I attended the recently concluded three-day pop-up dining experience billed as “Bubba Southern Comforts.” Even at $60 ($75 with the booze) per person, the dinner was totally sold out. From the promotional material, Bubba is the brainchild of Chris “Bubba” Diebel. Mr. Diebel (a Texan by background I am told) works for a marketing firm that handles branding for Orchestrate Hospitality. Orchestrate Hospitality is the outfit usually identified with Chef George Formaro’s restaurants. For this Bubba affair, Orchestrate’s Corporate Chef Scott Stroud was pulled in to help develop and produce the wide variety of southern menu items. Other chefs from a number of Orchestrate locations were also brought in to help.
When a lot of people think of southern food they automatically think of Cajun or New Orleans style food. Well, that is certainly southern but it is not really the concept that Bubba tries to deliver. I think that the goal is provide the sort of food that Aunt Bee (from the TV show Mayberry R.F.D.) might have cooked up for the Sheriff.
I have to say that there were no ringers in that menu. Our party ordered up just about everything on the menu and it was all good. Beginning with the first course, the fried green tomatoes were quite good, hitting that sweet spot between crunchy and drippy good, courtesy of the herb oil, buttermilk dipping sauce and arugula. I tried the Shrimp & Grits. Southerners love their grits and I’ve had my share, especially when banished to summer camp in the south as a kid. I did learn not to get in between a southern boy and his morning grits or to say anything that impugned the dignity of grits. The grits were, well, grits, but the shrimp was quite good. The smoked brisket was another feature from the first course. It was described as “Succulent, sooo good” by the pure Midwesterner in our group. I tried a bite and agree.
The second course included another four choices. I stuck with the hard-core southern dish and ordered Gumbo, with chicken, shrimp & Andouille sausage. The sausage had just enough spice to keep it interesting. I know that we also ordered the Butternut Squash Bisque and Bubba Salad. The third course was where the menu really got going, with an unusual Chicken & Waffles. I had to look this up to see if it was something people really ate and found that it is! The diner in our party that ordered the Chicken and Waffles declared the chicken to be the most tender and succulent chicken breast that she had ever tried. I ordered the Sweet Tea Braised Pork. The pork had the texture of meat that had been slow cooked in a lot of juice but retained its own flavor. Everything ended with a flourish of southern-inspired desserts, including peach cobbler and an almond and white chocolate bread pudding. Wow, it was a lot of food and I’ll confess wasn’t able to pack it all away. But it was very satisfying in a big family dinner sort of way.
I can’t skip the cocktail pairings. First, there was a free punch for all to try, as well as a bar for those who wanted to just try a single drink. If you went for the whole flight at a cost of only $15 more than the base $60 per ticket cost, then you got enough cocktail to drown a sailor. There was a cocktail to go with each course and I’m pretty sure that they threw in an extra cocktail just for fun. The first course cocktail was Bulleit Bourbon Julep. It was surprisingly well done. I will definitely have to make me some of that, and I won’t wait until a hot summer day to do it. Next up was a Smirnoff Carolina Blue Lemonade, followed by the George Dickel Prohibition Southern Tea. I ran out of drinking steam by the time I got about half way through the tea but there was nothing wrong with that tea! The Carolina Blue was also worth it. Of course, if I had known there would be this much booze I wouldn’t have chugged down so much punch before the meal even started. Oddly enough, all those drinks didn’t seem to get my BCA all that high (I still had and used a designated driver). I must attribute that effect to the use of what I’d call “classic” amounts of ingredients in each cocktail. That means that the bartender or “mixologist” was delivering the drinks as originally intended. You see a lot of cocktails offered lately in gigantic 8 oz. martini glasses (more like portable punch bowls). That is just not how its supposed to be done and the Bubba crew kept it all interesting. There was certainly a lot of food to help down the drinks, so that assisted as well.
So, how is a pop-up compared to a regular venue? Well, I like the idea of a different location for dinner. I also like the creativity that went into the design of this meal. One thing that a pop-up allows a chef to do is to experiment with both the concepts and the food. You are not risking the reputation of an established clientele who have certain unwavering expectations to be met. The daring and adventurous can be fed both an experience and some interesting food. The perishable nature of the event itself also lends a certain ephemeral air. The Hoyt Sherman Mansion offered a very dignified location in keeping with the Southern theme (ignoring the havoc wrecked by Hoyt Sherman’s brother on a lot of real southern mansions during his March to the Sea, perhaps the central event of the Civil War which caused hard feelings to this very day.)
I hope to see more pop-ups around town. They are great fun and a nice way to experience something that is here today and gone tomorrow — a characteristic of great fresh food.