“I’m looking to do another one in mid-May. Maybe it will be at Mexicali Allies again or maybe we’ll do it somewhere else,” Rodgers noted. “Right now, I have 300 people (who could not get reservations for Sunday) on a waiting list. … We’ll definitely do two seatings for sure next time.”
The trend of pop-up dining is a concept that has taken hold and taken off in the food world in recent years — and for good reason, Rodgers said.
“One, you get chefs that are able to do something outside of the restaurant’s menu,” he said during an interview last month. “I’d like to have a restaurant one day. So, I started thinking, ‘How can I do this?’ A pop-up dinner is a good way to get your name out there. Right now, I’m just a guy in Howell who lives above Cleary’s (Pub).”
However, while the chef gets to test new waters, a pop-up restaurant also allows diners to tread new ground.
“It’s a whole new experience (for guests),” Rodgers explained. “I think people are enjoying being at the chef’s mercy. It’s a completely different experience, and people are becoming more cultured.”
In addition, it brings the gourmet-dining experience down a notch, to a level where people can relate to it and not be intimidated by it, he added.
That, Rodgers said, fits into his idea behind the concept of his pop-up restaurant, which he billed as a Community Cooks Project. The name reflected not only his desire to use locally and regionally grown food, but also his desire of working with the local restaurant community to bring something interesting and unique to Livingston County residents.
“It’s kind of like my philosophy. … What would I want this restaurant to be?” Rodgers said last month. “I think it would be important to encompass the community as much as possible. I want it to be something that is as approachable as possible. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”
Rodgers said that when he began planning a pop-up restaurant a number of weeks ago, he knew — without question — he wanted the event at Mexicali Allies.
“I love that place. It’s the perfect space,” he said. “I feel like it’s honest food. … There’s nothing hidden. (Owner) Sandy (Blake) cooks all the product. It’s, literally, from-scratch, honest cooking.”
Plus, Rodgers continued, holding it at Mexicali Allies helps fulfill his mission of making his pop-up restaurant truly a community event.
Blake, for one, wasn’t surprised by Rodgers’ passion.
“Nick and I have been friends for quite a long time,” she said. “He’s a local guy, and he was my sous chef when I was in (the local) Iron Chef (cooking competition) a while back. He knows his business.”
Guests Sunday were able to experience firsthand how well he knows his business.
The first course of Sunday’s dinner was a beet salad featuring pickled beets, smoked ricotta, arugula, currants and whey caramel.
Course No. 2 was fish and chips with smelt, kale, tartar sauce and lemon.
The third course was a pierogi that includes Indiana duck, potato, local cheddar, sauerkraut and creme fraiche.
The third course was followed by an intermezzo of sorbet made with blood orange and fennel.
The fourth course was pork and beans featuring all-natural Michigan pork shoulder, local cranberry bean ragout, raisin, mustard greens, pickled coriander and cilantro.
The finishing touch of dessert was apple pie made by Blake.
“I think people had a great time,” Rodgers said. “They had great food and great conversation.”