Bread & Brew: Pop-up dinners now part of dining month
Like many chefs, Salimatu Amabebe came to Portland for the food scene.
The self-taught cook, with an arts degree from Bard College, landed here after cooking in cities across the nation and world not to open a restaurant, or even a food cart.
She's found her niche in hosting pop-up dinners, which she at first hosted from her home, several times per month.
For the first dinner, "I posted it on two Facebook groups and didn't think many people would come, so I just put my address," Amabebe, 26, recalls. "Over 40 people showed up. After that I asked for RSVPs and cut it off at 30 people."
Still, Amabebe lives for the creative expression of cooking from her Nigerian roots, hosting vegan Nigerian dinners and Black Feast events on a sliding donation scale, to make it accessible to whomever wants to join in.
For a diner new to pop-ups, it could at first be intimidating, she admits: "It's not the same as just walking into a restaurant and ordering what you want. It's just a really nice dinner, you're well taken care of, and you get to try this incredible food."
Her Nigerian dinners are vegan, gluten-free and sugar-free. Her Black Feast is based on the work of a different black artist or writer each month, a way to celebrate them through food as she takes one of their specific works, such as a book or album, and breaks it into four parts to create a culinary interpretation for each course.
Each dinner "really becomes an event," Amabebe says. "There's this ritual around food. It becomes a celebration. I like that a lot. For my life, that's how it's been when people are coming around the dinner table."
Amabebe no longer has to host the dinners from her home — she's part of Feastly, the San Francisco-based Internet platform for pop-up dinners, where chefs can post their events in Portland, as well as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and everywhere between. Diners can easily sign up for those events, whether it's in their hometown or somewhere they're traveling.
Portlanders looking for a pop-up dinner on Feastly might find Persian, Turkish, Russian, Puerto Rican, Haitian, Filipino and other authentic one-of-a-kind culinary opportunities at the Feastly dinner space on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard and other venues across town.
During the month of March, Feastly's pop-up dinners for the first time will be part of the city's 10th annual Portland Dining Month — each three-course prix-fixe meal set at $33, every day of the week.
Spanning Portland's spectrum of restaurants, Dining Month will include inspired meals at more than 120 of Portland's top dining destinations, including many big-name James Beard Award winners and nominees.
"Portland Dining Month represents the perfect opportunity to experience the best that the Portland culinary scene has to offer, without breaking the bank," says Jeff Miller, president and chief executive officer of Travel Portland, which sponsors the initiative. "It's a wonderful time to celebrate the organizations and cuisines that help shape and sustain our city's reputation as a culinary capital."
The 2018 roster includes local favorites like Andina, Departure and Paley's Place, as well as first-time participants like Bistro Agnes, Southfork and Alto Bajo.
Book reservations early when possible, since some of the pop-ups already are sold out. For an up-and-coming chef looking to open a brick-and-mortar spot, Portland Dining Month is a major opportunity to educate hungry diners beyond their established audience.
"It's definitely been an uphill battle, trying to push an unknown cuisine to the public," says Chef Ed Sablan, owner of the Northeast Portland Guam food cart PDX671, which stands for Guam's area code.
"Opening a food cart was a way to get the cuisine its recognition, educate people about where Guam is, what the culture's all about," says Sablan, who opened the cart near his home in Northeast Portland in 2010.
One of his specialties is kelaguen, a ceviche-like dish with lots of citrusy, spicy and smoky flavors, reminiscent of cooking island-style barbecue over the fire, Sablan says.
In the past year since partnering with Feastly, he's held a pop-up dinner about once a month, spinning off his normal menu with food that delights both longtime fans and first-timers.
Now he's in the process of developing a menu, starting a funding campaign and looking for space for a brick-and-mortar restaurant, his ultimate goal.
One of his Portland Dining Month dinners (March 27) will focus on the versatility and spiciness of the coconut — especially in dessert, with his patisserie background.
"With pop-ups, I like to go all out," he says. "There's a lot of energy that goes into it."
For the full list of Portland Dining Month restaurants: www.PortlandDiningMonth.com or www.eatfeastly.com/pdxdiningmonth. OpenTable will make a donation to Oregon Food Bank's hunger relief efforts for every reservation booked at participating restaurants.