Pop-up dinners are a favorite in the foodie world, because, technically, they can take place anywhere. They are also favored by up-and-coming culinary talents because these emerging chefs don’t have to risk bankruptcy by opening a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
A pop-up dinner gives the chefs a chance to showcase their work in homes, in a restaurant that’s rented for a day, in food trucks, and pretty much anywhere else you can cook.
Social media are usually relied on as the outlets to attract a food-loving audience. If you can pair with a brewery, even better.
I was invited to attend one of these foodtastic functions by one of my chef co-workers at 1921 by Norman Van Aken, Ben Roche. Roche was collaborating with Chef Josh Oakley, formerly of The Smiling Bison in Sanford, to put on a pop-up at the recently opened Wolf Branch Brewing in Eustis.
Jose Villafana Jr. was the brewmaster in charge of pairing beers with the three-course menu created by Chefs Ben and Josh. They called the event “BruBites Food and Beer Pairing.”
As the sun started to go down in the October sky Oct. 15, hungry locals entered the small taproom at 119 N. Bay St. in Eustis, a 30-minute ride from DeLand.
The brewery logo, featuring a wolf holding a branch in its jowls, adorns coasters and walls in the cozy tavernesque taproom with its small brewery operation in back.
Every seat at the wooden bar and every table was full for the $37-per-person event. The price included beer and the bites.
The first course was crafted by a master of charcuterie, Chef Oakley, with cured slices of coppa ham, soppressata, pepperoni, beef salami and fermented pickles.
“This was easy for me, because I actually have been curing these meats for three months, and use a hanging chamber where I control the temperature and humidity and season to my liking,” Oakley said.
The meats were full of flavor with their own unique elements, my favorite being the soppressata, an Italian dry salami that washed down well with Wolf Branchs “The Griff” brown ale, which offered maltiness and light hops.
The next two courses were prepared by Chef Roche.
“I started preparing for this event two weeks in advance, starting with preserved egg yolks, to making the kajmak [cheese] and ajvar [a pepper-based condiment] a week before. I wanted to do some Croatian food to showcase and pay homage to my mother and Croatia,” Roche said.
The second course was called cevapi, a ground lamb, beef and pork caseless sausage on top of Roche’s homemade naan bread with ajvar sauce and kajmak cheese made from goat’s milk at a local farm, Zenn Naturals.
This eye-opener reminded me of a strangely delicious gyro, with the ajvar sauce — roasted eggplant and sweet pepper made into a relish — complementing the creaminess of the mild goat cheese and the freshness of the naan.
I looked around after my first bite and noticed the other guests also nodding their heads in approval as we washed the cevapi down with Gran Citrino, a crisp and hoppy New England-style IPA from Wolf Branch.
The final course had American backyard barbecue written all over it, but with a slight twist. Chef Roche smoked his ribs with peachwood. They had been dry-rubbed with sugar, salt, black pepper, chipotle, paprika and cayenne pepper, then glazed with Dijon right before smoking.
The potato salad was a side to write home about, as well. Confit potatoes were cooked in a mix of fats and aromatics, then tossed in goat yogurt with celery, and garnished with tricolored carrots, smoked onion bulbs, and preserved egg yolks.
The tender ribs had a maple breakfast taste, while the potato salad — with goat yogurt instead of mayonnaise as the base sauce — left a rich and crazy sensation on the palate.
Brewmaster Jose Jr. spoke about the final beer-pairing as bartender Victoria Rooney passed out Wolf Branch’s seasonal Farmhouse Ale — dry and crisp with a nice bitterness of grapefruit that balanced the sweetness and richness of the final course.
This was the first pop-up event pairing these chefs and Wolf Branch Brewing, and the crowd applauded with satisfaction. The chefs and brewers plan another one of these collaborations.
Back home in Volusia County, Central 28 Beer Co. always has food trucks parked outside of their taproom, while Persimmon Hollow Brewing Co. in DeLand partners with Neighbors Artisan Taqueria to satisfy your beer-and-food cravings.