Aerin It OutFood & Drink

Anomaly Needs to Go Back to School

When I found out my boyfriend was offered a job out of state in December, the drama queen briefly resurfaced, yet I held on to the fact that we’d be able to share one more exciting dining experience in the Queen City before putting him on a plane. That experience would be the Anomaly Pop-Up.

Anomaly is the brainchild of chef Sam Hart and sommelier Erin Skaryak. The duo will reportedly open a brick-and-mortar this spring, but they’re teasing things out with these exclusive (and by that I mean pricey) pop-up dinners in the meantime.

A highly anticipated event on local food blogs, January’s pop-up was titled Cafeteria and was to feature an explicit playlist; a rotating, carefully curated menu; wine pairings; and an intimate crowd in an undisclosed location. An ode to a love affair between Bardo and SoFar Sounds?

The fruit cup project. (Photo by Aerin Spruill)

It reminded me of the scene from Always Be My Maybe when Keanu Reeves goes on a double-date with Ali Wong at a restaurant called Maximal. Following his dramatic slow-mo entry to AWOLNATION’s “Sail,” he proceeds to order for everyone a course that “plays with time” accompanied by headphones featuring “the sound of the exact animal you’re about to consume illustrating nature’s life to death cycle.” As you can imagine, it was as ridiculously tragic and comical as it sounds.

Nevertheless, I purchased two $125 tickets for my boo’s Christmas present surprise.

Almost a month later, I received an email informing me about the pop-up’s cafeteria theme. I was instructed to send any dietary restrictions, our favorite middle/high school songs, pictures and a wine preference.

We exchanged uncomfortable glances at one another upon reading the email, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I would actually taste the heartbreak of young love at this dinner — and not just figuratively, but literally, as I pictured us hunched over a table eating a cold pizza Lunchable for our last intimate dinner in the immediate future while Lil’ Wayne’s “Lollipop” played in the background.

I held out hope that our love would survive as we parked our car in front of the “surprise” venue in South End: Lincoln’s Haberdashery.

We sat at a table for four and were later joined by a lovely German couple who quickly took us under their wing. We were genuinely smitten at our charger plates being plastic lunch trays — cute start — then we opened our “report cards,” and things unraveled from there.

The report card was to be used to grade each course, and inside the same envelope there were passport-sized pictures of some unknown individual. I soon realized that the pictures were supposed to be the ones I sent in of us in high school. (I guess the mix CD I was told would also be in there was reserved for Charlotte’s more elite influencers.)

Saddened by the missed opportunity for a memento, I held it together as I turned to my boyfriend and said in a menacing tone that I’ve only recognized in my mother, “If this means our songs don’t get played, I’m going to be pissed!”

I held back the “Can I speak to your manager” attitude, forced a smile at the couple across the table and we all readied our ears for “instructions on how to enjoy the meal” from our “teacher.” I never was a good listener in school. In fact, I was sentenced to silent lunch on a regular basis, but I did gather the first course would be a play on a fruit cup and would incorporate elements of a planetary science project.

Now, let me just say this: My boyfriend and I are no stranger to the concept of “it’s not the size of the boat, but the motion of the ocean” when it comes to small plates, single bites, tapas, snacks, etc. This was not our first rodeo with the froufrou and it certainly won’t be the last.

When our science project featuring six single pieces of fruit arrived, the four of us looked at one another, and I turned to my boyfriend and in a resigned tone, which I’m sure comforted his fear that I was going to flip a table, said, “Oh, we got got.” It already looked like the $315 we spent after taxes and fees was just a joke on us. (Course 1: D)

There was no getting off the boat now, however, and my spirits were lifted once I accepted defeat and embraced each imperfection that followed — starting with the wine. With each menial taste poured into our counterparts’ respective glasses (each poured into the same solitary glass, I might add, sometimes on top of the previous wine that hadn’t been finished yet) I thanked the Lord himself that I overcame the urge to drink. (Though I admit that it may have made the experience more enjoyable.)

Elevated Lunchables (Photo by Aerin Spruill)

The second course offered an “elevated Lunchable.” I can’t hate; the plastic container that looked just like the old-school lunchtime favorite brought a smile to my face. The salmon roe may have been covered up by its creamy counterpart but the caviar with accompanying dip made the cold blini well worth my time. (B+)

At this moment an egregious oversight at another table became known: Someone’s allergies/dietary restrictions had not been taken into account! While she was assured a refund, our table looked on in envy.

Course three: corn dogs remixed with cold, flavorless sautéed bass. I’ve made my feelings clear about corn dog nuggets, but long story short, they’re a travesty. (C)

Course four: a take on “nuggets” featuring chicken liver mousse, pickled Daikon, and a honey mustard that would clear your sinuses for days. The course impressed the whole table so it received an A.

Course five: square pizza. Now, this is where you wow ya girl. I thought “ruin corn dogs if you want, but don’t ruin pizza.” I wasn’t wowed, however, as the dish was cold (by this point, we wondered if all of the food was cooked off site and brought to Lincoln’s…) but at least the idea of cheese, tomato sauce, crust and pepperoni were present. (C+)

Course six: Sloppy Joes were another hit. Who would’ve guessed Sloppy Joe mix in a bao bun would change your life? Golf claps all around (B+).

We were asked to hold on to our silverware for the next course … French Toast. My eyebrows kissed my hairline as I confirmed that I wasn’t mistaken in my hearing. By this time, everyone had accepted their fate, and no one was truly angry, it was just the principle of the matter. (B-, it’s hard to eff up after all.)

Course eight was one of my guilty pleasures from The Stanley: PB&J + FG. Foie gras served chilled with dollops of jelly and, in this case, “peanut butter snow,” as they called it. (B+)

Course nine, pimento, gave me great pleasure because my boyfriend can’t stand poor table manners and we were instructed to lick the dollops off the plate! It was only a fleeting afterthought that maybe this creative way of consumption was due to a lack of silverware, but an A anyway for making my bae look like Boo Boo the Fool.)

The course I most looked forward to was the final dish: a take on Dunkaroos and chocolate milk! However, the dish was quickly overshadowed by the fact that three out of four of our glasses were filthy, and we gathered the residue was leftover from serving the same chocolate milk cocktail the night before. (B, but only after new glasses were requested.)

My takeaway: The experience didn’t end in a breakup by any means. At best, the food was decent, if lukewarm. The implementation, however, left lots to be desired. I’ll take this as a lesson; these culinary gimmicks are like potential partners. Take a step back and let other folks deal with the kinks while they’re being worked out. It’ll be well worth the taste later.

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