“Can you tell me some food experiences from your childhood that you’re nostalgic about?” I was asked.
Immediately, I remembered my best friend since kindergarten, Sarah. She had tapa and rice packed for lunch for school every day. In my Chinese-Filipino household, we never really had tapa. So the sweet marinated beef with white rice was heaven for a four-year-old like me. We shared her food every day, but she only had one pair of utensils so she gave me the spoon, while she used the fork. And we did this all throughout kindergarten.
I was invited to attend a pop-up dinner that would serve a six-course degustacion, and it turns out the reason I was asked for a food memory was because my response would serve as basis for the menu. It’s a cute idea by this little group called Today’s Special. Formed by entrepreneur Aren Pe, 30, designer Isai Araneta (who trained briefly at Mecha Uma), 24, and the Culinary Institute of America-trained chef Aliya Ignacio, 28—Today’s Special sets up private dinners with a theme. The group scrapped the idea of building a restaurant and decided to focus on diner-centric gatherings that make the dining experience more interactive, more social, and fun.
A list of questions becomes the foundation of a dinner. They first ask a list of questions to each attendee, and then personalize the evening’s menu based on the guests’ answers. Their first pop-up, the one I attended, was centered on the theme “Back in the Day”—revisiting food memories from our childhood. “The dinner puts a spotlight on the guests and how their past experiences shape their present. The table is set as the stage and every diner plays a key role in what may (or may not) be served at dinner,” read the menu.
On a Sunday night, I headed for the Solace Hotel in Makati, whose second floor event room was transformed into a private dining room, with one long shared table. A group of about 20 were in attendance, cocktails were served, and the conversation just flowed. To my right, I met a very young brand designer who already opened his own food venture and fashion line. To my left was my bubbly friend working in events production. On the table, a small booklet presented the “menu,” a series of puzzles that gave us clues as to what awaits dishes-wise, using games we played as kids: connect the dots, word search, fill in the blanks.
To formally begin, the team and their servers come out to explain the courses. Everyone is served individually. The first course was inspired by a guy in the room who had fond memories of his mom’s mac and cheese. The appetizer is a cheese tart made with French Epoisses cheese on top of onion jam, housemade bacon XO, and a whipped feta cheese mousse garnished with amaranth. “Does it remind you of your mom’s mac and cheese?” I asked, and he laughed. “Well, of course not.” But at least I learned his mother makes a killer mac and cheese.
The second course was inspired by someone else’s memory of his grandmother who often made pot stickers when he was a kid. The chef’s interpretation of this was a toasted bao filled with marinated duck yolk, duck confit, with a black garlic sauce. We dipped it in a salty chicken and mushroom salt. “This dish was also inspired by balut,” she said, “thus all the duck elements, because a lot of people mentioned they didn’t like eating balut as a kid, so we tried to make something based on what people particularly disliked.”
Course three was one of my favorites: a mushroom “taho”—mushroom custard with port wine sauce, spherified balsamic vinegar, balsamic tapioca, and sautéed mushrooms. This was drawn from someone’s memory of running out of the house as a kid whenever the taho vendor came around. It apparently so delighted the guy across the table that he blurted out: “Now this is better than my mom’s mac and cheese.”
There was also a soup and rice dish, reminiscent of the sabaw and rice we all ate as children. But in the pop-up it was poached chicken on top of grilled onigiri, with chicken broth and blistered tomatoes—inspired by a diner’s memory of her grandma’s chicken soup. A memory of eating adobo fried rice, on the other hand, had the Today’s Special gang, whipping up a soy-braised pork jowl with crispy potatoes, pineapple chutney, seasonal vegetables, and pork floss.
For dessert, we were served a curry sundae of sorts: luscious coconut ice cream on top of muscovado cake, drizzled with curry caramel, crunchy papadums, curry leaves, and sprinkled with curry powders. This one blends curries from Japan, India, and France.
“We wanted to start a dialogue with the diners,” shared Aren. “That’s why we wanted our first theme to be about nostalgia, talking about when all the diners started their culinary journey.”
“We wanted to create something that was guest focus,” added Aliya. “Because nowadays, tastings are really chef-driven. They focus on ingredients, techniques, and the experiences of the chef. But we wanted to get to know our diners also. So we ask them questions.”
That said, the menu will change depending on the answers the guests will provide. It hopes to spark conversation between diners—to talk about the food that meant most to them as children. “Food is entertainment,” says Isai. “It can make you feel something, it can make you think, it can make you long for something you never thought of. And we wanted to think of other ways to express our ideas.”
At the moment, they have had three pop-ups with the theme “Back in the Day.” But every pop-up will try to explore a different theme. Locations will change as well. Today’s Special is really about offering a break from the traditional dining experience of just going to the restaurant for a meal.
The whole night lasted for about three hours, and in that span of time, I had enjoyed the exchange with my fellow diners, most of whom I just met. It’s easy to see why. Here is a one-of-a-kind gathering that highlights another important aspect of eating together: more than just the food, dining can be a space for stories to be shared, and for connections to be made, all over a well thought-out meal.
Today’s Special pop-up dinners are P2,800 per head for a six-course degustation with cocktail pairing. The next pop-up will be sometime in March 2019; visit @whatistodaysspecial for updates and details.