The phrase ‘underground dinner club’ conjures images of smoke-filled gated mansions you need a password to access. A masked string quartet plays chamber music as a fiendishly grinning, impeccably dressed, crowd is served a Cornish game hen stuffed inside of a duck stuffed inside of a lamb stuffed inside of a pig stuffed inside of a day laborer. Picture ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ with fewer exposed breasts and more demi-glace. I was somewhat disappointed to learn I didn’t have to kill anyone to get on the list for Sunday Dinner Club, but I got over it.
While there is no secret word that must be uttered to a ghoul in a top hat, you can’t just waltz in to one of these semi-regular, semi-private, meals. In fact, if you aren’t quick on the draw with the old electronic mail, you’ll never get the pleasure. Dinners are announced about a month in advance to a list of eager eaters and they sell out in quick measure. Some, like the highly anticipated cassoulet dinner, fill like a pepperoni pizza’s dance card at a fat farm. I had the privilege of attending two Sunday Dinner Club events in two weeks because that’s how gluttons go about their business – excessively. Neither of these dinners was on a Sunday.
#1: Floriole Bakery
This dinner took place in a bakery I am told is exceptional, but I was there for the protein and vegetation. I was excited about this meal when I saw the menu because it featured two things I don’t particularly like (onion rings and sardines) and one I cannot stand (eggplant). This was going to be a good challenge for the uppity young turk chefs behind Sunday Dinner Club. If I didn’t gag on the eggplant, these guys are surely gifted. It’s a barometer I’ve applied in the past (eating beets for the second time in my life at Moto, eating a pig’s face at Girl and the Goat) successfully. Good luck, suckers. Any foodstuff that is commonly known to be best served completely drowned in tomato sauce and melted cheese doesn’t pass my sniff test. You could choke down adult diapers with the marinara treatment.
Anyway, about forty people were seated at one very long table down the middle of the bakery after it was closed to plebes. Booze was generously provided (my cup was never empty), though most SDC events are BYO, allowing you to get high off your own supply.
First, a gnarly little sardine served on toast with some heirloom tomato goodness. The briny funk of the fish did a nice little dance with the super fresh tomato. The balance was great.
Next up, the goat cheese and roast eggplant terrine with market greens and honey vinaigrette, featuring, my nemesis, the eggplant. They did it. They really did it. The terrine was equal parts firm yet tender and creamy. I could taste the actual eggplant, as mild as it is on its boldest day. The buttery indulgence of the terrine was offset by the bitter greens and bright vinaigrette. It was basically a perfect tone. This dish was my favorite of the night by a mile.
The potato gnocchi with red pepper sauce, bacon and Sarvecchio was substantial without being a gutshot. I liked it a lot, but it was kind of like having a friend that always buys you dinner and treats for drinks. You aren’t sure whether you like them for who they are or all the easy living they provide for you. The bacon was buying me another round before he took us all on his chartered jet to do expensive drugs in Las Vegas with Kid Rock’s new midget hooker sidekick. It was enough for me to see past his tasteless jokes and bad shoes, you know? I just don’t trust my opinion of this dish.
The steak was gorgeous. I have no idea how these guys perfectly cook forty servings of steak, but maybe the chickens they fried for my next meal were sacrificed to some lesser Santeria deity first. Healthy pink in the middle with a lovely char to the crust. Simply seasoned and served over summer beans (fancy pants speak for green beans) and topped with onion rings. Now, I get that people like onion rings. Deep frying things is a pretty foolproof way to go, but I have traditionally had a powerful dislike for onions in mostly un-doctored form. Onion rings and me, though, we are now cool. It was great to have a little more crunch to offset the soft beans under the steak.
Finally, an heirloom carrot cake with sour cream frosting that wasn’t sweet enough to give me insta-diabetes. It was the best carrot cake I’ve ever had, its ideal form.
Bleary-eyed, belly-filled and boozy-breathed, I stumble onto Webster to a chorus of screeching tires and expletives. At this point, I’m not sure who I am anymore. I thought I knew me. I thought I knew my foods and where I stood with them. I’ve been around for a few decades. I should have this shit figured out. At the risk of plunging headlong into an existential crisis, I looked forward to my second SDC event in as many weeks. My least favorite vegetable of all time, the insidious zucchini, was on the menu. This could be the end of my tenuous hold on reality.
#2 Fried Chicken
Alright, buppies and hipsters, round dos of my Sunday Dinner Club journey into the Kafka dimension. This time, we went to someone’s house, which feels a lot more underground and a lot more intimate than the bakery dinner attended (and lusted for) the week prior. This is good and this is bad. The intimacy is what it is all about. You are up close and personal with your chefs and your food and your fellow diners. My only real complaint as a person who can barely stand other people is that I am not used to not choosing who I sit next to at the dinner table. Almost everyone who goes to these things is a food nerd like me, but that doesn’t necessarily make them tolerable company. Happily, I was fortunate enough to attend both of these events with friends.
Borrowing from the one of only two chefs with a television show (Yan of Yan Can Cook being the second) that I can stand, I’d say I am a slut for fried green tomatoes. The biggest slut at Abe Vigoda Valley High School. The football team. The cheerleading squad. The substitute teachers. The janitorial staff. Yeah. I’ve had them all. I really like fried green tomatoes, you dig? First course made me big happy. Glorious depth of flavor, yet simple; served with some fresh heirlooms, cucumbers, yogurt and herbs. I could have eaten at least a couple dozen servings of this. I wish I had.
Hence came the moment I’d been dreading for a week – guanciale and zucchini frittata with market greens. It was, as the chefs described, basically the consistency of the middle of a quiche. It was a delicate and not altogether pleasant texture if you aren’t in touch with your mushy side. I’m cool with mushy. I took a fretful bite, ready for a mouthful of that cucumber impostor, fully prepared to spit it out all over the table at the risk of being labeled ‘that guy who spits his food out all over the table.’ Hrm. Gooey, porkful, pleasure. Definitely can taste the zucchini, but somehow… I am not angry. I am not sickened. I am not befouled. I am, however, panicking. My greatest enemy has become my closest friend. More bites, the food is gone. I am lost.
Somehow must get through this. The words not sense make.
Fried chicken with honey butter, corn cakes, stewed tomatoes and summer beans. Drooling butter, fat as. Corn in many forms, it comes in waves, blots out the sun. We run our cars on this? Chicken moist. Is tender. Is too tender. Where is crispy? Where is my mommy? Has the reaper come? The summer beans are here again. Déjà vu. Why do the beans mock me? Why?
Plum crisp with basil ice cream. I love you. I love you like a father. I am a sinner. I am a god.
I am naked and alive.
Sorry, where was I? Oh, yes, eating with Sunday Dinner Club has been one of the most unique and pleasurable dining experiences I’ve enjoyed and I cannot capture in words or pictures the magic of being that close to an expertly prepared meal, crafted by people who very clearly love what they do, and having it taste so good. You can love them because they are young, cool and clearly in touch with the most hyped food movement in a very long time (the whole ‘eat stuff from nearby’ concept) or you can get over your pretentious, self-important, ego trip and love them for being nice people making exceptionally tasty meals using pigs that have names. Either way, you should probably love them since I have a feeling they will be around for a good long while.