I try not to write about London pop-ups very often, as there’s always the risk they’ll pop off again before the piece goes to press, diverting readers on a wild goose chase to former council lavatories, minicab offices and other venues more likely to smell of stale urine than bouillabaisse.
Additionally, my gruelling supper-club experience tells me the only people having true fun are the organisers — and that lasted for the ten drunken minutes when they invented the concept. ‘We’ll serve choux pastry in a shoe shop… and we’ll call it Mother Hubbard’s!’ one person will slur, while cohorts nod then agree to charge £38 per head.
But my pop-up weariness also stems from something more basic: that the food and hospitality tend to be heroically awful. Teeny portions served over an eon by waiting staff with no experience. Yes, many great chefs have staged pop-ups, but they’re all fur coat and no knickers, too. There’s one Michelin-star crew in London who kept me in an NCP car park in 2011 for five hours, fed only on tiny slivers of sea trout and a portion of radishes that wouldn’t sate an anorexic guinea pig.
It is de rigueur to leave a pop-up starving, bewildered and vaguely toxic due to the truckload of Sauvignon Blanc imbibed to survive the communal dining experience. The strangers next door will inevitably be the chef’s auntie, sister-in-law, baby-mother or hairdresser, brimming with rose-tinted pride about the event, which leads me to the pop-up’s biggest problem: it must never be criticised.
Not even when, by course three, one is so hungry that the serving staff have become — in one’s mind’s eye — giant talking KFC Zinger Towers. Not even when the evening began so very long ago that the dream of going home feels more like a hazy, precarious vision of Maximus in Gladiator trying to find his wife and son. Does Leyton still exist,
I find myself wondering? But still you have to suck it up and grin because expressing even vague dismay about a pop-up will be viewed as mutinous and it will be your name in the frame afterwards as ‘the person who spoilt everything’ with ‘bad vibes’.
Last Saturday, I went to Po’ Boys, a New Orleans-style pop-up serving Deep South cooking in a hidden industrial yard in Vauxhall. It’s there until late September and the concept sounds alluring: pickled crawfish, Mississippi mud pie and bourbon cocktails served on a balmy summer night under the stars. Sort of O Brother, Where Art Thou? meets Paula Deen on the Food Network. Big flavour, Southern hospitality. The menu features a quote from Bubba in Forrest Gump, the joyous dead-pan optimist who loves shrimp so much he spends the Vietnam war fantasising about all the different delicious ways to eat them. A po’ boy, in case you don’t know, is a heavenly mixture of deep-fried breaded shrimp in a pillowy crusted submarine roll, oozing with remoulade sauce.
Alarm bells should probably have rung loudly when I noticed there wasn’t a po’ boy on the Po’ Boys menu. They certainly did when I arrived at 7pm to the distinct and ominous smell of absolutely nothing cooking and the sight of some wilted helium balloons, a few chains of fairy lights and some candles, accompanied not by the well-loved sound of traditional Appalachian bluegrass, but the Jamie xx solo album.
After an hour, we were served, with no explanation or fanfare, two stuffed jalapeño peppers per person suspended from a wire washing line. Hospitality consisted solely of tiny servings of food being shoved on the table with details of its rationing. ‘One piece of bread each,’ we were warned as the next course, Bubba Gemski’s Shrimp, arrived. It was a tiny 75g jar filled with pickled cauliflower and approximately two shrimps. The following course was a pork rib, precooked and marinated in Dr Pepper. No sides, certainly no more bread. Next along was a tasty bowl of gumbo, served in a tiny stainless-steel bowl that one might find mango chutney in at an Indian restaurant. As pudding — mud pie — was served, we took a spoonful and left, picking up a takeout chicken shish on the way home.