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Two Ellicott City Chefs Look to Shake Up Culinary Scene with Pop-Up Dinners

With multi-course one-night only menus, the chefs look to tap into a burgeoning nationwide trend.

Kevin Brothers, left, and Colin Bickley, right, of Ellicott City Tasting Gallery. Credit: Andrew Metcalf
Kevin Brothers, left, and Colin Bickley, right, of Ellicott City Tasting Gallery. Credit: Andrew Metcalf

A trend that has been both derided and hailed in cities like New York and Los Angeles has found its way to Ellicott City.

The pop-up restaurant.

How it works: A chef, or two or three, will take over a kitchen, a restaurant or back yard and cook several courses for a one-time only dinner. The menus are often flush with creativity and take the kind of chances that aren't typically afforded at even the trendiest restaurants.

The two chefs testing the trend in Ellicott City are Kevin Brothers and Colin Bickley. Brothers, former chef at Pure Wine Cafe, said he left the popular Main Street restaurant in order "to express myself creatively in other ways."

Bickley, who works as a fundraiser for environmental and political groups, gained cooking experience from chefs he befriended in L.A. After moving to Main Street about two years ago, he found a compatriot in Brothers. The two began cooking together last summer and gained a mutual appreciation for each other's skills.

That's when they decided to form Ellicott City Tasting Gallery and started hosting one-night only dinners in the county.

Their latest endeavor is a truffle feast at Portalli's on Jan. 19. The dinner's featured ingredient is truffles, rare mushrooms that grow in France and Italy. Tickets cost $150 per person for the multi-course meal, including wine pairings. Two seatings are scheduled at 5 p.m. and 8 p.m. The chefs don't publicly reveal their full menu until after the dinner.

Brothers said their most recent dinner, a $75 per plate five-course meal at a house on Main Street on Nov. 16 sold out less than an hour after it was announced. The menu included items like seared scallop and duck prosciutto; a pumpkin paella with pork belly, mussels, shrimp, and whipped saffron yogurt; and ancho coffee smoked short rib with bacon cranberry jam.

"We were always of the attitude that if five friends show up, that's great," said Bickley. "We just want to cook for somebody."

"Once we realized we had the following," said Brothers, "it was just a matter of setting the date, and getting a staff together."

One of the draws of pop-up dinners is their underground nature. Brothers admitted he was apprehensive to even speak to a reporter about Ellicott City Tasting Gallery.

Previously, they've advertised their events through Facebook, their website and word-of-mouth only.

"There's an underground draw to what we do," said Brothers. "And I want to keep that, for sure."

But at the same time, the chefs understand they're starting something that may appeal to the local demographic.

"Howard County is one of the richest counties in the entire nation," said Brothers. "It's a matter of tapping into the right crowd and we're developing that."

"It's not a business," said Bickley. "It's an experience, an adventure."

"It gives us full creative freedom," said Brothers. "There's no box. Restaurants have a box. As a chef, you want to express yourself with full creativity. These dinners are liberating because there's no menu."

As for the trend itself, pop-up restaurants began appearing in the late 2000s and began to boom in 2011, according to Eater Magazine.

An early pioneer in pop-ups, Ludovic Lefebvre in L.A. made his name on these one-night culinary stands. In 2013, he opened a restaurant in which there were no reservations. Instead tickets are sold for a nightly $75 multi-course tasting menu.

Detractors of pop-ups criticize the often free-wheeling nature of the chefs and the lack of commitment.

Matt Duckor, in an article titled "Pop-Up Restaurants Are Over" in Bon-Apetit, wrote that the trend lacks the design, attention to service, and meticulous meal-planning of a top-notch restaurant.

"The consequences of failure are minimal," wrote Duckor, "which lets chefs be creative, sure, but which also means they don’t need to hone their creativity–or truly learn from their mistakes. When restaurateurs sign a 15-year lease, however, they have to approach their concept in a totally different way."

Other food writers point out the simplicity of the trend. Jessica Gelt wrote in the L.A. Times"A lack of pretension is key to the pop-up concept, where drinkers and diners forgo the fancy trappings of old-school establishments for a stripped down experience focused on the food and drink."

As for Bickley and Brothers, they seem content with their initial success. 

"I think we'll just take it a dinner at a time," said Brothers.


Joe Robinson January 10, 2014 at 08:30 PM
Bloomberg was looking to get rid of these pop-ups in NYC. As blue as MD is, they won't want it here either...
Melissa M January 10, 2014 at 08:41 PM
It sounds stupid.
Carl Schneider January 11, 2014 at 03:51 AM
Just give me a nice big burger and some fries.... Money is to right for a150.00 plate.
Elizabeth Ann January 11, 2014 at 07:37 AM
150.00 bucks??? can't afford it...
JaySmith January 11, 2014 at 08:44 AM
I went to the Nov16 one......I think they're usually 75 or 100/person.....it was MAGNIFICENT !! My only suggestion is they have MORE of the main dish, which was paella that night. Everything was fantastic, and different from 'usual' great food. Maybe too many wines also, but overall GREAT experience ! I'll have to check out their facebook page -- Kevin ( I think ) was the wine expert -- the NICEST GUY. Yes, it was easily worth it was 75/person
bill bissenas January 11, 2014 at 09:56 AM
I applaud their creativity and entrepreneurship. I laugh at their politics, which runs counter to their business acumen.
JaySmith January 11, 2014 at 11:41 AM
Bill: Where'd you find their 'politics' ? I'm always curious about the political/economic opinions of the next generation

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