Supping in Secret

No health department, no Zagat listing, just strangers with a kitchen and secret password.

secretWalking my dog up the long hill to Prospect Park after work, I give myself whiplash trying to get a look through every apartment window we pass. I’m not the only one with this bad habit; I have friends who’ve admitted to rearranging their nighttime commute to hit up favorite windows of favorite apartments, friends who can recite the dinnertime rituals of families they’ve never met.

Why all this curiosity about the interiors of strangers’ lives? For the same reasons, I’d argue, that drive people to hand $40, $50, $65 for dinner over to strangers whose only culinary credentials come through word of mouth; for the same reasons groups of anywhere from 6 to 60 strangers have been collecting in homes across Brooklyn to break bread with each other: truth is, in a city of millions, we’re all prone to feeling a little lonely.

“Supper clubs,” “speakeasies,” “underground restaurants”—everyone I talked to seemed equally uncomfortable with the labels. “Part of the trouble,” said a young woman I’ll call Ms. X, who, along with her three roommates, heads up the Williamsburg-based Whisk and Ladle, “is that all those names make it sound like some kind of exclusive snobfest.” Mr. T, one half of Coach Peaches, agrees. “All the ‘we’re creating an alternative environment for social interaction’ stuff is fine, but when you get down to it, you just try to make some good food, be a good host, and serve a lot of wine. Anything beyond that starts sounding precious or self-righteous.” He’s right to point out there’s no getting around the fact that any gathering of people that might be termed a club reeks of exclusivity. In a long tradition stretching from playgrounds to the Playboy mansion, the concept of a club has always relied on letting some in and keeping others out. Yet none of the underground restaurants I attended reeked of anything but good will. If that sounds simplistic—hey, it is.

FISHA

That said, gaining entry to a Sunday feast at this Fort Greene underground restaurant takes a little doing. Once you’ve snagged an invite—either by tracking down Mr. FISHA’s e-mail or being put in touch with him by a luckier friend—you’re e-mailed a set of instructions directing you to a wine store in Fort Greene. The wine seller rings up your choice from a preselected variety of inexpensive bottles and gives you the address; for this first dinner, the wine acts as both password and entrance fee. You’ll be seated next to strangers, each straggling in with a bottle. Once you’ve attended a dinner Chez FISHA, however, you’re welcome to book the services of chef and home for you and as many of your friends as you like.

The going rate for a private party in Brooklyn? Forty bucks. My friend Mike, five of his friends (one of whom had attended a previous dinner and booked this one) and I arrived on the quiet, tree-lined street at eight o’clock one Sunday night in October. Because of the unseasonably warm weather (hello, Al Gore), we headed for the backyard. Stepping through the doors, I found real, healthy, flowering plants, plants that looked like someone remembered to water them every day; vines crisscrossing the wooden fence; a giant chessboard holding court in the middle of the patio, complete with waist-high rooks and queens. As we stood by the chessboard, staring at the moon, Mike tilted his head back and let out a low whistle: “Stars,” he said. “There’s something you don’t see every day.”

Here’s something else you probably don’t see: seven New Yorkers sitting down to dinner at a candlelit table where they can hear every word everyone else says without straining. Seven New Yorkers sitting at a table with no loud neighboring parties celebrating a birthday or graduation, no couples squabbling over dessert, no aggressive or laconic waiters, just soft background jazz, a few bottles of wine, and the smell of caramelizing onions drifting over from under the stairs to the deck.

The food at FISHA is clean and artfully presented, the kind of food you might expect from a friend who traded in his banking job for a Bill Buford–inspired stint in a decent kitchen: grapefruit-glazed shrimp was followed by a “deconstructed” blue-cheese salad with pear, peppery Italian arugula and candied black walnuts; then barbecued chicken with blueberry glaze and red bliss potatoes. The dessert, testament to the pitfalls of navigating this kind of operation solo, was store-bought passion-fruit mousse cakes. Apparently, Mr. FISHA explained sheepishly, there’d been a minor disaster with the intended bread pudding.

A cook who knows when to cut his losses? There’s more than one kitchen out there that could use someone with that kind of foresight. Besides, the mousse cakes were light and refreshing, and by the time we got them, everyone was in the kind of riotous good mood that necessitated a toast: to the chef!

COACH PEACHES

Mr. T and Mr. G make a formidable pair: they’re charming, witty, and they also happen to know how to throw a great party. Renting a house with some college classmates over winter break a few years back, they found themselves facing a crowd of hungry friends. Luckily for everyone, Mr. T and Mr. G liked to cook; they loved it, actually, enough to make that dinner the first in a long tradition. During college and the years directly after, as they fooled around with recipes and increasingly ambitious menus, they got a feel for cooking for a small crowd. Which is to say that they got that experience so rare to cooks who make their living in the kitchen—the pleasure of feeding people whose reactions are right there in front of them. When Mr. T and Mr. G moved to New York and ended up landing one of those one-in-a-mil- lion apartments you always hear about but never find, picking up where they left off felt inevitable. At first, it was a few friends. Then friends and friends of friends. Pretty soon, those friends of friends started bringing their friends, and within the year Mr. T and Mr. G had a mailing list upward of 2,000 people. Not bad for guys who started out tweaking canapés to pass around with the New Year’s Eve champagne.

