Perhaps it is my New England roots, with deep-seated memories of long winters, that scarred me, or maybe the atypical gray skies that hang over a Mississippi winter, but regardless of the cause, every January I find myself looking around for something to beat the short six weeks of my winter funk. With the forsythia in bloom this weekend, I know I ought not complain, but nevertheless, I do. Fortunately, for the last three years, renowned James Beard winning Oxford Chef, John Currence has provided me a glimmer of excitement, just when I needed it most, by hosting weekly pop-up dinners. The tradition began when his flagship restaurant, City Grocery, was undergoing a kitchen renovation and he recognized the importance of supporting his staff during the downtime. His solution was to host a casual, street-food themed series in his catering space, inviting chefs in from across the south to showcase their cuisine. Back in the City Grocery kitchen, in 2014, he hosted a more formal pre-fixe menu as a fundraiser for Rodney Scott's BBQ rebuild, again hosting regional chefs like Ashley Christensen. This year, in support of the University Medical Center Children's Hospital Fund, Currence announced a four-part series featuring the likes of Kelly English, Asha Gomez and Vishwesh Bhatt, Corbin Evans and Currence himself serving up a Chinese menu.
As a long-time fan of Snackbar's corporate chef, Vishwesh Bhatt, who serves a French Brasserie menu with hints of Indian spices, I looked forward to him pairing up with Atlanta chef Asha Gomez for a full on Indian menu. The Mumbai Mississippi pop-up seemed like a perfectly, spicy antidote to my January blues. We scored a cozy seat at the bar with a great view of the bustling kitchen and began with the masala bread omelet. Made with onions, green chilies, tomatoes, cilantro and a chili sauce, the omelet was served over white bread that was moist and sticky like a French toast; comfort food at its finest.
Bright and fresh, and a nice balance to the warm and savory omelet, the cabbage kachumber was a coleslaw-like salad consisting of shredded raw cabbage, carrots, hot green chilies, cilantro, mint, peanuts, and lime juice. Mustard seeds and chaat masala, a spice that typically contains cumin, ginger, coriander and chili, provided wonderful Indian notes.
The kutchi dabeli, fried potato slider sandwiches, are a brilliant veggie burger option. Served with a green cilantro chutney and a sweet date chutney, they had just enough of the sweet and spicy flavor going on to break up the pleasant denseness.
If you are of the meat eating type, the khima pao, a dish of minced lamb and beef, spiced with onions, ginger and garam masala, and piled on top of a soft, buttered and toasted bun, would be my recommendation.
In typical southern fashion our friendly, fellow bar-mate Lisa Donovan, a pastry chef from Nashville and author of the Buttermilk Road Sunday Supper blog, insisted we try a piece of her fried chicken dish and we were not disappointed. The crispy and garlicky fried boneless chicken had a sweet mango drizzle with an accompaniment of roasted curry leaves.
Lastly, Mark and I both ordered the kerala shrimp salad. The green chili, garlic shrimp were served over seasonal fresh fruit, tossed in a lime-cardamom dressing. This dish was a wonderfully light way to wrap up our experience.
Currence didn't announce the 2015 pop-ups until mid-January this year and I found myself with mild agita about how to get through the winter. I joke, yet these pop-ups have become an Oxford tradition, one that provides a respite from our doldrums between SEC football and baseball. They are an opportunity to taste and get to know chefs from around the south. They provide a reason to bundle up against our 45-degree weather on an otherwise boring Monday night. And most importantly, each year they generously support a good cause.