Wednesday, 25 April 2007

Underground dining

The Ghetto Gourmet was my first gastronomic blind date.

The "original underground experience" was set up in Oakland, California by two brothers, a chef and a poet, looking to feed and entertain people in an unconventional manner. They began to put together weekly dinners in their living room, and the movement grew larger and larger. Now events are run across the country and range from intimate gatherings to groups of more than fifty people, usually with food from local guest chefs. The Ghetto Gourmet has been cited in The San Francisco Chronicle and in Budget Travel magazine, where I read about it.

I had to go. Sadly, their only upcoming NYC event had sold out, but I signed up for their newsletter anyways and sent an email pleading for any return tickets. The team decided to have another NYC event, and this one was called GG Roots – back to the roots of the organization, a small dinner for 15 hosted in someone’s apartment with Joe, the original chef, in the kitchen. I signed up online and paid for the $75 ticket online, not knowing where I was going or what I would eat.

I decided to drag a few friends along, but couldn’t tell them where to meet me until the day of the event when I received an email with an address and a request to bring a cushion. We found ourselves at the East River, in an over sized dorm-like living room with a view of the water. The lights were low and candles and flowers adorned both the apartment and the low table in the middle of the room that would seat us. We cracked open some of the wine (it’s BYOB) and began to mingle.

Initially everyone was quite shy. We introduced ourselves to everyone in the room, but gravitated back to our own little groups quite quickly. This changed once we all sat down at the table.

We had a rousing introduction by Jeremy, the poet, which included the two rules of the evening: give thanks and hold on to your fork. He lightened the mood significantly, and we all got chatting as the first course arrived. The rest of the food arrived in quick succession which was an amazement considering the size of the kitchen. The enticing menu read:

"Beef tartar w/ parmesan crisp, parsley salad, red salt and aioli

Ghetto house salad w/ cucumber wrap, bleu cheese, bacon and buttermilk dressing

Burbon braised chicken thighs w/ potato salad and coleslaw

Pork tenderloin w/ creamed collard greens, white beans and pepper vinegar sauce

Cheese plate with caramel apple and berries" [sic]

The food did not disappoint. The flavours in every dish married very well, the combination of textures was considered (particularly in the beef tartare) and there were many things that stood out in my mind. The hawaiian red salt with the beef tartare was delicious, the blue cheese was an outstanding choice, and one I've never had before (called Roaring Forties, from Australia) and the pork tenderloin was perfectly pink in the middle, a tribute to the chef and (hopefully) to the quality of the meat he was serving. The cheese plate was a creative combination of mini toffee apples, cheese, berries and cotton candy with sprinkles, and Joe encouraged us to try the sprinkles with the cheese - an unlikely pairing, but actually really good. The only complaint we had was that the potatoes in the potato salad were slightly undercooked.

We had a quick break before the pork tenderloin course for a game, a story about the community that has evolved out of Ghetto Gourmet and for a little massage circle to break down barriers further. Everyone was a good sport and participated, perhaps thanks to a few glasses of wine. Massage is not the first thing you expect to do with a room full of strangers, but you don’t come to an event like this without an open mind to begin with.

Overall the evening was a little like eating cheese with sprinkles - not something you often do but it actually turns out quite well. We ate excellent food and got to share it with some interesting people – a publisher, pharmacist, dancer and architect among them. I’ve been looking out for more opportunities like this. A similar New York venture has begun called Homeslice West, what they call a “culinary speakeasy” aiming to bring people together over a modern take on Southern food. All meals include a signature cocktail and homemade buttermilk biscuits with honey butter. Yum. There is also The Whisk and Ladle, a supperclub based in a Williamsburg loft. Their logo, like Ghetto Gourmet's, is based on the skull and cross bones, but from their website the premise is much more classic. They host meals based on the "traditional structure of a dinner party" with dishes such as salmon poached in white wine with shiitake mushrooms.

So far I don’t know of any similar things going on in London, but I suppose that’s the point. They’re underground. What I do know is that after the success of our first date, I’ll be seeing Ghetto Gourmet again. I just have to find an event that's not sold out.

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