February 21, 2011 | BITE: My Journal
What Happens When & Why
The sweets “sommelier” tends a rolling dessert cart. Photo: Steven Richter.
I’m not sure what the pop-up restaurant trend portends or reveals: Attention Deficit Disorder in young chefs, perhaps, or a gesture toward ADD eaters. But I was excited to arrive at What Happens When, chronic pinchpenny that I am, even though I couldn’t remember the name for the life of me. It was a chance to revisit Chef John Fraser’s very personal style of cooking at $58 for three courses, a discount from the $35 and $40 entrees at his three-star Dovetail where his food won raves from me, but only an occasional visit.
A narrow window lets you see the chefs but not the pain. Photo: Steven Richter
A three-star chef tweaking both menu and décor every month on a shoestring in a rough cut 64 seat spot that would close in September … It was enough to sound like a trend and grab the front page of Times Dining. Did Fraser sound petulant as he explained how happy he was to escape extravagant architects and demanding investors to do something modest and short-lived, sharing the risk with creative collaborators, two designers and a musician friend? “And it’s not a pop-up,” he insisted even though it would only last nine months.
“Where It Happens,” I called it. “Why Did It Happen?” “What, Where and When?” I tried. Was the name deliberately meant to challenge middle-age memory lapses? “Get a table for four please,” I ask my assistant.
The spiffy black and white room looks great. Soon it will change. Photo: Steven Richter
The clever no-frills black and white design -- bemusing chandeliers, an outline of your bentwood chair stenciled on the floor at your feet, and mysterious numbers on grey painted brick -- is supposed to suggest you are dining inside a blueprint. That doesn’t sink in till Fraser, recognizing me and my Food Arts editor pal, comes by the table and explains. But I already like it. The modestly abbreviated menu, the proper young servers in black, the saucer goblet of apricot liquor that arrives with a trio of amusements, the pause to find your silver stashed in the drawer of your table -- it has the feel of off-Broadway. I like that too. Sound imitating music by partner Micah Silver is bearable.
Chef Fraser tosses off a molecular bid in his ambitious amuse. Photo: Steven Richter
What we’re eating is pure Fraser, sophisticated and mostly remarkable. Crunchy fried fingerling potato skins in the shape of a large thimble on wheat beer fondue, tossed with pickled sausage and sorrel, so original and creative. A roulade of boldly rare arctic char wrapped in a wide ribbon of fennel aspic with preserved lemon, fennel strips, parsley and chervil is surprising - and good. Roasted cauliflower gets tossed with ham, mushrooms, grapes, feta, and shards of lentil crackers in another Fraser melée I can’t imagine anyone else doing.
Rustic potato skins achieve new status in this wizardly dish. Photo: Steven Richter
If you don’t like it, you might call it eccentric rather than original. An amuse of sesame-flecked mystery paste studded in a celery stick? “The chef’s play on ants on a log,” the waiter says with a grin. No, it’s not cheese, it’s an amalgam of duck fat powder with tapioca maltodextrin. (I am sorry I asked.)
Smartly rare arctic char gets a smart fennel jelly wrap. Photo: Steven Richter
Then, just as we’re asking, “Will there be bread?,” needing something to spoon up the last of the delicious onion cream in the dish alongside, a runner drops off garlic knots streaked with Gruyère, fresh from the oven and too hot to taste for several minutes. But finally, delicious indeed.
A gift of foie gras from the kitchen comes with broken bread crisps on top - a dish Fraser is working on for a new menu, he explains. Alas, it is fiercely salty. I wonder if he’s tasted it. Sweetbreads courageously left in large chunks, braised, cooled and then pan roasted in butter, wearing discs of pear on a rubble of cabbage, ham hocks and wild rice are sadly overcooked. Can’t remember if that came before or after my glass of water toppled off the edge of our two uneven tables, pushed together in a pop-up improvisation.
Roasted carrot and stuffed buckwheat crepes add luster to guinea hen. Photo: Steven Richter.
Richly moist guinea hen cured before roasting and dressed with a whole roasted carrot, radicchio and flash-seared carrot greens in an orange vinaigrette is a triumph. Layered buckwheat crepes stuffed with the bird’s lightly smoked leg, Emmenthal and turnip on béchamel make it a luscious duo. Lamb loin is just lamb, beautifully cooked, a gesture for the cautious eater, decked out with barley, leeks and chestnut.
No tricks to the lamb loin, just perfect cooking. Photo: Steven Richter.
We’ve been watching the dessert charioteer ply the aisles and now it’s our turn. Before we can choose, she announces the chef wants us to have one of each offering: Perfect Brillat Savarin and Tome de Berger on our cheese plate and a dazzling trifecta of sweets. Smooth vanilla rice pudding with the Spanish almond rice milk drink, Horchata, wearing a chapeau of citrus marmalade. Popcorn crème brulée with caramel and salted butter. A dark chocolate pudding on graham cracker crust with marshmallow pom-poms. There is more salt in broken pieces of toffee-coffee chocolate bark that come with the bill. Credit cards only, the menu has warned. “Paper money in a restaurant setting is cumbersome and risky,” Fraser tells me next next day.
The dazzle of this sweetbread dish is marred by over-cooking. Photo: Steven Richter.
It’s after 11 and What Happens is emptying, leaving a hearty band of ten o’clock arrivals still eating when Fraser heads out the door to check in at Dovetail. “I’m working around the clock,” he confides. “But I have terrific teams at both restaurants. This project will become fun when we are fully organized. It really is a dream project even if it doesn’t leave much room for sleep.”
Have both the popcorn crème brulée and this mellow chocolate tart. Photo: Steven Richter.
The chef isn’t sure What Happens, with its evolving menu and changing design each month, will make money, “And I’m really not that concerned if it does or not,” he says. “The fixed costs are large and so is the risk, but that’s what this is about: taking chances and growth, pushing the limits and boundaries of what a restaurant can be.” With his partners here, composer Silver and designers Elle Kunnos de Voss and Emilie Baltz, he’s gone to Kickstarter, a micro lending sight for financial backup.
Got a design idea? Put in $5 on Kickstarter and join the 359 backers who have already invested a total of $23,000. Get your name added to the wall of honor leading to the bathroom.
25 Cleveland Place between Spring and Kenmare. 212 925 8310. Dinner only Tuesday through Sunday 5:30 pm to 10 pm.