Best Restaurants 2011: Off the Menu

Pop-up dining takes the show on the road with tasty results.
Ben Bebenroth redefined dining out five years ago when he set up a portable kitchen next to a barn. Diners met him at a local farm; he handed them a cocktail and then asked them to put on boots and head into the woods to forage for wild edibles. Using whatever was brought back, Bebenroth crafted a multicourse, gourmet meal tableside.

"Diners never know what to expect," Bebenroth says of his Spice of Life Catering, which was the first in town to take a dinner series mobile. "Anything can happen. Even the best restaurants can't duplicate this kind of excitement."

His Plated Landscape dinners have since attracted sell-out crowds of 40 at more than a dozen May through September events. Free from the confines of a set menu, more chefs are taking advantage of this new way of dining. We give you exhibits A, B and C.

| A. Dinner In The Dark |

Relax, there are no blindfolds or poorly lit rooms. Diners even know the event location and which six chefs have been chosen to prepare one of the night's courses. The mystery? What's for dinner. "Chefs like it because we rarely have time to work together and learn from each other," says Brian Okin, who co-founded the series with chefs Ellis Cooley and Jeff Jarrett. Removed from the comfort of their kitchens, Okin says, the chefs have the freedom to prepare envelope-pushing dishes you might not find on the regular menu: deconstructed Caesar salad with flash-fried egg yolk, garlic pudding and short ribs with chocolate sauce. Find on Facebook

| B. Emerging Chefs |

With a portable burner as his pulpit, chef Jeff Fisher tempted the taste buds of diners at a February dinner with biblically inspired morsels. "Everything had some sort of religious association," says Fisher, the Touch Supper Club chef who hosted the Emerging Chefs' Sacri-licious dinner inside a former church. "I made 'communion' wafers with toast points and foie gras, cured salmon for a tartare in Saint Germain liqueur, [and] served [it] with braised pork belly with forbidden rice." Created by former city of Cleveland tech czar Michael DeAloia, the dinners are designed to promote culinary creativity by bringing 30 to 60 eaters together for themed nibbling.

| C. Crisp Catering |

A chef with a flair for entertaining, Matt Mytro plans parties that challenge perceptions. He's gotten people to suck lemons at Flavor Tripping get-togethers by dispensing African berries that trick taste buds into identifying sour as sweet. His Yumm events showcase molecular gastronomy (liquid nitrogen milkshakes anyone?). His most recent creation, Naked Sushi, features hors d'oeuvres passed by women in g-strings and body paint, who later become platters as tasty bits of seafood and rice are laid out on them. "I'm a sociable guy who gets bored easily, so I come up with these crazy culinary concepts," Mytro says.;

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