Faith in underground dinners restored

Faith in underground dinners restored

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Plating at the X-Marx dinner (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

As some of you know from reading this blog, I haven’t had the greatest experiences at some of Chicago’s underground dinners. ‚ The last one I went to, I dropped $200 and was kicking myself all night (not to mention kicking my legs, hoping to wake them up from falling asleep - a result of sitting on the floor all night). ‚ But my entire attitude has changed, after a pair of dinners this past weekend.

Pig’s ears, quail egg and homemade noodles from X-Marx (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

On Saturday, I attended the much-anticipated X-Marx underground dinner, held in a cool antiques loft in West Ukrainian Village. My first reaction: tables and chairs, woohoo! But more important, I could tell immediately that these guys (and ladies) were a bit more seasoned, when it came to service and cooking skill. Check out that picture above: mushrooms, a single quail egg, a wild tangle of handmade noodles and a pair of cooked pig’s ears. It was one of six courses from their “Another Other Asia” dinner, based on a visit to some Asian markets the day of (and before) the event. Menus are designed a la minute, based on whatever they find in the markets, and while the theme was the lesser-known countries of Cambodia, the Phillippines, Laos and Indonesia, their understanding of flavor combinations and balance was in evidence in almost every dish.

Fried butterfish with banana blossom and heirloom mint sambal (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

Each dish had a distinctive element: in some cases, salty fish sauce; in others, bright acid from fruit or citrus, or tongue-searing heat from bird chilies. ‚ The chefs had listed some of the key ingredients on a large blackboard at the beginning of the night, so we could see some of the things we would be encountering during the night:

A preview of what’s to come…

Like most underground dinners, it was byob, so I brought a splendid Alsatian riesling to go with my early courses, which balanced the acidity and the heat from those chilies. ‚ Servers kept track of who brought which wines, and would keep bottles chilled if need be; my glass was never empty, and when it was time to switch to my Oregon pinot (for the spicy goat rib with nasi goreng) they brought it out in new glasses for me. ‚ Here’s what the goat rib looked like:

Goat rib with spicy nasi goreng (fried rice)

For dessert, they served halo halo, the traditional dessert from the Phillippines. ‚ Stuffed with chunks of flan, tapioca and mango (perhaps with too many shards of ice) it was a nice, cool ending I paired with a late harvest Canadian riesling. ‚ By 10:30 p.m., the speeches had been made, questions answered, and future dinners plugged (they’ll be doing pop-up restaurants inside Birchwood Kitchen Aug. 14 & 21, Pannenkoeken Cafe Aug. 17 & 24). ‚ I could tell, as we all made our way out into the humid night, that many of the 30 or so diners were return guests, and I’m sure I’ll be one of them in the future.

Dessert: halo halo

Last night, I returned to the Sunday Dinner Club, an underground operation that’s been in business for five years, and by now, they’ve figured out how to run a successful dinner. ‚ Between their granola bars that are now sold at dozens of locations around Chicago, and their famous burgers at the Green City market, they have an exclusive mailing list of well over a thousand fans, and you have to know someone in order to get on that list. There were about 25 people at last night’s dinner - held in one of the chef’s apartments - and even though there were just four savory courses and one dessert, most of what we ate was delicious. While first courses were just o.k. (grilled shishito peppers with some corn kernels and two dollops of Illinois goat cheese; a stripped-down, Alice Waters-worthy salad of local greens and tiny sungold tomatoes) there seemed to be more emphasis on the farms where everything came from, rather than how the actual ingredients were assembled. ‚ In courses three and four though, they came back very strong. Take course three - tiny shards of pasta, no more than a centimeter across, tossed with small chunks of chorizo, sauteed pieces of japanese eggplant and a garlic aioli that would wake Bela Lugosi. The dish normally has shellfish in it, but they opted to hold off on the seafood, since the next course came from the water as well: some of the most pristine wild salmon I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating from the Yukon River - likely swimming last Thursday - rubbed in herbed bread crumbs, cooked a perfect med-rare and served with a summertime ratatouille loaded with fresh eggplant that had been slowly-cooked with even more garlic. We literally licked the plates clean. I wound up clamoring for some type of starch to soak up any of the remaining juices, it was that good.

Wild Yukon River salmon with ratatouille (photo: Steve Dolinsky)

Dessert was simple yet sublime: a homemade cream cheese ice cream sandwich, set between two beautifully-made graham crackers, teased with the slightest amount of blackberry compote for a sweet-tart richness. Both of these underground dinners are well worth your time (and money), and both of them come with tables and chairs. :)