Last Thursday evening, I walked down the frosted sidewalk of Bond Street. The day's rain had made the air bone-chillingly cold and if it had been any other night, I would have probably stayed in with a cup of tea and a Mad Men marathon. But for this night, I would have trekked three miles in the snow uphill both ways, because it was the first night of the iconic food cart Spork's pop-up restaurant, the "Spork Supper Club."
Pop-up restaurants are a trend that has become an underground phenomenon in restaurant circles in major cities, the most famous probably being LA's LudoBites. The concept is, essentially, that a chef takes over another restaurant's space for a short period of time - from one day to a few weeks - and serves a special menu. Often, the food served is more seasonal, more creative and more obtuse than the chef would normally serve at a traditional restaurant. We were hoping to see this concept materialize in Central Oregon and it makes perfect sense for Spork to be the first to test out a pop-up in Bend.
But leave it to the eclectic Spork's folks to bring the trend to Bend.
Spork, the popular food cart in an Airstream that can usually be found on Century Drive in warmer months, is run by Erica Reilly and chef Jeff Hunt. Reilly, who along with others, ran downtown's popular venue The Grove until its closure, said that Spork had contemplated a pop-up restaurant for some time. And since the Airstream is closed until March, she says now seemed like the perfect time to make a pop-up restaurant happen.
At night, with low lighting, brick walls and just two long tables for the 30 or so guests, Cafe Sintra felt intimate and homey. The vibe was warm and inviting and the communal dining encouraged discussion among parties. I ended up sitting with Manuel Dos Santos and his group of friends. Dos Santos, it turns out, is the owner of Sintra.
"We've been talking about doing this for a couple of years now," said Dos Santos. "Erika finally came in the other day and said, 'OK, let's do it.'"
This was unlike any other dining experience currently available in Bend. I wouldn't call it a restaurant, per se, but more of a dinner party. The Spork folks explained the ingredients, calling upon Hunt when necessary. For his part, Hunt, although a bit shy, stood and announced each dish as it was presented.
The seven-course meal started with honey crisp apples with kimchi puree, apple wood bacon, miso cream cheese and arugula. Each dish was small and composed, allowing our stomachs and taste buds to manage the lengthy meal, which clocked in at around three hours, although many stayed later, conversing over bottles of wine.
The first dish was the perfect blend of savory and sweet. The Carleton farms bacon added salt and texture, while the miso cream cheese was creamy and rich.
The varied small-plate dishes allowed the creative Hunt to shine. On paper, it looked like none of these flavors would work together, but somehow each flavor elevated the other without overpowering.
The second dish was a brioche topped with fresh pacific Dungeness crab and Knight Salumi lardo served over a reduction of sugar and soy sauce. Lardo, which is just what it sounds like - pure animal fat - was melted slightly to blanket the tender crab. If I could assure that my weight or arteries wouldn't suffer, I would put lardo on everything.
The third dish, the Carlton Farms pork belly and fried Wilapa Bay oyster salad, was the favorite among those with whom I sat. It was easy to see why; Spork is known for its pork belly. The fat was creamy and crisp on the outside, and the fried oyster perfectly complemented the dish.
The fourth dish was a creative serving of two types of mushrooms: enoki and shitake. The enoki had the texture and clean flavor of a pea shoot, yet the shitake was savory, hearty and earthy. Both were served over a pistachio pesto.
Next was a Thai sausage and glass noodle stuffed Draper Valley boneless grilled chicken thigh over shaved Brussels sprouts. The preparation was a crowd pleaser that showed Hunt's creativity and skill.
For the second-to-last dish, Hunt decided to push his diners a bit. Many pop-up restaurants test out unique ingredients (I'm talking about offals, chicken feet, that kind of thing). Hunt's sixth dish, which he proudly described to the diners, was made from boiled pig heads. Once the heads were properly boiled, Hunt picked all of the usable meat off and formed patties with it, surrounded by a crusted cornbread puree.
The pork head meat was incredibly fatty, like duck confit tossed in extra fat. The meat had a gamey, pungent quality. While it was tasty, I couldn't separate the flavor from the product and kept thinking, "So this what pork head tastes like."
The final dish, Hunt's take on dessert, was a coconut sweet potato pie with a citrus coconut reduction. One bite and the coconut milk, citrus and texture of sweet potato immediately took my mind to a Thai coconut curry. It was quite impressive and incredibly delicious.
At the end of the meal, Hunt received a boisterous round of applause. I couldn't help but wish I could go to this restaurant every night. But perhaps some of what makes pop-up restaurants so special is their fleeting, elusive quality. At the end of the night, Erika promised there would be another Spork pop-up restaurant. Maybe at Cafe Sintra, maybe at another restaurant. But one thing is for certain. Wherever Spork's Supper Club restaurant decides to pop up, I'll be there - boiled pig heads and all.