Chances are, by the time you read this review and decide to try What Happens When, the menu will have radically changed or, even more drastically, the restaurant will have disappeared. No, I’m not just being wildly pessimistic about the state of restaurant ownership in New York; I’m just underlining the simultaneously frustrating and thrilling nature of ephemeral ‘pop-up’ restaurants, one of which is Nolita’s wildly popular What Happens When.
The brainchild of Dovetail chef John Fraser, a photographer, a composer, and two designers, What Happens When rides the currently red-hot trend of creative and funky pop-up restaurants in Manhattan. It is temporary, occupying the former Le Jardin space on Cleveland Place, and unique from other eateries of its kind in that every 30 days during its 9-month tenure, it completely reinvents itself. Each month, the menu changes; the decor changes; the inspiration changes.
The first ‘movement’ at What Happens When was a modern Scandinavian winter-scape with potato skins on the menu and a chilly black & white decor. Movement #2 was a riff on the magical world of Where The Wild Things Are and the wonders of an enchanted forest, with an earthy menu following suit. Just today, What Happens When metamorphosed into Movement #3, a lush new incarnation inspired by French impressionism, Paris in the 1880s and the quaint charm of a Renoir-esque garden party. Regardless though of how the look of the space changes, unfortunately nothing can hide the uncomfortably cramped nature of the dining room; low ceilings and too many tables in too little space can make claustrophobic folk turn green, and those who like to eat with their elbows are out of luck.
It’s safe to say that the food at What Happens When demonstrates Chef Fraser’s unrestrained joy and boundless inspiration in the kitchen. Though there a few execution foibles here and here, the new American fare is thrilling, inventive, and bold. The menu is a 3-course prix-fixe, and the delicious nuggets I ate are already ‘out of fashion.’ And so, I won’t wax poetic about what you absolutely have to order. However, you should know that the smoked hen egg tastes golden, with marigold-colored yolk dripping over rich smears of chicken liver on crusty toast; the braised short rib entree with cheddar cheese polenta is a case study on how to pack some of the boldest and brashest flavors into one dish while still exhibiting deftness and delicacy; the ‘pig’ entree, simply stated and lushly presented, thoughtfully wastes not with a big bowl of cooked pig parts; and the crispy chocolate dessert cake, a girl scout’s thin mint cookie punched up a few hundred notches, woos and seduces with more game than the most charming guy you’ve ever met.
What Happens When is fun. It’s something different from the typical New York eating-out grind. Not everything is perfect, but that’s OK because What Happens When isn’t looking for that 4-star review or a never-ending stream of regulars to keep it afloat for years to come. Instead, because of its ephemeral nature, What Happens When and its ambitious owners just ‘have fun with it.’ They offer the type of relentlessly creative product that is probably just too risky for more established restaurants. This is too bad – What Happens When is invigorating; I wish there were more restaurants like it; and I’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Oh, and we saw Natalie Portman. A very pregnant Natalie Portman. That was cool.
trendsetters, adventurous eaters, impressing a first date, people-watching