Underground dinners proliferate, but not always worth it

June 7, 2010

 

Everyone loves a little adventure, especially when it comes to dining. There's the intrigue, the unknown, the illicit nature of dining under the radar of the Chicago Department of Health. It's probably why there's been a proliferation of "underground dinners" lately. With names like Sunday Dinner Club, X-Marx, Culinary Speakeasy and the latest -- One Sister -- these businesses are run by talented 20 or 30-somethings who've usually worked in established, professional kitchens. Rather than try to go finance a bricks-and-mortar operation (with its requisite taxes and overhead and labor costs) they simply set up a website, ask you to sign-up, and then give you a call or send you an email a few hours before the dinner to tell you where to go. 

We all know it's too easy to search online for a restaurant, call them up and make a reservation (unless you want to eat at Schwa). But these underground dinners offer something alluring, and better yet, no one knows where the dinner will take place or what's going to be on the menu. It's the ultimate surprise gourmet dinner party.

About a week ago, my wife and I attended one of these dinners, run by a pair of women who call their business the Rabbit Hole Chicago. We were not neophytes; in fact, we had corralled some of our friends to attend an underground dinner a few years ago run by chef Ephraim Cuevas, who now has an underground operation called Clandestino. At the time, while we loved the BYOB aspect and the whole last-minute approach to dining on the floor of a second floor loft above a Wicker Park furniture store, the food was definitely not memorable. I recall peeking in the kitchen to see a harried Cuevas trying frantically to make the best of a kitchen the size of a New York City studio closet, and still feed some 50 people who had paid about $60 a head for the privilege.

But going into the Rabbit Hole dinner, I was much more optimistic. After all, my trusted colleague Heather Shouse at Time Out had written a glowing review of her dinner, which pretty much meant a slam-dunk. Indeed, when I asked the owner how that article had helped, she said they were booked up for several weeks into the summer. Since we were paying $85 per person for a five-course meal with wine pairings (not including tip), I figured this meal had to be pretty good. The chef, after all, had worked "diligently as sous chef to some of the best chefs San Francisco has to offer," according to their website. My wife had only one question, "are we going to have to sit on the floor again?" Of course not, I reassured her. This was big-time money for a big-time dinner that was certainly going to blow us away. Boy, was I wrong.

I got the call from The Queen of Tarts (the pastry chef/business partner) about eight hours before dinnertime. She told me where to go that night. I felt like Sean Connery getting a briefing from M. "We start promptly at 7:30 p.m." I was told. When we arrived at the apartment (locations change depending on friends, spaces and whomever volunteers their spaces) we were greeted by the Queen of Tarts herself. She led us to a charming patio on the 3rd floor, where they had set up a table to take advantage of the beautiful, warm evening. Votives graced the table and the cement railing surrounding us. Each place setting was set with great care. The only problem was the table turned out to be a giant rectangle of plywood set onto a few cinder blocks: yes, we would be dining on the floor, or rather, on some cushions set directly upon it.

We tried to be game. When my wife's 4th Grade teacher miraculously showed up as one of the guests (how bizarre is that?) she was a little more concerned than we were, since she was an amputee. "For $85 per person, it would have been nice had they given me a heads-up we would be dining on the floor tonight," she told us later.

I think one of the best things about these kinds of intimate, private dinners is the camaraderie. Everyone whined a bit, but honestly, it was just so nice to meet new people -- all adventurous souls like us -- who were in this for the food and the experience. There were roughly 18 of us crowded around the giant rectangular table. I myself, was seriously looking forward to what "The Cheshire Chef" had up her sleeve, especially since it was late May, and I knew the markets were bursting with produce. Our welcome cocktail of Lillet, orange zest and honey was setting the tone for a truly wonderful evening.

One course from a dinner with Chicago's OneSister underground dining club.
Dinner from Chicago's One Sister underground dining club.

We led off with a simple squash tart, containing bits of blue cheese. The pastry base had a nice chew, and while this wasn't exactly a homerun, it wasn't a bad way to start off a late-Spring meal. Octopus salad followed; more Mediterranean this time, with briny olives, fingerling potatoes and decent texture throughout. I noticed the portions were kind of small, but I was totally fine with having a little taste of Greece while the warm spring air blew gently around us. The wines they poured with each course weren't exactly world-class, but no one seemed to be complaining. Our third course, a homemade pappardelle with fresh ricotta was just plain boring. It needed lemon juice to brighten it up, as well as salt and pepper; there was allegedly some marrow in the sauce, but we couldn't detect any; the pasta -- while clearly hand-formed -- was gummy and not exceptionally pleasing. When our host would return to ask everyone how everything was, a bunch of enthusiastic "oh, very good"s and "yummy"s were heard. I felt like a heel for speaking up, but sheepishly told her it wasn't that great, and cited the reasons above. She was extremely polite about it, and said that she would be sure to tell the chef; they always encourage feedback to improve upon future dinners, I was told.

Course number four was a leg and thigh of duck confit served over a mash of fava beans. The duck was actually not bad, but there was some element to the fava mash that just didn't work well together; it could have also used some seasoning to heighten the flavors and make those spring beans stand out more against the richness from the confit. Again, not a terrible dish, but a real yawner. For dessert, two or three slow-roasted strawberries and a tiny scoop of ice cream. I wasn't expecting a Patrick Fahy-level dessert, but again, for that kind of money, it would have been nice to at least have an extra berry or two, or maybe perhaps a tuile or crisp cookie to provide a little crunch. The "Bitch Bubbly" they poured from South Australia also seemed an odd choice to finish with; the dry bubbles just didn't play well with the sweet ice cream and berries.

After our meal, I informally polled about eight of the guests. They all agreed that while they loved the spirit of the evening, the food just didn't live up to expectations, nor did it justify the high price. When I asked why they didn't speak up at the table, they just said they didn't want to make waves. I know I'm making more than waves out of this, but after you drop $170 plus $30 tip (is a tip really necessary if the one person serving is also the owner, and since there isn't room to walk around the table, has to pass the water and wine bottles around so people fill glasses themselves while guests pass their plates up to the front?) you then realize that for $200 you could have had a killer meal at one of any number of great places -- Naha, Topolo, Avec, Blackbird, North Pond, etc. -- and then you start to get grumpy, and if you're like me, you walk over to Big Star after dinner to wolf down a few tacos al pastor.

One of our dining companions told us that X-Marx is currently doing the best job on the underground dinner circuit, creating the most delicious meals for the price; they've already been twice. I've always had good experiences with the Sunday Dinner Club and will certainly give One Sister a shot in the future. But for now, any chance I'll peer into the Rabbit Hole again to see what's for dinner is slim.