I’m sitting in a Wellington flat eating the best bowl of ramen I have had in this country and my taste buds tell me I must be at a really great restaurant. Another part of me thinks I’m at a dinner party with friends. Maybe I’ve stumbled into some kind of ramen cult; a secret society obsessed with noodle perfection. It’s actually a Townhouse Ramen pop-up, raising money for the Mental Health Foundation. Townhouse Ramen is one of the smallest pop-ups going around, but there is nothing pretentious or exclusive about it.

It’s just a passion project on a very small scale operating at a very high level, part of a bigger picture of excellent cooking happening in fleeting moments in unconventional spaces. 2019 might just have been the year that New Zealand dining pop-ups grew up.

People love the idea of a one-off eating experience. That sense that you’re getting something rare and fleeting, going out of your way to experience ‘the thing’ because you’ve done the work, you’ve read all the blogs, watched all the YouTube videos and now your taste buds can benefit from all that research. Case in point, the recent one-day In-N-Out Burger pop-up in Kingsland went bonkers. Huge crowds lined up in the summer heat for a taste of one of the simplest burgers on the planet. I love In-N-Out and must admit I went straight to one last time I got off the plane in Los Angeles, but you can replicate them at home in a much shorter time than that queue took!

‘Pop up’ is such a loose term that it gets rather hijacked by PR teams putting on pointless events for giant sub-standard US donut brands, or co-opted by clothing brand sale shops; but don’t be distracted, there are truly unique eating experiences to be had right now, and it feels like a style of dining that has gone through its initial fad phase and become an established (albeit ephemeral) part of the dining landscape.

Conor Mertens and Carly Blacks’ roving pop-up, Chimera, has been blowing away diners from Auckland to New York, serving next-level cuisine alongside game-changing wines, even convincing the stunning natural producer Halcyon Days to make a special Chimera cuvée. Last September they spent a week at 2018 Cuisine restaurant of the year, Cocoro, collaborating with chef and owner, Makoto Tokuyama. Chimera’s deceptively simple, produce-driven food comfortably cohabitated with that of one of the best restaurants New Zealand has ever seen. The boundaries between formal and casual, establishment and renegade are dissolving as chefs and eaters seek out ever more exciting moments. Be it the refined surrounds of Cocoro or the come-as-you-are vibe of La Fuente (the mezcal bar where Chimera most recently set up shop) ultimately it’s the food that people are coming for.

Emma Ogilvie and Nick Landsman, the young couple behind the über-du-jour La Pêche, took the Auckland food scene rather by surprise by translating their full-blown party vibe into one of the best openings of the year with Celéste on K Road. Celéste is very good and it showed that running pop-ups is a pretty wonderful training ground. I’d expect that same party spirit to flair up at Celéste for one-off nights of different cultural flavours.

Carlo Buenaventura is a much-loved face in the Auckland restaurant scene but it’s his Cult Project pop-ups you need to check out, offering his modern take on southern Filipino ‘sutuki’ dining. The Cult Project has been popping up for a number of years now and that’s just the thing – it might be fleeting, it might be outside the mainstream, but there’s nothing gimmicky about it.

It’s just the way Buenaventura has found to get his vision out there. It’s got to be nice for restaurateurs to have a break and hand over their precious spaces to safe hands like The Cult Project and Chimera. In summer 2018, Michael Hazelwood, then chef at the natural-wine destination restaurant Auberge de Chassignolles, took over Rita for ‘Hazey Days’, serving great wine alongside unfussy French food and making great use of an otherwise shuttered business.

It’s easy to see the adventurous wine lists of pop-ups (often involving collabs with Dan Gillett of Wine Diamonds and Clay, or winemakers like The Hermit Ram, Halcyon Days or Kindeli) influencing more established joints.

When celebrity chef Morgan McGlone brings Belles Hot Chicken to New Zealand for pop-ups at events like Wellington On A Plate the punters go nuts for it, and his energy and experience has had a clear impact around the country. It was during WOAP’s Burger Wellington that Shepherd tried out their Goldburger concept as a two week pop-up. Goldburger is here to stay, as is Culprit’s Lowbrow, and you don’t need to queue up for hours on end for a burger like the In-N-Out pop-up.

However, Townhouse serving six bowls of soup at a time doesn’t feel like a market-testing ground. Quite the opposite: it’s free from that sense of commerce; it’s dining at a scale to suit a chef on an inquisitive journey. It’s a special experience for the diner for sure, but it’s also special for the chef, being able to craft and perfect outside of the game.

One can only assume signing on to a commercial lease is a bit terrifying, and if pop-ups continue to be this good and continue to be such a good breeding ground for talent then what’s the rush?

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