The Magazine

Pop-Up Cuisine

The adventurous gourmet samples some underground restaurants.

May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By SARA LODGE
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“Is Horton Jupiter your real name?” I asked him. “Well, Santa’s real, isn’t he?” grinned Mr. Jupiter. When he isn’t running The Secret Ingredient, which he does twice a week, he sings and plays guitar in a pop group. “Has anything ever gone wrong with these dinners?” I asked. “Well, we did once have a guest who didn’t want to leave,” he mused. “He ended up staying the night here.” I believe him. I had to depart before midnight, but Lyndon and Nina reported the next day that they had stayed into the small hours, feasting on cheese and toast and drinking wine on the house.

Emboldened by this experience, I tried another supper club, run by “Ms. Marmite Lover,” the self-appointed doyenne of Underground Restaurateurs. I chose one of her culinary theme nights: An evening devoted to food based on the novels of Patrick O’Brian. Nautical attire was requested. So I rode the subway clad in a stripy matelot dress with a skull and crossbones headscarf, bearing a bottle of rum. I disembarked into a dining room with white walls and a high ceiling, white linen tablecloths, candles, a wood fire with a huge mirror above it, roses on the mantelpiece, an eclectic selection of antique plates, and Victorian lemonade glasses.  

Ms. Marmite Lover is the kind of woman you would cast as Mistress Quickly in a production of Falstaff. Ample of bosom and girth, short like pastry and sharp like mustard, she is an earthy, commanding hostess. Be late and you may have to walk the plank. But her supper club has sparkiness: a bourgeois Bohemian sense of theater. You come for the experience as much as the food. 

Appearing in a white apron with feathers in her hair like a Victorian barmaid, she explained the menu at the start of the evening, which was helpful. There was Grog (strong rum punch); Blind Scouse (a barley and vegetable soup) and Hard Tack; Stargazy Pie (herring and egg) with the Dog’s Body (split peas) and mushroom ketchup; then, for dessert, Blind Baby (a stodgy but tasty suet pudding) with rosewater custard, cheshire cheese with oatcakes and honey, and coffee with Ratafia biscuits.

The food was a learning experience. Hard Tack is ship’s biscuit that was oven-baked four times so that it could travel on sea voyages lasting years. It looks like napkins that have been folded lengthwise several times and then nuked by a ray gun until they practically turned to stone. It tastes a bit like uncooked pasta. Like pasta, once you’ve soaked it in your soup for 20 minutes, it becomes edible. Everything else tasted pretty good. And the Stargazy Pie merited a photograph, the heads and tails of the herrings poking skywards out of the pastry crust.

My fellow diners were charming. Sweetly entranced by their own daring in being there, they agreed that the best thing about pop-up restaurants was the social fun. People shared wine. The record player playing “The Four Seasons” got stuck a few times so we had to live with a perpetually arrested Spring. (Given British weather, what’s new?) But it was evident that all the guests were enjoying themselves, especially the ones who were stopped by transport police on the way for carrying fake cutlasses.

The final underground dinner I attended was at a very different kind of supper club, Nuno Mendes’s The Loft. Mendes was a chef at El Bulli, the renowned Spanish restaurant with three Michelin stars, before coming to London to mastermind his own restaurant, which will open this year. He started The Loft as a way of trying out new recipes on the kind of diners he’d like to attract. Every week he, or a guest chef, cooks for around 20 guests, who pay £117.50 for 10 courses paired with wines.

The Loft would not look out of place in Brooklyn. It is a converted warehouse, with exposed brick walls decorated with experimental black and white photographs. The atmosphere is informal. People arrive and mingle as they would at a party, assisted by cocktails. We nibbled very thin slices of melba toast dipped in celeriac froth. The guests were mostly young urban professionals; the one thing they had in common was a fascination with food. Some had been to renowned gastronomic destinations. They told horror stories of gagging on raw razor clams and a concept dish called “The Sound of the Sea” that involved plugging in an iPod and listening to crashing waves as one consumed a plateful of edible “sand” swept by a wave of lemon foam. This made me feel quite nervous.

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