These days, a night with Coach Peaches starts with a cocktail strong enough to inspire bravery. At a dinner entitled “Coach Peaches’ Trophy Bibs and Aspic Steeple” (all their dinners have names, and all of them are equally fantastical), I had something called a “Rosemary’s Baby,” made from Kaffir lime vodka, Chartreuse, fresh rosemary and basil, pomegranate juice and fresh lime juice. It was delicious. I’d come stag, so I had two, and pretty soon found myself in conversation with the couple eating nuts at the bar. We stood, making small talk, glancing a little apprehensively toward the two long tables at the center of the room. Sadly, since the days of Coach Peaches’s inception, the Fort Greene dream loft has come and gone; they’re now a roving dinner club. They hold their feasts at friends’ homes or the occasional rented space. The dinner I attended was held at the Montauk Club in Park Slope, where they’re repeat customers.

The Montauk Club is a venerable building, a monument to the days when “club” wasn’t a word to take lightly. Decorative flourishes include a balcony guarded by stone gargoyles and a series of portraits featuring well-fed young men who bear an uncomfortable resemblance to our current president. “Like a Wes Anderson movie exploded in here,” one guest remarked, and in fact that echo of Mr. Anderson’s nerd-chic whimsy sounded in not only the interior design but also the details of the dinner. The menus, for example, each a take-out menu from a Chinese restaurant or pizza joint with that evening’s fare scrawled across the front: SPROUTS, SOUP, DUCK, GREENS, CHEESE, DESSERT.

By the time I’d cleaned the last tender Brussels sprout from my plate, I knew the first names of everyone sitting in the seats directly surrounding me and had some idea of their occupation and background. The most uncomfortable part of eating with strangers may be that those tired old questions—What do you do? Where do you live? Where are you from?—can’t be avoided; but at an underground restaurant dinner, everyone plows right ahead after the requisite icebreakers. You’ve got five courses, start to finish, which means at least an hour and a half. Dispense with the pleasantries, and you’ve got time to dig in.

Over bowls of saffron-spiked seafood chowder, I learned that the woman sitting diagonally from me had entered her dog in the Tompkins Square Dog Park Halloween contest; the woman next to her, as it turns out, had been pleading with her husband (seated at my other diagonal) to get a dog for months. The three of us got involved in a lengthy discussion of the pros and cons of owning dogs in the city. “Christ,” said the dog-less woman as the duck arrived, “I can’t believe we’re talking about dog crap at dinner.” To my right, a couple explained life on “the other side” of Flatbush to the dog-less woman’s husband; to my left, the boyfriend of the woman with the recently costumed dog waxed rhapsodic over a favorite food blogger to a man whose face I don’t think I ever laid eyes on. The tables were long, and the gingerbread cake with mascarpone cream demanded my full attention.

Past attendees of Coach Peaches’s dinners provided me with some pithy quotes, and in the name of semi-investigative reporting I’ll provide one here. A repeat customer surmised that what made a Coach Peaches dinner such a pleasure had more to do with the overall experience than any one detail. “We know that, like a good action film [the dinner], will have a happy ending,” he wrote in an e-mail, “but we want to see how it happens.” I paused over that “how it happens” part. Isn’t the “how” a big part of why we go out to eat? Is it possible that we’ve stopped being surprised by how things happen in restaurants? Have we been disappointed enough times—the food was blah, the drinks weak, the bum leg on the table apparently uninteresting to the waiter—that the great mystery we kept heading out to discover has lost it luster?

Maybe.

WHISK AND LADLE

Williamsburgers, don’t get your backs up, but your reputation proceeds you. Your kingdom often gets made out to be a club of its own, one where all the members are attractive and under 30, so hip it hurts, et cetera. I don’t know enough about Williamsburg to declare whether it’s gotten a bum rap, but the Whisk and Ladle folks don’t deserve anything but your admiration. So they’re young and comely and happened to have found each other in a serendipitous twist of Craigslist fate. It’s still hard to hate them. Why try? It may be that their bi-level loft in an old factory by the water and the signs for the Williamsburg Badminton Club tacked up along their walls and their skinny-pantsed bartender and the rocking cocktails he served count as hipster chic; I don’t know. I was too busy enjoying myself to care.

Call me a snob, but the best thing about the Whisk and Ladle dinner was how it made me feel like I belonged. It realized every one of my preconceived dreams about what a supper club can do. While my friend and I drank our Freshman Girls (double infused strawberry tequila with Frangelico and orange juice), Ms. X and Ms. Y energetically chopped away just a few feet away. It was easy enough to lean over and ask about the hors d’oeuvres Mr. W was laying out on a tray (a trio of toasts and tapenades), and pretty soon we were offering a mushroom toast to the guy nursing his Village Idiot (double infused apple rum, lemon juice, powdered sugar, and iced tea) behind us and asking the woman with the stripy blue scarf if she thought the loaf of bread by the soup tureen was homemade (it was).

