A moving feast: Mellos Pop-Up to serve its last dishes tonight

Amy (Twitter) is one of the co-creators of Local Tourist Ottawa, moving to the city nearly a decade ago to attend Carleton University. Originally hailing from a small town in southwestern Ontario, she loves everything about Ottawa, from the buzz of Parliament Hill to Dalhousie’s local shopping and the thriving food scene.

Chef Matthew Carmichael launched a pop-up restaurant at the iconic Mellos Diner on Dalhousie Street in late June.

Ottawa’s food scene has been holding its own for awhile now, shaking awake the palates of what most people call a sleepy government town. But down in the heart of the Market — on Dalhousie Street — the city’s first pop-up restaurant is about to end a food experience that’s been truly novel. The Mellos Pop-Up Restaurant will serve its last plates to in-the-know foodies tonight.

The concept of a pop-up restaurant is just as it sounds: A restaurant ‘pops up’ in a temporary space to surprise and delight local eaters for a short period of time before vanishing without a trace. For the chefs, it offers a new challenge and different environment to stimulate a bit of culinary creativity. (Canada’s best-known pop-up, arguably, is Toronto’s La Carnita, a roving taco stand first appearing last summer that gave hungry fans mere minutes of notice via Twitter. La Carnita has proven so successful over the past year that the restaurant now has a permanent space on College Street.)

Chef Carmichael prepares dishes behind Mellos cramped counter. (Photo credit: The Mellos Pop-up Facebook page)

The Mellos Pop-Up is the brainschild of Matthew Carmichael, one of the city’s most-celebrated chefs who was formerly heading the kitchens at 18teen, Social and Sidedoor. After leaving those posts in early May, the Mellos concept ‘popped up’ just six weeks later, at the end of June. And every Sunday, Monday and Tuesday (and sometimes Wednesday) for the past month, Chef Carmichael and his team of local chefs and servers have been cranking out quality food using Mello’s cramped, open-space kitchen, essentially consisting of  a flat-top grill,  a gas range and a couple of deep fryers.

If you’re a true Ottawan, you’ve been to Mellos before — the Dalhousie greasy spoon diner that Rick Mercer has previously called his favourite restaurant in our nation’s capital. Mellos has been an institution for the past 60-plus years, complete with its mirrored walls, tight booths, swivel stools and faded formica countertops. And, oh yes, its cheap, always-available breakfast and co-owner/server Leisa who calls everyone ‘dear.’

Carmichael’s pop-up obviously has amped up the menu, but the relaxed, come-as-you-are atmosphere remains the same, which is possibly the best part of the whole set-up. Amazing food in a somewhat dingy diner is more awesome than oxymoron … It’s a bit of a magical. And for those that have sought out the unconventional space, the food is what should be taking centre stage, anyway.

Tuna sashimi with diakon and yuzu ponzu

Malpeque oysters

Shrimp dumplings with freshwater chestnut

The entire team works together to crank out food at an alarming pace: Showing up for the 6 pm seating last night, the first dishes were leaving the kitchen with 5 minutes. I suggest grabbing a seat at the counter, so you can watch the four-person team of chefs prep, cook, plate and present each dish … Mellos is a tight squeeze, so the chef’s pass is essentially the diner’s countertop. Plus, you can chitchat with the chefs will you wait — something not offered by the average restaurant.

The menu is simple but universally appealing: Fish tacos, shrimp dumplings, tuna sashimi, tomato salad, steak frites and two types of pasta. There is also cocktails, five wine options and two specials: oysters and a pork-shank grilled cheese. I was a little disappointed to miss out on Chef Carmichael’s curry, which has been on the menu over the Mellos Pop-up’s month-long run, but the tacos more than made up for it.

Black tomato and mozzarella salad

Steak frites with peppercorn sauce

Wild Coho salmon taco

If you can make it down to Mellos tonight — which is highly suggested — the tacos are a must-have. They also perfectly represent pop-up execution. Using only about a foot of counterspace, the tasty tacos are assembled in mere minutes. The pre-portioned fish is dipped in batter, deep-fried for a couple of minutes, and placed in a torilla topped with jalapenos, guacamole, spicy mayo, cilantro, purple cabbage and shaved radish. Quick, dirty and beyond delicious.

With tonight being the last night, you can expect that the line-up for the last Mellos Pop-up will start early: The space only holds about 35 people and there are two seatings, at 6 pm and 8 pm. The price point might seem a bit high based on the ‘quick and dirty’ descriptions offered above, but I assure you, the experience is worth every penny. My bill for two apps, a cocktail and dessert came to just under $40, so it won’t break the bank. Something to keep in mind: Cash only.

After the doors close on the Mellos Pop-Up tonight, I can’t wait to see what Chef Carmichael will do next … Or if there are others in Ottawa willing to follow in his footsteps with another pop-up.

And for the true foodies out there, Chef Carmichael is the guest speaker at this Friday’s Creative Mornings, a new monthly breakfast series for which only a handful of tickets remain. Details here.