Can a Pop-Up Settle Down Without Losing Its Fizz?

Can a Pop-Up Settle Down Without Losing Its Fizz?

Part of the fun of eating at a pop-up is the thrill of invading a space after hours, like being locked in the museum at night with the whale and the diamonds. Another part is the sense of being in on a secret, eating at some place that doesn’t have a Yelp entry and may not even have a name, while your friends are waiting in line at Roberta’s.

The mismatch between the borrowed space and the borrowers can send off sparks, too. Three years ago, when the Danish chef Bo Bech staged a one-night pop-up in the kitchen at Cosme in Manhattan, using ingredients he’d bought from farmers and shellfishers in Virginia the day before, his Mid-Atlantic-Nordic cooking stood out against the aromas of griddled masa and roasted chiles.

When a pop-up settles down into a space of its own, it loses those things. In their place, it takes on the extra weight of proprietorship. The owners have to make decisions that were previously made for them, and those decisions will start to define them. It’s their paint color on the wall, their scented candles in the bathroom, their name on the door.

This is the position in which we find the former pop-up Oxalis and its chef, Nico Russell, a veteran of Daniel, in New York, and Mirazur, on the French Riviera. Beginning in 2016, Mr. Russell slalomed through a series of restaurants that would hand him the keys on off nights so he could cook tasting menus of 10 courses or so. First he inhabited Fitzcarraldo, an Italian restaurant whose combination of industrial, nautical, cinematic and Mediterranean elements has made it a frequent wedding site. Later he moved on to Egg, an austerely contemporary temple to breakfast which had begun its own life, more than a decade earlier, as a pop-up.

He sold tickets to his Oxalis dinners, enough of them to get a few investors interested. With enough funding to take on a lease in Crown Heights, Oxalis opened in November in a former wine bar within sight of the Brooklyn Museum.

Mr. Russell’s vision for Oxalis is the one behind the bistronomie movement in France and its disciples abroad: carefully considered food served without the hoopla that drives up tabs. He slings a lot of vegetables in Oxalis’s four- to six-course set menus, and it’s one sign of his skill that this doesn’t come across as a cost-cutting measure even though it must be, at least in part — dinner is an extremely reasonable $60. Both the price and the understated cooking style reminded me of Contra, which opened with a five-course, $55 menu.

The last time I went I ate a dish built around spaghetti-like strands of rutabaga under a warm snowdrift of whipped Alpine fontina. These two mild-tasting ingredients were set in motion by the force of a third, a dark and focused coffee-and-chicory cream sauce. This was a rutabaga that made me smile. Granted, I probably like rutabaga more than the average person, but I suspect that exposure to the rutabaga at Oxalis would make the average person realize that I’m right.

Meals begin with a couple of bite-size snacks, one of which tends to be a crisp potato cake dusted with bay-leaf powder and topped with a chip of nori. It looks harmless enough, but can produce powerful emotions, which are easier to understand once you know that the potatoes are stewed in duck fat and then deep-fried. The other snack might be some lightly dehydrated beets brushed with marjoram-infused cream, or tiny grilled carrots that you dip in chamomile sabayon. (This is one of the dishes that suggests the long shadow of Noma, which in its early days famously matched aged carrots with chamomile.)

The price seems meant to encourage frequent visits, but if you return often you may experience déjà vu. At meals in December, January and February, I was always served some variation on raw sea scallops with daikon and apple and some version of duck breast, sweet potato and yogurt. The portions in both cases were restrained but the flavors were outsize. The scallops were cured in miso and refrigerated for a few days and came out of it with something like the concentration of flavor that beef gets from dry-aging, but none of the funk. The duck’s flavor was less surprising, but there was some energy in its collision with sweet potato purée and fig-leaf yogurt tart enough to cause double-takes.

Like the rest of the menu, desserts are unshowy but can be highly impressive. One worked goat milk up into a thing of beauty: Some of it was made into a simple frozen custard, the rest cooked down into cajeta.

The cooking makes it clear why people chased Oxalis around Brooklyn in its various borrowed spaces, but other aspects of the restaurant suggest that it hasn’t quite figured out how to live in a space of its own. A meal there can be a somewhat solemn experience, which doesn’t seem to be what Mr. Russell and his partners are aiming for.

The layout seems to work against it. The kitchen is right up front, and the bar is all the way in the back, separated from the dining room by a glass door in a glass wall. I can’t imagine what the wall is for, unless Oxalis is planning to bring back the smoking section. Instead of serving as a street-side welcome and a source of energy for the dining room, the bar feels like a waiting room. And while it takes reservations, the tasting menu isn’t served there. The bar menu is à la carte.

The dining room could use a little lift. It’s as plain as a Shaker church, with clamshell-colored wainscoting below white walls unbroken by pictures or anything else. (All the art is in the restroom.)

The way the servers have been coached on their lines so far underlines the decorative stiffness. They say stuff like “Moving now into more sweet things …” rather than “Here’s your dessert,” and my neighbor one night was instructed to “sit back and relax,” something that tends to go without saying in most restaurants.

Things have loosened up since the liquor license came through. In the first few weeks, the servers were always trying to push a nonalcoholic beverage pairing for $20, and while the bar was mixing sodas that were more interesting than many cocktails around town, I’m not sure they were different enough from one another to justify drinking the whole slate. Now there are also wine pairings, starting at $35.

Sometimes I wondered whether it would get the air circulating if the bar popped up in the dining room, or vice versa. There’s probably some simple fix, or a series of them, that would give Oxalis some of its old sense of adventure. You can sense it lying there, waiting, when you taste that cajeta, those scallops, the fantastic little potato cakes.

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