Sunday 6 December 2009

Pop-ups, supper clubs & underground restaurants

One of the trendiest trends in trendy dining this year has to be the growth in pop-up and underground restaurants, or supper clubs.

Budding amateur cooks, committed food lovers and dazzling hospitality queens have flung open the doors of their homes, polished the cutlery, popped open the bubbly and allowed word of mouth (read: Facebook) to bring friends, friends of friends and inquisitive strangers to share in their offerings.

Jay Rayner has expressed skepticism over whether the fad would last - and it's true there may be many "flashes in the pan". However, some underground "amateurs" are proving themselves to be able to stay the distance, and solidify their reputations as quality dining alternatives month after month. The Rambling Restaurant is reputed to be one such example I'm hoping to try (although I haven't yet had the pleasure) and Ms Marmite Lover's Underground Restaurant is another which has attracted much publicity. Even famous restauranteurs have indulged in the pop-up scene, and many London foodies were quick to sample the goods when Pierre Koffman sprung to the surface with La Tante Claire in October for a matter of days on the roof of Selfridges.

Underground restaurants offer the intrepid diner a sense of camaraderie as fellow patrons meet for the first time in the intimate setting of the host's home, share wine at communal tables and interact with cook and host in a way that is a hybrid mix of social event, restaurant dining and dinner party setting. It may not be for everyone, and there's always the risk you'll be stuck next to a freak, but if my first supper club experience last night was anything to go by, the underground scene is likely to give birth to a new generation of talented cooks and hosts testing and fortifying their skills just as quickly as it will weed out those who will discover it's not really the game for them.

It was high time for the Greedy Diva to get on the scene. And so it was with much anticipation that I attended The Humble Kitchen's "Supper Club for Christmas" on Saturday night - my initiation into the underground.

First, the disclaimer. This is not a restaurant review. Host and hostess are two of my known underground associates, who have created a new outlet for their passion and creativity with their recent HK venture. So, I will try not to wax too lyrical here about my fabulous evening - and you may take or leave my praises with a grain of salt. Instead, I'll simply flesh out my views on the whole supper club trend with some illustrations of what is has to offer at its best by way of the examples of the fare, service and company I experienced at the HK last night.

Having booked our tickets online for £25, a cluster of around 20 friends and strangers gathered at HK's fashionable base pad overlooking Brick Lane in Shoreditch. Having offloaded our coats and brollies, we warmed up with a Christmas champagne cocktail (elderflower, berry, gin, champagne) and canapes, perused the rather professional looking wine list (a range of bottles from various regions available by raffle ticket for £15) before being seated in time for our first course.

Entree: Savoury spiced mince pie topped with a sassy egg yolk, and some English sweet and sour on the side. This was explained on the menu to be the crafty HK take on the original mince pie, "the medieval chewet", which was a fried or baked pastry containing chopped meat, mixed with boiled egg yolks, dried fruit and spices. I have now banished all memories of mince pies past, and sickly supermarket monstrosities - this dish was meaty and rich, with a wonderful combination of flavours and textures. Loved the egg yolk. Totally gour-met.

Main course: We welcomed the whole roasted partridge with bread sauce, winter lentils, mash, roasted garlic and game jus. This meaty bird was beautifully roasted and succulent, and the juicy lentils provided a lovely texture and balance to the full flavoured meat. I tried to imagine myself pulling off 20 such dishes so well - until the fire alarms started going off in my head. Not a pretty thought. Back to reality.

Dessert was a rich plum pudding with a luscious vanilla and brandy custard. No need for a dishwasher for my plate...

Over a cheese board, coffee and home baked biscotti, the troops gathered and gossiped, polishing off a healthy amount of wine, until our hospitable host chef (complete with stripey T) and his glamorous hostess joined in the gaggle. The Peanut Gallery and I, full bellies and groaning livers, retired at around the 1am mark, leaving several solid performers still going strong and likely to head out to the nearby bars of Brick Lane.

I have been wined and dined by these two gourmets before at their enormous dinner parties, but with the Humble Kitchen they have taken their expertise to a whole new level. Each dish was perfectly executed, the environment warm and welcoming and they have completely nailed the right balance between homely and professional.

I'm amazed at the level of professionalism that some of the current underground operations have apparently mastered. It's inspiring to see that passion and skill, from complete amateurs in many cases, really can generate something unique, exciting and satisfying, bringing together friends and strangers alike to share in the creative experience. And all the better that this particular social wave of endeavour caters to the most gluttonous among us. Bring it on.


  1. Thanks for the tip, it sounds really good and very close to my house. I will google & contact them for a booking.

    Luiz @ The London Foodie

  2. Hi Luiz - Oh do. I think we're going back for the next one actually, so it would be fun if we end up at the same one!


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