Friday, October 16, 2009

An Underground Dining Adventure in Union Square

This piece originally appeared on, accompanied by a slideshow. The site no longer exists. I'll migrate the slideshow here as soon as I can track down the photos on an older computer.

The cryptic invitation arrived in my inbox a few weeks ago and was promptly snatched up by my spam filter, where I almost didn’t notice it. “You are most cordially invited to dine,” read the subject line. It was from JJ Gonson, a personal chef and locavore whom I had met once at a food blogger dinner many months ago. Upon opening the email, I realized I had received something any food enthusiast would be thrilled about: an invitation to an underground dinner. Not literally taking place underground, although that would be an interesting experience, these secretive dinners occur at random times and in random locations, operating in a way that is somewhere between a large dinner party and a small restaurant. Diners find out the actual location shortly before the event begins, bring their own alcohol, pay a suggested donation, and often find themselves seated at a table of strangers, being served endless courses over many hours.

This particular event, part of a series Gonson calls ONCE – One Night Culinary Events, was autumn-themed, featuring local, seasonally appropriate ingredients. It took place on Friday, October 9th, a gloomy, rainy night. As my dining companion and I arrived at the mysterious location near Union Square in Somerville, we had no idea what to expect. We entered the loft-like room which had been rented from a local woodworkers’ co-op for the occasion, and we were immediately hit with the rich smell of hearty autumn foods being prepared by a busy army of five or so chefs, including Gonson. Nearly forty place settings were spread out across a collection of dining room tables, desktops, and small TV tables. As the chefs put the finishing touches on the first course, diners found seats, got to know each other, and started opening up the wine they brought with them.

As the chefs began plating and serving the first course, an amuse-bouche consisting of two savory profiteroles, Gonson warned us to pace ourselves, because we would be served a total of nine courses over the next three hours or so. The first course featured local maitake mushrooms, also known as the “hen of the woods.” The mushrooms were the only major ingredient to make a repeat appearance elsewhere in the dinner, hiding in the thick base of course three, a potato leek soup featuring locally smoked bacon, served in a charmingly mismatched assortment of bowls and mugs. The other early courses were a beet salad (featuring all parts of the beet) with Bayley Hazen blue cheese and a creamy radish risotto with crispy kale. The rice in the risotto was one of the only non-local ingredients of the dinner.

Instead of feeling painfully full after the first four courses, we found ourselves in another kind of agony. The fifth course, simmering and bubbling quietly in the kitchen area, had a smell almost too delicious to bear, and our table watched hungrily as the lobster ravioli in butternut squash puree was finally delivered…to each table before us. At last, the raviolis arrived on our plates and disappeared quickly. The butternut squash was almost dessert-like in its sweetness but paired perfectly with the lobster filling. The notes I jotted down during this course are brief and to the point: “OMG.” The next course was the largest and most traditionally entrée-like. Beef short ribs which had been marinated in local wine and were cooking since 11am that morning were served with root vegetables and sautéed Brussels sprouts that even the most stubbornly anti-Brussels sprouts child would happily eat.

The last three courses all had elements of dessert, although courses seven and eight were sneaky about it. The seventh course was a traditional-looking flan with a big surprise – it was made of turnip. Gonson described it as “savory custard.” It was certainly an interesting combination. The eighth course was a buttery puff pastry pinwheel stuffed with arugula and a young local cheddar cheese. Course nine, a true dessert, was a sweet apple and cranberry crumble.

Although some consider underground dining dangerous in the sense that these dinners operate almost like restaurants but without the licenses and inspections, dinners like ONCE feel more like a large dinner party with friends that you just don’t know yet. They also tend to offer incredibly fair prices for large amounts of delicious food, asking for a suggested donation that just barely covers the groceries. For information about future ONCEs, which aren’t quite as secretive as others out there, check out Gonson’s website. For information about other more speakeasy-like underground dinners, start befriending some foodies, and maybe one day you’ll get that cryptic invitation.

Lobster Ravioli in Butternut Squash Puree

Cuisine En Locale on Urbanspoon

No comments:

Post a Comment

Related Posts with Thumbnails