From the birth of reality TV cooking shows, we have seen ordinary Australians turn into budding chefs. This also encouraged people at home to start honing their cooking skills, showing off to friends. Some wanna be chefs are dipping their toes into the foray of pop up dining. This is exactly what good friends Anston and Evelyn have done with The Playground.
Anston is from Dubai with United Arab Emirates and Sri Lankan family background. Evelyn's background is Malaysian. They met at work and through their passion for cooking and sharing their favourite cultural dishes with friends, they soon found they were getting a buzz out of feeding people in a relaxed environment. They came up with the concept of creating a dinner party type dining experience, where you could enjoy unusual cultural dishes while making new friends.
I was invited along with other popular food bloggers to attend the dry run of The Playground before the official first opening on the 26th September. The invite said it would be an evening featuring food from the United Arab Emirates. The evening was held at a secret location in Bondi Junction disclosed only a few days prior to the event. We walked in and found a spacious room decked out in Bedouin theme, a large floor rug surrounded by cushions and candles.
We were greeted warmly with a glass of wine and dates from Dubai. My friend and I settled down on the cushions slightly awkwardly. There was quite a bit of shuffling around to get the legs in a comfy pose without putting my feet on the eating area. I've never been good at yoga poses and was thinking I could never live like a Bedouin eating like this in tents. Apart from that, I was still keen to enjoy the experience - at least for one night.
After popping a couple of sweet dates from Dubai, the first round of starters came out. Delicious freshly baked Al Manaqeesh (Zaatar bread) sprinkled with a mix of herbs and spices - thyme, oregano, sumac, toasted sesame seeds and a drizzle of olive oil along with Hummus made with chickpeas and homemade tahini .
Next dish was Fried Okra & Spiced Goat. Unfortunately I was last in line of the servings and as it was an evening for food bloggers, everyone was busy taking their photos. It was cold when it finally came my way but I wolfed some down and had to agree it was quite tasty and looked fabulous.
Yet another dish was served and this time it was Balaeet, a ramadan favourite made with soft sweetened vermicelli, grounded spices, shredded omelette and sprinkled with roasted pistachios. This was I have to say a rather interesting dish as I had never had such sweet noodles with what resembled to be a scrambled type egg on top. Some of the guests really loved it, but it was slightly on the too sweet side for me.
After the Balaeet, Anston was whipping up the batter for the dessert Luqaimat. Apparently it had to be made just before cooking to get the right consistency. The fact that we could all see the kitchen and have a friendly chat to Anston made it feel like a private dinner party.
Apart from the pins and needles in my legs from sitting on the cushions it was proving to be quite an array of food. We were all wondering how we could fit more in. I opted for small portions as I have always been a lover of dessert and needed to leave space.
Interesting desserts, one called Knafeh which is roasted vermicelli with sweet cheese, rose water syrup and a watermelon and mint salad. I was too full to consume much of this dish and found it slightly salty rather than sweet but others were eating theirs in big spoonfuls.
My favourite dessert was the Luqaimat. Deliciously sweet crunchy fried batter covered in date syrup and flaked almonds. I didn't get a chance to get a photo as that one went in my mouth faster than you can say "Jack Robinson".
I had to conclude that in my opinion the secret to the success of a good pop up restaurant is the creators should go in with the mindset of not making money, but more of making a good impression. The aim to creating a unique experience with awesome food, decor and seamless service. I could see that Anston and Evelyn were keen to do this and though at this point I felt there was a couple of minor details to iron out for the big event, I could equally see they had the enthusiasm and the desire to give it their best shot.
It's very crucial I think to nail the whole experience before opening to the paying public. Nailing it to me means that every detail from the moment a guest walks in from the themed decor, table settings, food and service must be at a premium, especially if you are charging restaurant prices. I'm pretty sure that there will be even more fine tweaking on this event in regard to decor and menu so that when they are ready to open they will nail it.
In saying all this, to really enjoy pop up dining, you must keep an open mind that it is a unique experience - enjoying food while forming new friendships.
Click here to like The Playground Facebook page and stay up to date with their events or to book their first official event on 26 September 2015.
I'm a big fan of pop up restaurants. Being from the U.S....they have been around a long while. The secret seems to be in doing a few things extraordinary...mainly the food, service and price. My favourite pop up place in NYC was in a horrible location where you sat outside...but the amount of meat in the burgers, great taste and cheap price made this place busy all the time. It's still there three years on as I just visited it in July:)