Is the dining scene too predictable for you? Then try the delights of underground restaurants, writes Veena Kanda.
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[two_third]It’s not that underground restaurants are literally subterranean. They’re just called that they’re not necessarily strictly speaking legal. Also known as supper clubs, private dinner clubs, pop up restaurants, and guerrilla restaurants, this phenomenon is a variation on the Cuban paladares. Why not legal? They don’t bother with all the guff about regulations about licensing. None of your health and safety. Many of these restaurants are in homes and industrial premises: the addresses are often kept secret until the very last minute.
Underground restaurants capture a crucial aspect of dining for me: the communal nature of the experience. As a self-confessed foodie, there is nothing better to my mind than talking about food, planning the next meal, exchanging recipes even as you’re between mouthfuls of a good meal. What the pop-up restaurants provide is the dimension of dining with strangers. Why eat with strangers rather than your friends? I am not sure that I have a straightforward answer to that. I guess it’s the refreshing change in spending an unpredictable evening. Who knows who I’ll meet, or what we’ll be talking about?
London is crawling with these informal establishments. My first experience was at the Hidden Tea Room, at a secret location in Shoreditch. I went with a friend who, a fellow devotee of proper English tea. I must admit it was a little odd arriving at 7:30 on a Friday evening for afternoon tea prepared by an American woman. We had been informed of the location two days earlier, and been issued with a secret password and instructions on what to say to a possibly curious porter. In the event, the building turned out to have a large foyer and before long there was a number of fellow initiates waiting to be admitted to the sanctum. We were led down long corridors, up stairs and around corners to an elegant apartment, whose living-cum-dining area boasted one very long table. I took up virtually the whole room. Warmly welcomed, bubbly in hand, we were placed at table for tea. Our hostess, known as Lady Gray, surprised us from the off. The first course looked like a misshapen scone, but was an American biscuit with cheese and garlic. Divine. But none of our implorations could wrest the recipe from the lady of the house.
Next came finely-presented finger sandwiches accompanied by individual pots of tea from a vast menu. In true grand style, we were then served a homemade mango and pineapple sorbet to ready our palates for what was to come. The kitchen was secluded from us by a curtain and yet the warming aroma of baking wafted through the veil to us. We were not disappointed. Scones were produced. Warm, light and buttery with generous servings of clotted cream and jam. Impossible to resist ‘just one more’. We locked horns over the traditional conundrum: what to dollop on first – the cream or the jam? With one too many scones under our expanding belts, out came lemon drizzle cake, shortbread biscuits, and calorie-busting toffee brownie. This was beginning to require commitment. But who can resist a decent cup cake? Relief was at hand with flower tea in a glass pot and, for the hard-core lunatics still capable of a sugar rush, home-made mint chocolate truffles. Three hours of indulgence. And to think Lady Gray and her husband both have full time jobs doing other stuff.
My next underground experience was different: Bootlegbanquet is run not by amateurs, but two professional high-end chefs, Helio and Pieter. Hosting the evening is Brendan who looks after everyone like they are his best mate. Good job he’s so genial, as I got lost walking the back streets of Shoreditch with my companion, an underground virgin. A quick phone call and Brendan came to the rescue. We were not alone. It should have been easy to identify our fellow diners in the street: all dressed up and clutching bottles of wine, looking around, lost. Not that reaching this location was simple: we had to duck beneath railings to get in. This place felt a little less salubrious than the last one, but that just added to the underground feel. It was an industrial building with a stairwell like that of a bad car park with all that entails. I could hear my dining partners’ thinking to themselves ‘what have I let myself in for?’
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Once through the door, it was very smart. A huge open kitchen, Prosecco, canapés of asparagus wrapped in Parma ham. We sat down to a first course of smokey aubergine with home baked foccacia and Greek yoghurt. Pieter told us the provenance of all our dinner: the smoked eel we had in a salad with horseradish and beetroot was from a single producer in Norfolk. Just sublime. Main course was line caught sea bass from the waters off Dorset – very fresh – on a bed of spinach and endive. The great thing was that none of the flavour of the fish was diluted in fussy sauces, jus or foam. My dining partner was not quite as impressed as I was. Whilst he expected underground dining to be more experimental or ethnic, for me the adventure was to eat good food in a novel setting. Pudding was a treat –a choice of home-made caramel ice cream or a grappa panna cotta. I say ‘choice,’ but the lads were generous, so I had both. By the time we had all eaten, Helio, Pieter and Brendan joined us for coffee and moved around the table chatting to everyone. I came away feeling as if I was leaving a friend’s house. There were hugs all around and promises of Facebook befriending to keep in touch for future events.
Underground restaurateurs are a strange bunch: they all have different reasons for being in this game. For some, it’s a starting point for their ambitions to open a restaurant in the future. For others it’s purely the pleasure of cooking for others. They all have a love for food in common. Should you try them? I’d recommend them if only in they turn out to have been a passing fad. You get to eat well with others in unusual places. There’s plenty to be found online. Look out for the White Room Supper Club. If you can persuade the artist Simon Tyszko that you’ll be good company, you’ll find Phlight to be one of the more exclusive supper clubs: impressively, it has a Douglas C-47 Dakota aeroplane wing in the middle of the room. The Pale Blue Door features shows hosted by the hilarious A Man To Pet. Also look out for Miss Marmite Lover which does themed evenings. The choice is spectacular. You may think such places are unnecessary, given London’s massive official restaurant industry. But their underground cousins do provide a perfect antidote to the bland sterility of the tired established institutions. And a touch of illegality, unpredictability, even anarchy is sure to spice up your meal.[/two_third]