I was lucky. That much was clear from the moment I walked in the door. Carissa’s, the minimalist bakery and restaurant space on Pantigo Road that baker-restaurateur Carissa Waechter opened last July, was hosting a pop-up event called Saigon Social. Three nights of seatings (Valentine’s Day and the two days following) had sold out almost immediately. My seat at the bar was coveted real estate.
Group dinners as a blend of theater and culinary boundary pushing have gained traction on the East End. At Almond, in Bridgehampton, Jason Weiner has hosted more than a few. Last fall, Jeremy Blutstein cooked a coursed meal with wine pairings at Showfish, in Montauk. Just a few weeks ago, Nick & Toni’s hosted a collaborative game bird dinner that showcased the birds of D’Artagnan and the prowess of several local chefs.
For these dinners, guests are often seated with strangers, encouraging a communal experience. Menus are set. Drinks are extra. The experience itself is the curated product of a chef’s invention and the capability of the restaurant.
In the case of Carissa’s, the pop-up showcased the work of Helen Nguyen, a Daniel alum known for her Saigon Social dinners. Her brick-and-mortar restaurant in the city is slated to open this spring. For $100 per person, diners were treated to five courses, as well as desserts and appetizers. The room was full, the buzz palpable. This might have been the hardest reservation in town to land that holiday weekend.
This particular pop-up started with a wooden board of small bites: Goi Cuon (a tiny garden spring roll), Boi Tai Rau Ram (heady beef tartare, dry-aged); and Ca Ri Ga (chicken curry served atop a dissolving chip). The flavors reminded me of my travels in Vietnam, aromatic all. Two specialty cocktails — one made with mezcal and chiles, the other with vodka and Thai basil — were the undeniable hits of the dining room.
The first plated course was the Goi Buoi, a pomelo salad made savory with the addition of crispy fried shallots. The ruby red segments of pomelo were a bright and lovely surprise on a dismal February evening. So was the So Diep Nuong Mo Hanh, a trio of perfectly seared, butter-bathed scallops.
Is there a better antidote to cold weather than phở, the Vietnamese soup consisting of rice vermicelli and aromatic broth? The beef version we enjoyed came topped with two pucks of meat, but the broth itself was the true stunner: a translucent soup betraying the complexity of its ingredients, like beef bones and star anise.
The final two savory courses — shiso-wrapped beef and bún chả — arrived together. Bún chả is a famous northern Vietnamese dish: grilled pork, herbs, and a piquant dipping broth. In Chef Nguyen’s interpretation, the dish involved not only noodles and dipping broth, but also two succulent pork meatballs, a fried dumpling, and pickled carrots, all of which could be eaten together.
For dessert, we were served ceramic mugs of Vietnamese coffee over ice cream — a take on the Italian affogato, in which espresso is poured directly over vanilla gelato. The final course was a bright green coconut-pandan crème brûlée, with a sugar top so hard and satisfying I had to knock it with my spoon, until it broke into mouthfuls of caramel candy.
The East End can feel, at times, like a place suffering from an ethnic food drought. To that end, a Vietnamese pop-up, rooted in traditional cuisine, was a refreshing respite, especially in winter. The beautiful and delicate flavors of Vietnamese food, as translated through chef Nguyen, could not have been more welcome. Can we expect more events like this in the future? If turnout is an indicator of success, Saigon Social’s sold out performance may mean good things for us way out here.