Pop-up restaurants seem to be all the rage—along with food trucks, but what really sets one pop-up apart from another? Is it the location, the type of food, the chef? At What Happens When it's the combination of all these things that add up to a wonderful dining experience. The chef, John Fraser of Dovetail, has created a menu that revolves around themes and is updated almost monthly in what are termed movements. The food is extremely well executed with attention to detail and precision. The entire experience is the product of a great collaboration among designers, photographers, composers, and chefs.
I was lucky to find out about What Happens When from my friend Amanda who was getting ready to wish New York City goodbye. So for her last hurrah we had dinner at What Happens When on a mild Friday a few weeks ago. We skipped the white-on-blueprinted-blackboard dining room in favor of the cool climate of the garden behind the restaurant, which felt almost like a courtyard surrounded by the low slung buildings of Soho. The theme or movement of the night was Southern comfort food slash Prohibition era—how apropros for what turned out to be a dry night. All details from the outfits of the servers to the music floating through the cool air of the garden underlined a feeling of authenticity.
The restaurant had just gotten into a dispute about its liquor license that week, so unfortunately alcoholic cocktails were not served. But that didn't stop the restaurant from coming up with a clever menu of mocktails in the theme of Shakespeare's Tempest. We ordered the Prospero, made with pomegranate, passion fruit, and pineapple juices as well as the Caliban with ginger, mint, and lemonade.
I'm never a fan of cornbread, but the one we were served in place of the typical restaurant bread basket might have converted me. It was moist—not at all dry like the notorious cornbread of the north—and tender. What followed was an amuse-bouche of mini muffulettas with pickled vegetables. They were precisely assembled little sandwiches, so dainty and miniature. One of the most interesting appetizers of the evening was the boudine sausage balls with spicy Creole mustard. These were tender, flavorful, and crispy balls of deep-fried boudine blanc (white pork sausage). I especially liked the yellow beets, which were a nice palate cleanser between bites of sausage. The fried oyster appetizer was sumptuous. There's nothing better than a perfect fresh oyster. Here it was presented like a po' boy sandwich but without the bread—just iceberg lettuce wedges, thinly sliced tomato, and dressing.
Next we were surprised with an intermezzo of soft shell crab. I've tried soft shell crabs only once before but was always afraid of eating the thin edible shell. These crabs were simply buttery and unctuous in flavor. They were accompanied by dirty rice, made dirty with crab fat instead of the typical chicken liver. It was so good it was difficult not finishing the entire bowl of rice. But I still think soft shell crab will always have the texture of eating fingernails for me.
I was hesitant with our choices of Cornish hen and pork chop for our main courses, because both proteins have the tendency of being served dry and tough. But this was not at all the case. Both were succulent, moist, tender, and flavorful. The jambalaya of Cornish hen was juicy and nicely blackened on the skin, which was too good not to eat. It was served over rice with andouille sausage and shrimp. The jus was lip-stickingly robust and flavorful. The slightly pink and juicy double-thick pork chop came with a tasso ham and scallion gravy worthy of mopping up with bread. The traditional accompaniment of collard greens was served as the bed for the chops.
We ordered two desserts but were offered a complimentary third. First we had the poached rhubarb with pound cake croutons, poured over with rhubarb sauce. What a refreshing, palate-cleansing dessert. Next was chocolate bread pudding with strawberry preserves, chocolate crumbs, and dehydrated strawberry slices. The pudding was moist and chocolatey—no complaint here. Lastly, the traditional Louisiana dessert of bananas foster was remade into a creme brûlée, except the hard-shell top was replaced with a burnt caramel gelée. Accompanying it was a banana cake with crumb topping. A very rich dessert to finish of the evening. If I were to choose just one, I'd go with the rhubarb for its refreshing flavor and not too-sweet taste.
You are in for a treat at What Happens When. From the food to the dining experience, everything is as a restaurant should be. Excellent cuisine, service, and atmosphere are key ingredients in making a dining experience a top-of-the-line one. For a restaurant that will only be around for 3 or so more months, they've put every effort into making the restaurant feel like a fixture. I don't know what the restaurant's name means, but I'd like to think it's what happens when all the puzzle pieces fit together.
Note: What Happens When continues to operate without a liquor license, so the mocktails menu will continue. BYO is unfortunately not offered.
What Happens When
25 Cleveland Place
New York, NY 10012
Open Tuesday through Sunday, 5:30 p.m. to 11 p.m.
$58 prix fixe and $6 mocktails.