Earlier in the month I’d announced that I’d be doing a pop-up dinner with Restaurant Alma in Minneapolis, centered on Indian cooking of the type I mostly do at home. The pop-up took place this past Friday evening. 70 diners, spread across two seatings, ate a range of dishes served over four courses. I was very nervous going into this project—though much less so the closer we got to the night of—but I thought it went very well. Not all the diners may agree, of course, but I was very happy with the food as cooked by the restaurant under my direction and thought the menu hung together well.
If you follow me on Twitter or on Instagram, you may have already seen/scrolled past my recap of the experience, but I thought I’d put it together on the blog as well in one, more readable package. Here it is.
Your first question may be about the name. It comes from a series of dinners I did at home for 2-3 years before the pandemic. Those were dinners for 8 and featured 5-7 courses of Indian dishes that were a mix of very traditional, very untraditional, and somewhere in between. These dinners were very popular with their audience—which was entirely friends and friends of friends here in our small Minnesota town. When I was sending out the invite to the first dinner, I realized I needed a name for it. My first thought was “Spice Club”. My second thought was that Spice Club sounds like a swingers party (not that there’s anything wrong with that). As I desperately tried to think of other names, all that came to mind were variations on the names that many Indian restaurants in the US sport—most of which seem to have emerged from the same cliche generator. Finally, I gave up and decided to just smash many of these cliched signifiers of Indianness together. And so, India’s Gandhi Tandoori Bollywood Mahal. It was an affectionate tribute to/sendup of the naming conventions of Indian restaurants in the US; and hopefully it also signaled an attitude.
When Alma first approached me in December to see if I would be interested in doing a pop-up with them, it was my experience with these earlier dinners that emboldened me to even think about it. I knew I had a format that worked—it was the question of scale (in every sense) and of cooking in an elaborate restaurant kitchen that unnerved me. But the name came naturally with the format. I wasn’t sure if they would go for it, but they were completely into it. Their graphic designer came up with a lovely image that leaned into the strip mall settings of so many beloved neighbourhood restaurants with names like India’s Tandoori etc.. As to what the diners thought of it, I don’t know.
Alma’s chefs had been following my Instagram cooking Reels and their interest was in doing the kinds of dishes I’ve been documenting there. This fit perfectly with my own desires, which had to do with not doing (takes on) the kind of food that is readily available in Indian restaurants here and instead with introducing people to dishes and flavours from different parts of the country; and also to dishes that mix ingredients and approaches from different regions in India and even abroad. In other words, contemporary Indian cooking of the kind that many Indians do—if not always a kind of cooking that is visible in the ways that Indian food is written about in the West or, for that matter, in India.
The menu came together very quickly. The only complication was that right after discussing the first draft of it I disappeared to India for most of January. But we emailed and Google doc’d our way through it and had it in place before the middle of January. I brought some ingredients back from Delhi and Goa with it in mind. After getting back to Minnesota and getting over jet lag, I went over to the restaurant and demo’d the dishes for them. Two of the dishes they had actually prepared test versions of for me based on my descriptions of them and these were already exactly as I would have wanted them to be. And so I knew before the demo even started that it would take no more than one pass for them to see how I was making everything and then do it better. Which is exactly what happened. I went in early on the day of the event to taste and make adjustments to things if needed and, unsurprisingly, found I did not need to do anything except make the spicy chutney to go with the first course.
And so, the food:
- First up, an opening snack of spiced almonds. Regular meals at Alma always feature spiced Marcona almonds on the table when people sit down and here we did it with chaat masala in the mix.
- The chop which opened the meal was cooked in a fairly traditional Bengali way (though the crumbs were panko) but the use of smoked fish in the filling is a little less so. Smoked Arctic char was Alma’s chef de cuisine Maggie (Whelan)’s suggestion. (This is the fish version of the recipe for chops I have on the blog.) I fashioned a spicy tomato “chutney” to go with it. It featured ketchup, gochujang, fish sauce, balsamic vinegar, sugar and dark sesame oil in proportions I would be happy to give you if I’d bothered writing everything down as I was putting it together—I had a template I liked but predictably departed from it on the evening of.
- The most traditional dish was the shaak & kashundi in the mid-course. It occupied the place it would in a formal Bengali meal: sauteed bitter greens to brace the palate before the bigger dishes. It was finished with excellent kashundi I’d brought back from Delhi. This recipe is also on the blog.
- The second dish in the mid-course was less traditional. Instead of dal, I decided to make beans, in a manner in the borderlands between Punjab and Mexico. This meant some of the spices that go into rajma + 100% chocolate and chipotle peppers. This was a variation on the Double Brown Beans I’ve posted a recipe for on the blog. This dish’s Alma touch was a “tadka” of crisped up duck confit (also Maggie’s idea). The beans themselves were Vaqueros from Rancho Gordo.
- The main course also had two dishes. First, a dry-style pork curry from somewhere between Goa and Chettinad. I used Goan coconut vinegar and some of Grass Hamlet’s excellent cane jaggery—both of which I brought back from India in January. In place of tirphal I used its first cousin, Sichuan peppercorn. This was a variation on my recipe for Red Pork on the blog.
