Local celebrity chef Tucker Yoder’s new restaurant doesn’t have a catchy name. It doesn’t have a glossy logo. And the dining room? You never know what you’re going to get.
But all that is sort of the point. Yoder, who’s been flying under the radar since he left his job as executive chef at Clifton Inn in December, isn’t trying to create a highly marketable restaurant in Eljogaha, C’ville’s latest little piece of the pop-up restaurant scene. The idea, instead, is to maintain a bit of mystery, a bit of secrecy, to give diners the feeling they’re part of the in-crowd and some of few in the know.
Yoder launched Eljogaha on March 20 in the former l’etoile space on West Main Street. For two consecutive nights he turned out a five-course meal all while feeling his way around an unknown kitchen and working with a makeshift service crew. The next weekend, March 27-28, he was at it again, this time serving a dining room of 13 people an amuse-bouche, appetizer, fish course, pasta, entrée and dessert on Friday night and repeating the feat for about the same number 24 hours later. Next on his schedule are dinners at the end of April at Grit Café on the Downtown Mall and during graduation weekend at Crozet’s Grit Café, located in the former Trailside Coffee space.
Debriefing after his second weekend doing his own thing in the l’etoile kitchen, Yoder said what he’s appreciated most about doing pop-ups so far has been taking risks that he might have been more nervous about while at Clifton.
“I don’t want to say it’s more freedom, but that is probably the best way to describe it,” he said. “I can do whatever I want and don’t have to worry too much. If one dish is totally off the wall, that’s fine because there are four more coming. I did take risks at Clifton, but you had to color in the lines a bit more.”
Yoder said doing private dinners and off-site catering events over the years has prepared him for working in the pop-up setting. Eljogaha, a title that’s derived from a combination of his four kids’ names, is really just putting a new label on it.
“It’s all about being organized,” Yoder said. “The hard thing is when someone comes in and wants something that’s not on the menu.”
Pulling off a pop-up is indeed not without its challenges. Yoder’s able to accommodate certain dietary restrictions if informed in advance, but the diner’s experience is completely pre-scripted, so everything has to be planned. Someone wants a cocktail while waiting for the other patrons to arrive? Probably not going to happen. Someone else would like a beer instead of wine? They’ll have to see what’s lying around.
Then there’s the variable kitchen space, skeleton staff and unique sourcing concerns. Where brick and mortar kitchens have running relationships with farmers who know what ingredients their customers like and in what volumes, Yoder’s forced to rely on his industry connections and get creative. That’s especially challenging at the end of March.
“It’s a hard time of year because it’s the beginning of spring and you want all the spring vegetables, but they’re just not available,” he said. “Fortunately the same farmers I’ve always worked with are being very supportive.”
The menu on March 27 at l’etoile featured creative preparations indeed. Faced with some less-than-perfectly fresh vegetables, Yoder leaned heavily on a technique of dehydrating and rehydrating. The beets served as a snack were themselves de- and rehydrated and crusted in dehydrated mushrooms. Yoder used the same preparation to make a sprouted turnip the textural touch-point of the opening dish, braised Rockbarn pork with caviar butter. In the case of the beet, the result was an almost jerky-like texture; the turnips became nearly cartilaginous, yielding to the bite at first then snapping at the end.
“Dehydrating gives you nice textures without having to deep-fry,” Yoder said. “You get nice crispy things.”
Highlights of the meal were a sharp, almond-thickened green onion veloute used to punch up a dish of snapper and stone ground oats, a handmade garganelli and Yoder’s own sourdough bread. The drink pairings, another highlight that included a saison-style beer and three wines, were drawn from l’etoile owner Mark Gresge’s own cellar, so the tipples in store for future Eljogaha diners are anyone’s guess.
Yoder said predicting his coming menus won’t require much guesswork—with the full complement of spring veg coming in, he expects to be relying on “more raw ingredients and simple quick preparations for vegetables, more so than meat.”
And the accomplished chef plans to keep the pop-up concept going beyond the spring meals already on the schedule. Eljogaha, which has attracted nearly 450 fans in its first three weeks on Facebook, does require “more patience and a little more energy to get people in the seats,” Yoder said, but it’s a lifestyle he could get used to.
“It gives me more free time,” he said. “I can go to Richmond for my son’s soccer game and not have to be rushing back to the kitchen. I like that freedom.”