Over the last few years, Columbia’s dining scene has warmed to the idea of pop-up dinners. Farm to Table Event Co.’s Harvest Dinners at City Roots have become more frequent, and still sell out. The fashionable Dîner en Blanc series made its way to the pavilion at the Columbia Museum of Art last year thanks to @116 chef Ryan Whitaker, and Soda City Market got in the game last fall, too, bringing in a chef from Charleston to cook for a crowd at @116 in West Columbia on a night the restaurant is usually closed for business.
Last October, Bone-In Artisan Barbecue chef/owner and caterer Scott Hall held his own version of a pop-up dinner, calling it X Marks the Spot. As the name implies, the location was undisclosed until the last minute. Attendees were told to meet at the Big Apple to pick up a map, which led them to Conquest Brewing Co. for a dinner with wine and beer pairings on a Nordic-themed menu.
Rather than focusing on a specific cuisine or ingredient theme this time, Hall’s second X Marks the Spot dinner, held Jan. 18, explored the idea of collaborating with an artist to turn a pop-up dinner into an immersive experience. Hall developed the concept for the dinner with Columbia-based visual artist Matthew Mattox, naming it Persephone’s Journey, after the Greek origin myth on the changing of seasons. Visual clues to the theme, albeit vague ones, were posted on Facebook, along with a phone number for reservations.
Ticket holders to the $100 per person, eight-course wine dinner met at the Big Apple on the night of the event to pick up their maps. Wrapped in a scroll, the map included original illustrations by Mattox, as well as a refresher course on the story of Persephone and Hades, just in case you lost your copy of Edith Hamilton’s Mythology after your 10th grade literature class.
The map led diners down the staircase to the patio behind what once was the White Mule (it was Christian coffeehouse Jammin’ Java before that). As they descended, they were greeted with live music from a harpist in a tunic, a table of hors d’oeuvres beside a fire pit, and champagne and pomegranate juice cocktails delivered alternately by a prancing creature in a beautifully creepy papier-mâché bird skull mask, a satyr or golden hunks. (Yes, you read that correctly: dudes in gold body paint, wearing skimpy, gold lamé togas. The wind chill was 31 degrees F.) It could have been a deleted scene from Eyes Wide Shut or Fellini Satyricon, had it not been held just off Main Street downtown.
Before dinner was served, a bit of wordless theater played out as a black-cloaked Hades appeared from the back door of the building to abduct Persephone from the stairs, crowning her his captive queen, then leading diners into a smoke-filled basement dining room, transformed by floral designer and master decorator Andrew Stinson into a candlelit underworld tinged in red, purple and black, with lanterns, Spanish moss and ripped black gossamer strung from the ceiling.
If diners weren’t already out of their comfort zone, Hall’s first course sealed the deal: charred octopus tentacle, grilled and pickled peppadew relish, and squid ink barley risotto. As with the first X Marks the Spot dinner, Morganelli’s wine buyer and sommelier for the evening James Alford didn’t bring anything ordinary to the table. Among the highlight reel of creative pairings: a dry brachetto, served with a country pâté-style pheasant sausage; and a Gobelsburger zweigelt, matched with lamb chop and radish.
Are events like this too edgy or ambitious for Columbia to sustain? Judging from the chatter at the table, and the fact that tickets once again sold out, I wouldn’t underestimate our town’s appetite for something new in the food scene.
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