- The second main looked like Parsi patra ni machhi but the green masala the fish was steamed with in the banana leaf was not made as in canonical patra ni machhi and so I did not give it that name. You can get a sense of how the paste/sauce for the fish was made—plus the history of how this family recipe mutated from the Parsi original—in my recipe for Green Masala Fish. Here we came full circle and combined the non-canonical sauce with the canonical steaming in banana leaves.
- The pork was served with house-made sweet rolls and the fish with sweet pulao, the recipe for which is also on the blog.
- To end, spiced shortbread cookies. They make a lot of shortbread cookies in house and we Indianized them with cardamom seed and ajwain a la my own spiced shortbread. This was served with Cafe Alma’s frothy house masala chai.
And that was that.
For a look at the setup and the dishes, launch the slideshow below. I’m afraid I only took pictures with my cellphone and they’re not very good. But it should give you a sense of how things looked. Scroll down for a bit more on the meal and how it was prepared.
We’d set up the menu so that very little needed to be prepared a la minute/right at service. As you may know, many Indian braised or stewed dishes and curries actually benefit from sitting to let the spices meld before being reheated. The beans were made earlier in the day and the pork curry with vinegar was made the day before. For the fish steamed in banana leaves, the paste the fish was steamed with was made ahead; the fish was wrapped with the paste in banana leaves an hour before and held; and then finished right before service. Similarly, the deep-fried chop that opened the proceedings had been assembled and breaded ahead of time and hit the deep-fryer a few minutes before service. The duck confit that topped the beans was crisped up before service. The only thing that was cooked from scratch was the sauteed chard. And, of course, the spiced shortbread cookies had been made ahead as well.
This dinner was a true collaboration. I was working directly with Alma’s Chef de Cuisine, Maggie Whelan and executive chef, Lucas Rosenbrook. They were as open to everything I wanted to do as you would expect if you’ve eaten Alma’s globally informed American food over the years. The ideas of putting smoked Arctic char in the chop and topping the beans with crisp duck confit were both Maggie’s and they were dynamite. The chaat masala-spiced almonds were conceived and made entirely by her. She also baked seven different types of rolls and then re-baked three finalists to see which came closest to what I wanted! And she’s the one who fired the dishes/components that needed to be cooked/finished at service (the chops, the greens, and the confit). Another chef shaped 70+ chops so that they were identical; she also wrapped all the fish in banana leaves in the amount of time it took me to mix the chutney. Everything was more precisely, more carefully, more calmly done than if I had been cooking alone. Lucas, meanwhile, took a break from his usual responsibilities and handled the expediting of the dishes.
And that was that. I would have liked to have given a brief intro to the idea of the meal at the start and also briefly each course as it was served but it was really not possible. I was helping with service and so managed to tell most tables about at least one or two dishes. That said, I’m not sure everyone would have been interested. I got the sense that a good number were not there because they were particularly interested in Indian food but just because the idea of going to a pop-up dinner at a well-known restaurant was enticing. And I suspect—maybe paranoically—that a few would probably have preferred to have been served North Indian restaurant food of the kind they are more familiar with. So it goes. On the other hand, there were a bunch of diners who were really thrilled with the experience and wanted to know how everything was made etc. and that made me very happy.
Our boys attended the dinner as well. They were very disappointed that I was not wearing a giant chef’s hat but they did enjoy the special dinner Alma made for them. They did a few of the things from the menu but their main event was a special order of burgers (they each got an “Alma Double”). It was great as well to have some friends in the room and also to meet a bunch of blog readers who came out as well. Thanks to any of you who are reading along. I hope you enjoyed your meal as much as we enjoyed eating the staff meal in the kitchen afterwards. And if you have thoughts you’d be willing to share on what worked better than others or things you think didn’t work so well, I’d love to hear from you (in the comments or privately, as you prefer). Oh, and the 2-top that no showed for the second seating: I have some friends who couldn’t get tickets before the dinner sold out who’d like a word with you…
Many thanks as well to Steve from Rancho Gordo for rushing 15 lbs of Vaquero beans to us when I decided with not very much time to go that those were the beans I’d like to use—and also for then refusing to take payment. It was a bit touch and go but the beans arrived safely an hour or so before the huge snow storm began last week!
Would I do it again? It was a lot of fun and I’d love to do it again. But not anytime soon. I did the least amount of work on Friday but was still utterly exhausted at the end of the evening (and still tired on Saturday). I am very grateful to Alma, obviously, for this opportunity/experience. Many thanks as well to everyone who urged me to take Alma up on this opportunity when they approached me in December. I’m not a trained chef and have never worked in a restaurant and was not sure I could pull it off (and didn’t want to drag them down with me). But a bunch of friends (you know who you are) convinced me I’d be crazy to not do it. I would indeed have been crazy to not do it. As it happens, Friday was also my birthday. This was a very unique and special way to celebrate it.
This sounds amazing both in terms of the experience it must have been for you MAO and the food served – thanks for sharing it here & happy birthday!
This is worthy of a big applause! 👏🏼
The restaurant is absolutely beautiful, the graphic poster is so cool, and the food sounds amazing. Did your family get to dine?
We truly loved it. Going in we had confidence in Alma’s ability to execute, were familiar with your website/cooking and up for an Indian meal surprise. The experience did not disappoint. Thank you again.
I’m very glad to hear it. Do let me know if we chatted at some point in the evening.