Pop-ups are all the rage these days. It seems whenever a chef is in transition, it provides an opportunity to do something fun, off-the-cuff, and delicious.
In a recent interview with us, Erik Anderson (below right, pictured with Travail chef Mike Brown) made vague fried-chicken-and-champagne promises about partnering with local wine guru Bill Summerville to host a pop-up dinner featuring said amusements. These two titans are both in transition — Anderson moving back to Minneapolis to open a new (and as-yet-unnamed) restaurant, and Summerville leaving his longtime post at La Belle Vie to branch out into as-yet-unknown territory. This past Sunday, the chef and the sommelier staged Ernie’s Fried Chicken & Champagne at Travail (which is closed on Sundays). We were on hand to take part in the four-hour orgy of fried birds and bubbles.
Tickets were available online in advance of the event, and quickly sold out — $15 or $29 for a half or a whole bird, plus a side, got you into the event, with champagne and sundaes available on site for cash. As for the name? Ernie is Anderson’s ailing bulldog, who needs eye surgery. A donation bucket was passed around. The cost of entry for this pop-up compared to Anderson and Summerville’s previous pop-up at Borough — an 8-course tasting menu for $250 — was, needless to say, far more accessible.
In the Travail space, the atmosphere was loose and the tunes were cranked, punctuated by the frequent popping of corks. Anderson and Travail’s Mike Brown worked the fryers, and the chickens came out fast in big paper boats on aluminum sheet pans. Summerville prowled the room hospitably — almost hard to recognize in a T-shirt instead of his usual suit and tie. Black bus tubs full of iced-down bubbly were scattered around the room, waiting to fulfill orders from the well-curated list of cavas and champagnes that was un-fancily printed and strewn about the community tables. We started with a $19 bottle of Spanish cava — electric, floral, refreshing.
Our name was announced on the house PA system, and we picked up our chicken. Incredibly hot and deeply browned, this was fried chicken with the power to overturn the Colonel’s curse on a Japanese baseball franchise. Barring that, it was good enough to reset our entire party’s previously defined notions of how good fried chicken can be. The crust on these birds was a formidable force, giving way after a strong bite to perfectly rendered, crispy skin. Deeply seasoned, steamy, moist meat lurked beneath. We ordered one chicken dry and one drizzled with habanero honey. On the side was a pint of dirty rice with pork sausage — the mineral flavor of chicken liver telegraphed its fried cousin, and our fizzy cava sent them both home with a clean, snappy finish. Pitch perfect. Along with some scratch-made, vinegary hot sauce in squeeze bottles, we were happy indeed.
So why pair fried chicken with champagne? Because it’s really, really good, and contrast is always welcome — rich / acidic, sweet / sour, heavy / light, highbrow / lowbrow. It works. The combo of umami-laden chicken with a sip of bubbly is akin to grabbing summer by the tail. It’s skinny dipping in Lake Calhoun on a 90-degree night — refreshing, sexy, and fleeting.
Anderson refused to get specific about his chicken recipe, but he offered up his general technique. “I do a salt water brine, then bury the chicken in the seasoned flour for a whole day. When it’s pulled out, it goes straight into the fryer, then a quick dip in habanero honey.”
For dessert, the team served up $5 sundaes in mason jars: tonka bean and buttermilk ice cream with hot fudge, candied peanuts, and boozy cherries. It was dispatched with almost desperate speed by our party.
In all, the pop-up seemed a success — Ernie didn’t quite get the money he needs for his surgery, but Anderson said it came close. He also teased that he and Summerville plan to do it again soon — no word yet on when or where, but we’ll definitely be there for round two.