This Is Not A Pop-Up

So they say.  Or at least, the powers behind the destination-hopping Pret a diner have decreed it so, in spikily black capitals, nonetheless, designed to reassure, or perhaps, apologise.  Why?  The word pop-up has become a dirty word in dining circles, likely to be greeted with sighs of ennui or mass-eye-rolling of epileptic proportions.  The concept, it seems, has been done to death: what began a few years ago as something spontaneous, underground and for select insiders has evolved into something decidedly de trop.

Now there are places that want to feed us sprouting up everywhere: in disused warehouses, in art galleries, at festivals, in your neighbour’s back-garden, for a month, a week, an hour: exhausting.  It is the transience of these dining rooms that appears to offend; pouffing and evaporating in a merry-go-round of stop and start – nothing is permanent these days, not even the cutlery.  There is a certain, brittle flimsiness in this conjuring up and diassembling, like the pleasure-dome palaces in air of the Kubla Khan.  It is enough to send one running to the nearest Establishment with a capital E: restaurants with years-worth of credentials and solid dependability, with their own bricks and mortar, and an actual lease.

There’s no doubt that Pret a diner are addressing this recent backlash toward the faddiness and pretensions of the pop up, but, ironically, are seeking temporary shelter in the establishment’s very heart – St James’s in Mayfair, home to ancient private member’s enclaves, and round the corner from institutions like The Ritz and The Wolseley.

50 St James’s, for fifty days.  It is all sweeping staircases and Byzantine balustrades; chandeliers made from champagne bottles and menus from newspapers; scrawled neon installations and the ostentatious presence of a DJ, complete with booth.  Barbed wire and basketball nets are an urban riposte to the gentrified surroundings, counter-balancing effusive floral arrangements in what feels like the candle-lit grotto of a (probably Italian) Count.

The Italians Do It Better, apparently, by showcasing a rich culinary history that finds room for both Tuscan peasant fare and slick Milanese sophistication.  In the context of these two extremes there was, however, unfortunate scope for both highs and lows.  Cauliflower and apple amouse-bouche was a joyful marriage of both taste and texture, as was an ecstatically inspired starter of beef tartare with basil ice-cream.  Salty, intense octopus, iron-rich on a bed of potatoes, was the only dish that spoke truly of humble, coastal fisherman origins.  Bread in a brown paper bag was bizarrely inedible; photogenically glazed slivers of salmon alarmingly oversmoked, and an entire starter of ricotta courgette flower in tomato water neither as elegant or appetising as promised by the hymn sung to it on the menu.  Veal shoulder with roasted figs, zinging enticingly with vanilla, was near-fautless, and sweet, glossy duck breast in raspberry rich but rewarding.

Prices are steep, and not always justified when measured against the plates of food alone.  The staff, though, were delightfully friendly, despite not being entirely well-versed in the intricacies of the menu’s detailing.  There are other pop-up places to eat this week which seem more fun and take themselves far less seriously – Beard to Tail for instance, or The Seagrass.  But then I remember the masterpiece that was the tartare of beef, paired lovingly with piquant rhubarb and milky mozzarella and an embarrassingly ambrosial basil ice-cream.  I’ll probably dream about it for weeks.  And then go to the Wolseley.