Like water funneling down the tract of the Colorado River, it often takes a while for some of the nation’s culinary trends to work their way into America’s Finest City. That’s not to say we are not without our own brand of gastro-inspired innovation — we have talented chefs and artisans doing interesting and exciting work all over town — but when it comes to things such as gourmet food trucks and molecular gastronomy, in typical San Diego fashion, we catch the wave rather than make it.
Such is the case with the latest dining trend to crash on our coastal shores: the “pop-up” restaurant. A dining medium in which a chef sets up shop in an existing restaurant for anywhere from a few days to a few weeks, bringing in their own ingredients, staff, and decor, the pop-up concept was brought to the forefront of American dining culture in Los Angeles by chef Ludo Lefebvre.
After taking leave of the professional kitchen in 2009, Lefebvre, a French-born chef who made a name for himself heading brigades at L.A.’s L’Orangerie and Bastide, embarked on a quest to bring his creatively whimsical, forward-thinking fare to the dining public at an affordable price. In a surprising move, he worked out a deal with L.A.’s Breadbar, a restaurant open only for breakfast and lunch, wherein he would take control of the venue by night to create a temporary restaurant of his own, LudoBites, which would operate for a finite, predetermined number of days.
The concept was an instant hit among foodies and star-chef devotees who savored the opportunity to get limited-edition edibles Lefebvre describes as a direct expression of himself. It was such a success that the concept has spread throughout L.A. and all the way to New York City. Last September, Lefebvre wrapped up LudoBites 6.0, the sixth iteration of his pop-up at Max Restaurant in Sherman Oaks.
One of the kitchen commandos who helped make the last several LudoBites operations a hit is chef Dan Moody, aka “The Relation Chef,” and he’s the toque who’s made it his mission to ensure that the trend trickled south to San Diego. This he’s done courtesy of Relate Restaurant, a pop-up he set up at St. Germain’s Cafe in Encinitas February 3–26.
“I have roots in San Diego,” said Moody, shortly before opening Relate. “I have a support network here and am familiar with the community. It’s natural for me to do it here. I think San Diego is ready for the concept.”
While a bit confounded by this revolutionary idea, San Diegans proved Moody’s theory correct, booking reservations well ahead of his grand opening and showing up to survey the scene for themselves. I was one of those curious diners and what I was most pleased to discover was a restaurant with a lot of heart behind it, one that clearly communicated the culinary point of view of the chef. The menu, from amuse bouche to dessert, was all Moody. It’s one of the reasons he’s drawn to the pop-up.
“There’s total freedom. I get to do whatever I want,” he says. “I don’t have an owner telling me, ‘You can do this’ or ‘You can’t do that.’ I have complete control in the kitchen.”
That’s not to say it’s all about him. Moody, though confident in his abilities and determined to cook his food his way, realizes that his plates must convey quality above all else or, as with any restaurant, people will stop coming. More than that, with the popularity of opinionated sites like Yelp and a high level of interest in a trendy new pop-up, if the quality isn’t there, word will get around so fast that reservations of prospective guests might well be canceled.
Even before Relate opened, there was no shortage of skeptics with justifiable concerns. I’ve heard of famous chefs doing pop-up restaurants, but who is this chef I’ve never heard of, and why should I care? Are pop-ups for chefs who can’t cut it, who can’t put up with the heat of a regular restaurant kitchen? What sort of food can I expect from a place where there’s, essentially, no accountability? — I mean, the place is closing in a few weeks, whether the food’s good or not.
As with any restaurant, such questions must be tackled on a case-by-case basis, but in the case of Relate, Moody was likely the individual best suited to debut this concept in San Diego. Having worked so closely with Lefebvre, he avoided some hiccups and brought forth a proven, authentic version versus the best-guess take a novice would have produced. On top of that, as the heart logo on his chef’s whites suggests, he legitimately cares about doing right by himself, his food, his restaurant, and San Diego diners. It will be sad to see that passion pack up and move out of its temporary space on South Coast Highway.
When asked about future plans, Moody says his next move is up in the air, but he’s certain there are other pop-ups in his future and that they will pop up somewhere in San Diego County, as well as areas in and around Scottsdale, Arizona. To keep apprised of Relate 2.0 and beyond, consult relaterestaurant.com or follow updates at @twitter.com/_RELATE_.
You can follow and friend Brandon Hernández at twitter.com/offdutyfoodie and facebook.com/offdutyfoodie. ■