Eating out in this city is loaded with choices: hotspot or old favorite, cheap or splurge, neighborhood joint or destination, bustling or sleepy. All this before you’ve cracked a menu. Someone with a better grip on French than I can claim once told me the word “restaurant” comes from the French restaurer, “to restore,” and I can’t help thinking it wasn’t ever meant to get so complicated. When you’re sitting at a table with five or six strangers, you’re reminded that meals are sup- posed to incorporate more than just eating: in an ideal world, the dinner table fosters a kind of dialogue that’s as much about the people as it is about the food in front of them.

Which isn’t to say that the food didn’t deserve attention. The homemade bread turned out to be crusty and delicious; my bowl of carrot-ginger soup warranted a final surreptitious finger-swipe before it was removed; the entrée plate, a meat trio featuring maple pulled pork,turkey sausage, and lamb meatballs, was hearty without being overwhelming. Dessert stole the show though, and that’s not just my sweet tooth talking. Yogurt sorbet cooled down a cayenne-spiked chocolate cake, a concoction everyone at the table agreed had just the right amount of fire.

Was the food at any of these supper club gatherings the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten in New York? In all fairness to real restaurants, I can’t lie: It wasn’t. But a lot of it was impressively good, and the memory of those less remarkable dishes faded quickly. After each dinner, what I found myself remembering most was the people I sat next to, who I’d overheard and who I’d interrupted. For once, the conversation at the dinner table was barely about the food at all. We didn’t discuss what to order. We didn’t debate whether to send back a dish because it was cool where it should have been warm, or salty where we wished it had been sweet. No one announced any allergies or made faces: everyone murmured approvingly between bites; everyone lingered over dessert, licking their spoons clean.

What these supper clubs have figured out is that filling your stomach without filling your soul isn’t much nourishment at all; by sitting down and engaging in real conversations, by being welcomed into someone else’s home, by taking more than a surreptitious peek at strangers’ lives—actually learning what different people do and why and how, listening to stories you might never otherwise have heard— you’re allowed, for a few hours, to live in a kinder, gentler city, one most have us had given up thinking existed at all.

UNDERGROUND WALKUP

I squint at the address, then down at the piece of paper, then at my phone to punch in the number the Brooklyn Food Group e-mailed to me. Over the next minute, a dozen people do the same thing, congregating like straphangers waiting for the bus—though maybe this time, we’re supposed to talk to each other? A young woman sprints down the stairs and lets us in without introduction. Though BFG typically insists on prepayment, I botched the PayPal protocol and count out five twenties for me and my friend. Upstairs she says, “You can throw your coats on the bed. Just don’t let the cat out.”

Two hanging sheets obscure the kitchen and we stand against the backdrop listening to chopping, sipping cider cocktails, and eyeing two tables set for 20, shoehorned between bookshelves and laid out with menus bearing our names. I scan the table to find where I’m seated, then the shelves to find out who lives here. I’ve seen their bedroom but don’t know their names.

Two people canceled, citing colds that left them unable to taste, so dinner is delayed a few minutes while our hosts snatch a couple off Smith Street to take their places. They’d been reading the menu in the window at Saul when Ms. BFG approached them with an invitation upstairs. They’re touchy-feely, still on their date. Is PDA better or worse in the home of strangers?

When we take our seats, Mr. BFG, relishing his chef role, emerges from behind the curtain. “Autumn is a sonnet,” he declares, keeping court. “Cooking in California is poetry in free verse,” he explains, hitting his stride as someone near that laptop in the corner pauses the Magnetic Fields. “But in the frozen Northeast, fall’s waning harvest is both a challenge and an inspiration.”

Then it’s time to eat, but first, another announcement: “The cutlery didn’t show.” Turns out the tables, chairs, plates and erstwhile flatware are rented from an operation that’s “certainly illegal” and evidently absentminded. Our hostess darts around the table, distributing plastic spoons for the cauliflower soup with raisins agrodolce, before the final proclamation from behind the sheet: “Look what we found!” The flatware emerges, mummified in Saran Wrap, and though the kitchen curtain doesn’t go up, the show goes on.

“What’s mizuna?” asks the grad student across from me.

“Want my raisins?” asks his friend, who admits this is his first foray to Brooklyn, not counting the time he took a wrong turn driving back from Long Island.

The chef clearly enjoys cooking in the iambic pentameter, and, unlike the setting, his grub—basil pancakes with pumpkin and chili, cardamom noodles with lamb ragout—is up to real restaurant standards. When I say so, someone possibly in the know whispers that he cooks at Telepan.

The woman next to me came stag and we’re soon deep in conversation. This is her third secret dinner and I see why: who needs Facebook? As the BYO wine flows freely, everyone at BFG feels like my latest BFF. Later I ask my host about this. “The underground nature really appeals to people,” he says. “Most of our crowd has a certain impetus to explore alternative experiences. There’s a sort of general pandemic ennui as far as the restaurant experience, and this is something different. It’s communal. Everyone comes as strangers but leaves as friends, that’s something you don’t get when you go out.”

-GL

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