How do you reinvent a classic appetizer made of just two ingredients?
If you’re chef Rachel Miller of Nightshade, you add a third component that transforms the dish into something special.
Her take on ham and melon is a modern spin on a common dish. The appetizer is a classic for a reason: Fatty and salty cured ham—usually prosciutto—is paired with sweet and juicy melon. Miller dresses the ham and prosciutto with a vibrant Thai basil and crystallized ginger relish, adding a spicy and herbaceous kick. It’s emblematic of the type of food being produced by Nightshade, a fast-growing North Shore pop-up that serves up inventive high-level food in casual settings.
Miller is one half of the Lynn-based team behind Nightshade. She works closely with Kelsey McCallan, a veteran sommelier, to match food with wines and creative cocktails. One dinner might be a four-course meal paired with cocktails from Deacon Giles Distillery, while another is a seven-course Halloween-themed meal at Lynn’s Capitol Diner, complemented by sparkling wines. Miller says the aim is to create modern food inspired by the flavors of Vietnam, while highlighting local producers.
“I like to think of [our food] as clean, coordinated, articulate, and deep,” says Miller, who started Nightshade after working in some of Boston’s best restaurants (Miller and McCallan worked together at the now-closed Clio).
For Miller and McCallan, Nightshade is more than a business. It’s a creative outlet.
“We wanted to create something that was a reflection of our mentors—and ourselves—at this point in our careers,” says Miller, adding that the pop-up model forces her and McCallan to stay on their toes.
And diners are kept pleasantly off-balance, too. A recent pop-up included dishes like quail congee (a rice porridge) with a tangy “dark mother bread” and pork rillettes served with sorrel and crabapple. Part of the appeal of Miller’s food is that she’ll serve up potentially unfamiliar ingredients in an approachable way.
The food and drink pairings are an integral part of the experience. Nightshade often pops up at breweries, cideries, and distilleries—like Bent Water in Lynn or Far From The Tree and Deacon Giles in Salem.
Deacon Giles proved to be a natural pairing. The craft distillery has hosted a range of pop-ups, from Goodnight Fatty to Jaju Pierogi to The Salem Cheese Shop. And when Nightshade approached them, it seemed like a perfect match.
“Their concept of high-end fine dining with a twist pairs well with our well-made craft cocktails,” says Jesse Brenneman, one of the co-founders of Deacon Giles. “Our space is also intimate, which provides an excellent atmosphere for such an event.”
It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. Nightshade gets an accessible, low-cost venue, while the hosts can attract new customers. It’s a model that’s being replicated by other pop-ups. Visit any North Shore brewery on a given night and you’re likely to find a small purveyor serving up food.
This dynamic reflects the cooperative nature of the North Shore’s burgeoning
“I think the recent shift in consumer trends to ‘buy local, eat local, and drink local’ is directly responsible. People are recognizing that they want to improve the overall quality of life within their communities, ?and to do that they need ??to improve their local economies?,” says Brenneman, adding that as more producers offer specialized products, cooperation is needed to grow businesses. “Just because you make great pickles? doesn’t mean everyone is going to know about them. Without the help of those purveyors who buy and serve them, you might never get noticed.”
At Nightshade, Miller and McCallan are hoping that community support will help them open their own brick-and-mortar restaurant someday.
Chef Rachel Miller and sommelier Kelsey McCallan
It’s a model that has worked for other pop-ups. Rover Bagel parlayed their success at Bambolina into a new shop in Biddeford, Maine, and the Polish dumplings produced by Gloucester’s Jaju Pierogi are now found in markets from Western Massachusetts to the South Shore.
“Pop-ups are a low barrier to entry,” says Vanessa White of Jaju Pierogi. “There are lots of underutilized spaces—pizza shops that aren’t open in the morning, bakeries that aren’t open in the afternoon, delis that are closed on Sundays.”
Despite Jaju’s success, White says that the novelty of pop-ups is waning—largely because there are so many. “People are always getting blasted with options on social media. We see steady traffic, but people don’t really plan their night around a pop-up anymore.”
And Miller is cognizant of that, which is why she and McCallan have focused on creating a unique experience that is more immersive for diners—the kind of meal that’s usually only found in bigger cities.
“Tasting menus are stories,” says Miller. “They are a way to express a time and place. And [the format] holds me to researching and evolving as a cook. I’m determined to open a restaurant. In the meantime, we’ll keep testing different waters and pushing ourselves.”