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Ephemera pop-ups take an artsy approach to culinary affairs 

FLEETING FANCY

click to enlarge Even without the intended tarragon foam, the fifth course’s ribeye and accompanying squash purée proved impressive. Visit Ephemera at facebook.com/ephemeradinners. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Even without the intended tarragon foam, the fifth course’s ribeye and accompanying squash purée proved impressive. Visit Ephemera at facebook.com/ephemeradinners.

I am eating spoonfuls of tarragon foam and taking shots of Fernet-Branca with Chef Ian Dedrickson, but this is not what I’ve paid $70 for. The scene at the moment — chefs Colby Schaffer and Chad Henry also nearby, with artist Jasmine Dillavou and a couple of their friends who volunteered their home for this Ephemera pop-up dinner — well, it’s complicated.

We’ve just concluded a seven-course meal. The tarragon foam? Dedrickson’s kicking himself because he labored over making it earlier in the day but forgot to plate it on the ribeye, course five, so we’re eating it just to justify its existence. Hell, it’s not bad with the Fernet, whose spicy herbaceousness welcomes the tarragon essence. But we aren’t drinking it for that. Fernet’s a tradition at all Ephemera dinners, they tell the 20 guests as they present the final course, a delicious mint-spiked chocolate tart courtesy of Schaffer, the pastry arm. And now, after the other guests have departed and I’m lingering to pick their brains, we’re doing what industry people do: drinking together. 

Henry, part of Happy Belly Tacos and Rooster’s House of Ramen, lends a hand because Ephemera partner and co-chef Adam Ridens is back home in Durango on family business. (When I attended an Ephemera oyster dinner the week prior, Urban Egg executive chef Justin Castor helped out, along with man-with-his-hands-in-everything Ephemera business partner Aaron Ewton, co-owner of Pig Latin.)

Dillavou is Ephemera’s creative director — yeah, they have one of those. Ephemera might best be called a culture lab, a setting for collaborative experimentation. At one point in the night, Dedrickson refers to it as a “project,” with a goal of becoming a brick-and-mortar spot later this year if vague-at-this-point plans become reality. You could also probably call it a culinary arts collective, an almost-monthly gathering that started two years ago, and has since resulted in dinners (at restaurants during dark hours or in homes) with themes like lust or psychedelics.

Tonight’s post-Valentine’s Day shindig is called the Hedonism Dinner. The concept drives the whole atmosphere, beginning in this home’s entryway with vintage black-and-white stag films of women naughtily spanking one another in lingerie, continuing with fake foliage strewn about for a Garden of Eden vibe, and permeating the ingredients of each dish. For example, course four, the epic intermezzo, featured crystallized rose petals with lime-infused gin-and-tonic sherbet. “Forbidden” apples appear not only with the first course’s mini crêpe cakes in the form of apple-cherry purée to complement lavish chicken liver mousse, but also in course six’s plating of sourdough crust and sinfully sweet brie ice cream garnished with olive oil powder for one of many molecular gastronomy touches. A Sauternes (sweet French wine) with that course proves the best pairing of the night. (Technically you should call Ephemera a “supper club” because guests pay only for the food and “art experience,” with the hooch provided gratis by host sites.)

click to enlarge Chef Ian Dedrickson composes some aesthetically pleasing plates. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Chef Ian Dedrickson composes some aesthetically pleasing plates.

I should probably mention the black plastic handcuffs now. They’re a hilarious prop utilized as napkin rings around our silverware. Surprisingly most couples leave them behind at night’s end, leaving me to question just how committed to hedonism they really are — yeesh, prudes. Hell, maybe it’s just the Fernet talking at this point. Everyone was perfectly pleasant to socialize with as strangers gathered around fold-up tables; we all cooperated nicely when it came time to snap our Instagram photos of dry-ice fog emanating from wine buckets set in the center of the table for a nostalgic, misty moment. 

“These are full-sensory, underground, punk-rock, pop-up, immersive dining experiences,” Dillavou explains to me at one point, as I’ve followed her to a bathroom where one of the homeowner/hosts has posted up in the bathtub-turned-makeshift-dish-pit scrubbing plates and glasses between courses. If you want to host, your house is gonna get wrecked, they joke at one point to the assembly, noting furniture will be moved, spaces redecorated, your fridge jam-packed. Think of a happy home invasion with the perks of fine dining and being a patron of the arts. Buying a ticket is “donating,” and with limited social media marketing alone, Ephemera sells out every time, she says.

It doesn’t really matter what my cured tuna with cucumber ribbons and hibiscus syrup and cantaloupe purée tasted like because you’ll never be able to taste it yourself. These meals don’t repeat form. I mean, yeah, it was pretty great actually, but the takeaway from that is if you book a dinner you too can count on artistically plated courses. Course the third brought us al dente basil-ricotta agnolotti (ravioli-like homemade pasta squares) with Parmesan foam (that Dedrickson remembered to plate, ahem) in a shiso-tomato broth. And that sous vide-softened, pan-seared ribeye, sans tarragon foam, still sported a pleasing squash purée and lively cinnamon-soy-caramel sauce and sage crème fraiche. At least I think it was all that; the accurate note-taker in me has been taken hostage by the hedonist, you know, to get in character for the night. 

So yeah, Dedrickson, a former sous chef at Four by Brother Luck and current bartender at Axe and the Oak Whiskey House, and Ridens, a former Four line cook and also Axe employee, and Dillavou and interchangeable supporting crew seem to overall know what they’re doing culinary-wise with this big passion project. Dedrickson transparently tells me Ephemera’s basically break-even at this point, more about testing concepts than paying bills as they dream toward a place of their own. Planning for these dinners weeks ahead of time and beginning prep sometimes days early, in order to execute a 12- to 14-hour dinner day-of with a part voluntary crew — well, that’s not going to fly when it comes brick-and-mortar time. Re-creation must be done.

Meanwhile, this artsy experiment, much like a temporary installation or one of Dillavou’s performance pieces around town, is fleeting. Literally it’s ephemera, basically a catch-it-while-you-can situation for likely just another six months or so. But that could change. I’ve heard whispers of ambitious things. But that’s because I’ve lingered to drink with the chefs when they’re more prone to spill secrets. Those aren’t for me to repeat just yet. So I depart into the snowy evening, belly full, palate piqued, asking myself something like “what’s a hedonist like me gonna do at this hour with a nice amaro buzz on and a pair of handcuffs in my back pocket?”

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