This is the third post in a series on underground supper clubs (you can read the first here, and the second here), dining establishments that operate outside the law. Not exactly restaurants, and not exactly dinner parties, these clubs have developed devoted followings, but what is it that they really do? We wanted to find out. (Most names have been changed to protect the innocent.) Today: Dinnertime Let's be clear: No matter which of the various supper clubs around the country you choose to go to, you're not really going there for the food. Sure, ostensibly, that's the point of these things. They're supper clubs. But then, there's a reason why the time set aside for pre-dinner mingling (and drinking) is usually a lot longer than the time set aside for eating. After all, if it were just the food you wanted, you'd spend your money at a restaurant and have it cooked by a professional, where you would meet no one but your server (okay, maybe a sommelier). But rest assured, dinner is served, albeit to varying degrees of quality. Some of the food we ate—a simple asparagus dish, served family-style, covered with chopped poached eggs and miso butter, for example—was terrific. But some of the food was just a terrific reminder that the ambitions of the amateur chef can often outweigh the talent (chewy pine nut-crusted watermelon served on a paltry bed of undressed greens comes to mind).
More than anything else we experienced, the food was the biggest wild card of the various clubs. Some dinners were served family-style, with food just coming out of the kitchen as it became ready. Others printed up menus, adhered to the app-entrée-dessert structure of dining, and offered a choice of a fish or vegetarian meal for dinner. No matter which style was chosen, though, the food was being labored over. All attendees always appreciated the food in a way that restaurant-goers rarely do. At a restaurant, you take the food for granted. Regardless of the quality, the people making your food are doing a job. You look very differently at a dish that's being prepared by a (relatively) unpaid stranger who is working so hard just to feed you. Even when the food totally sucked, it wasn't bad because it was so great that somebody had taken the time to make this. For us! (Also, everything tastes better after the amount of hooch we were served during the pre-dinner meet-n-greet sessions.) We can't speak for all supper clubs, but at the clubs we attended, the food was a serviceable part of the evening, yet never so good that it drew the focus away from the social aspects. These places do circumvent the health department, so it's worth noting that we never got sick, which means that the food was probably all prepared in a sanitary manner (and when one's cooking for 20 people in a home kitchen, that's easier said than done), and we did have some good dishes. But if you're looking for a transcendent culinary experience, this isn't it. Next week: Finishing up.