STORY AND PHOTOS BY SUZIE DUNDAS
To say that attending a pop-up dinner at Stella is “going to a restaurant” is a bit like saying “Lake Tahoe has nice views.” It’s not incorrect, but it hardly paints a full picture of the experience. And while it’s true you certainly won’t leave hungry (in fact, you’ll probably leave exceptionally full), attending a pop-up event is more than just going out to dinner. It’s socializing, tasting, and learning … and listening, when that dinner involves live music paired with each course, as it did at Stella’s recent Taste and Listen pop-up dinner to benefit Tahoe Trails & Vistas.
Guests mingle before dinner begins
The four-hour event at the Cedar House Sport Hotel’s Stella restaurant featured a blend of flavors, spices, sounds, and conversation, set to background music from two of Trail and Vista’s musical partners: jazz harpist Motoshi Kosako and double-neck guitarist Ian Ethan Case. Both have worked with Trails & Vistas in the past at its popular autumn art hikes and at the World Concert, held at Nevada’s Sand Harbor State Park. This time, their stage was the open kitchen, sharing their talents as the equally talented chefs prepared dinner in the background.
Jazz harpist Motoshi Kosako plays as chefs Downing and Knox prepare dinner behind him
Okonomiyaki grilled cabbage cake with okonomi sauce
As with all Stella pop-up dinners, attendees are welcomed into the alpine modern dining room with a selection of hors d’oeuvres, offering a tease of the global-inspired flavors to come. While sipping on a glass of bubbly and admiring the musicians’ instruments, guests enjoyed canapés ranging from fried yucca dumplings to ras al hanout spiced beef confit, topped with roasted eggplant and tomato-tamarind chutney. After around 30 minutes, guests are invited to take their seats.
Grilled chicken and scallion yakitori were among the tray-passed canapes
At most of Stella’s pop-up dinners, each course is introduced by executive chef Alex Downing, who shares insights on the ingredients and inspiration behind each dish. At this particular Taste and Listen pop-up dinner, the chef is preceded by a musical accompaniment at each course to complement the pairings. The first dish was a light shiro maguro tataki, grilled daikon, and shio-koji marinated cucumber salad, which Downing says he chose to “highlight the simplicity inherent in Japanese cuisine.” This was paired with an original musical composition from Matsuyama City, Japan-born harpist Motoshi Kosako. Guests choosing to enjoy the wine pairing sipped a northern Italian white wine with a dry, fruity finish, perfect for the lightness of the fish.
Shiro maguru tataki
The musical backdrop for the dinner’s second course switched to guitarist Ian Ethan Case as he played samba-inspired selections from the double-necked guitar. Following the musical cues, the dinner from Downing and co-chef Ben Knox also had a South American influence. With global sounds in the background, guests enjoyed grilled prawns over spiced coconut fish stew, with corn, avocado, pickled red onion, and cilantro. Of the dish, Downing says it’s a take on a classic Brazilian comfort food, “but with a little extra love and refinement.” The dish uses coconut milk and lobster stock as a stew, “with palm sugar and lime juice to balance out the richness.”
Chefs prepare the second course
The lobster-coconut fish broth blend is poured over fresh prawns
Guitarist Ian Ethan Case
For the third dish, sounds and tastes took their cues from West Africa, with Case playing songs on the guitar and the scarcely seen kalimba, or thumb guitar. To match the musical inspiration, Chef Downing choose to serve braised oxtail with berbere, a smoky, Ethiopian spice blend. He describes the dish as a “mishmash of flavors from all over Africa.” Like all dishes at Stella, the oxtail was planned well in advance and involved several steps: roasting the meat in a wood-fired oven, vacuum sealing each serving, then cooking sous-vide for 48 hours at the ideal constant temperature. Downing says this gives it a “melt-in-your-mouth,” tender finish. It’s served over steamed plantains and paired with local goat yogurt, mango chutney, Downing’s own homemade pickled okra, and a warm Il Falchetto Pian Scorrone Barbera d’Asti red wine blend.
Case plays the Kalimba to a sold-out crowd
Chef Downing plates braised oxtail
Between dishes and performances, guests are able to mingle and chat and are invited to roam the open kitchen as Downing and Knox cook — and there were plenty of guests to chat with as the event sold out well in advance. At a maximum of 28 guests, most Stella dinners fill up early, but because this particular one benefited Tahoe Trails & Vistas, it was even more popular than usual. Trails & Vistas holds several fundraising events every year to support its September art hikes and concert programming, as well as its Art in Nature field trips, which take more than 300 third-grade students on interactive hikes to blend music, poetry, environmental studies, and art.
Matcha green tea and white chocolate cake
Of course, no luxury dinner would be complete without dessert — and in this instance, neither the chefs nor the musicians delivered anything less than a stellar performance. Dessert included not one but four options, as well as a spiced tea blend made in house. Drawing flavor profiles from Japan’s spring blooms, the pièce de résistance displayed the different methods in which cherry blossom, or sakura, can be used. Paired with a white chocolate and matcha Napoleon cake, guests enjoyed sakura panna cotta filled with sakura jam and whole sakura flowers.
“[Sakura] is a unique and underutilized flavor in Western cuisine,” Downing says, “and it’s widely celebrated in Japan —especially this time of year when the streets are lined with the big pink trees.”
Musicians Case and Kosako combine their talents
As the evening wound down, guests enjoyed one last feast — for the ears, as Case and Kosako joined together to play in styles ranging from classical to blues. With the cooking done and kitchen cleaned, even Downing and Knox came out to enjoy the show and celebrate the sounds.
Diners enjoy the show
More information about Trails & Vistas events can be found here. The full Stella pop-up summer menu will be available soon at this link, with the next Taste and Listen dinner scheduled for August 18, 2018.
Suzie Dundas is a Lake Tahoe-based freelance writer. She writes about everything from adventure travel to social media and inspired food and drink. You can find more of her work at Suziedundas.com.