The adventurous gourmet samples some underground restaurants.
May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By SARA LODGE
Kate Fox, a London anthropologist, concludes that what is most distinctive about the English is that they will do almost anything to avoid interaction with people they don’t know.
Photo Credit: Art Resource
A joke has it that Medusa once visited London. As the gorgon crossed Trafalgar Square, the snakes hissing in her hair, Italian and French and American tourists were turned to stone. She boarded the subway. Again, she left a sculpture trail of tourists: Australians, Japanese, Africans. The British, however, continued on their way quite unaffected by her petrifying glare. As she was leaving, she hailed the station guard: “Perish!” she demanded. “I fear you’re in the wrong place, madam,” he replied, instinctively avoiding eye contact like all his countrymen, “you’ll find the French capital on the other side of the Channel.”
Perhaps because the English fear spontaneous social contact so much, such encounters carry a frisson that they could not generate anywhere else: an illicit thrill that other nations reserve for surreptitious sex. That, at any rate, is my theory as to why, since last year, underground restaurants have become the hottest dining venues in London.
For the uninitiated: Underground restaurants are not located in basements; nor do they involve eating on the Piccadilly line. They are supper clubs, typically run by enthusiastic amateur chefs, where guests come and dine in their living rooms. Sometimes known as “pop-up” restaurants because, like mushrooms, they may appear for a season and then vanish, underground restaurants do not post signs on the wall reminding you of the Heimlich maneuver or telling you how many people fire regulations permit to stand in them. You eat there at your own risk. And most fascinatingly for the English, you meet at your own risk, too.
We are all familiar with dinner parties. Guests bring booze; hosts sweat over the chocolate mousse. At worst, the one is so busy trying to prevent the meat from burning, and the other is so busy trying to prevent the conversation from glaciating, that both feel under strain. Underground restaurants have the informality of a private home: You can peruse the book collection, peek in the refrigerator, or help yourself to water. But the element of surprise—and the fact that there is a financial transaction involved so there’s no obligation to make small talk, and the host won’t be waving from the kitchen like a trapped octopus—gives the experience a fresh energy.
Here’s what you do. You find the underground restaurant online. You send an email. You pay (normally £25-£35) in advance. A day before the event you receive the address and the time of the dinner. Then you take your courage and your map in both hands and set off along strange streets to ring a doorbell that will deliver you to—Meals of the Unexpected.
My first underground dinner was at The Secret Ingredient, run by Horton Jupiter in an area north of King’s Cross that is on the road to gentrification but hasn’t yet arrived. Alighting from a bus, I found myself amid former public housing, with apartment blocks that allude hopefully to Britain’s literary history: Shakespeare Way, Marlowe Court, Milton Avenue. I traversed epic and tragic pathways before finding Mr. Jupiter’s bijou pad, into which other enterprising underground diners were ducking.
The sense of welcome and of fun was immediate. We were ushered into a living room furnished with trestle tables, funky posters, and fairy lights. I sat with Lyndon, an architectural photographer, and Nina, a Finnish singer. Before long we were so deep in conversation that we almost didn’t notice when the first of eight courses arrived.
Horton specializes in Japanese cuisine. We were regaled with delicious dishes including edamame; fish soup with a poached quail’s egg in it; marinated onions; tiny asparagus like mascara wands; miso and sticky rice; a mirror plate with green beans; radish with lemon and apple; seaweed and cabbage; shitake mushrooms; tofu coins and pink potatoes; and green tea jelly with sake.
The mood of the company was lively but laid back. Most dinners were under £45 and I was interested to note that my table was half black and half white, a mix that isn’t as common at London dinner parties as it might be. By the end of the evening, people were swapping numbers and promising to keep in touch.
Horton Jupiter appeared with dessert. He’s a likeable man: smallish, shaggy of hair and large of smile—rather like the kind of dog in the park that brings you, a complete stranger, a ball in its mouth, inviting you to play with enthusiasm so winning that your resistance melts.