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Pop-Up Cuisine

The adventurous gourmet samples some underground restaurants.

May 31, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 35 • By SARA LODGE
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Our evening’s menu, however, was stimulating without being at all scary. The chef was Ben Greeno of Noma, a top-notch Danish restaurant. Nordic cuisine, like Nordic design, is not about richness so much as clarity. All the dishes had the freshness of an inspired idea that has always been around, but has never been presented to you so well. Our first course was an oyster, half filled with rhubarb granita, paired with rosé wine the same deep ochre-pink as the tulips on the table. 

There followed nine small plates of equal brilliance. My favorite dishes were the salt-baked beetroot with licorice and goat’s cheese, the potato sliced into waxy coins and presented in a tiny puddle of cheese “soup” with mushrooms, and the perfectly cooked beef with onion puree, charred spring onion and brown butter. All were essays in style: texture, color, and flavor. Unusual ingredients included gorse flowers and seabuckthorn berries, which have an astringency and sweetness similar to passion fruit.

I enjoyed the surprise of not choosing or knowing what I was about to eat. The sign of a really good course is that it makes you think again about some familiar unobtrusive ingredient which has been quietly working for you for years, but suddenly reveals an intense talent, a gorgeous face, you’d never suspected. In my case it was the onion, which was sensational. It was as if Mr. Onion, a pedestrian chap from Accounts, had suddenly taken off his glasses and swept me into a romantic embrace.

Alas, it was over far too soon. People sallied forth into the real world of takeaways and building supply depots that cluster in this area of North London. But they had given me useful information: names of other good supper clubs that have sprung up recently: Urban Sage, London Fields. Clearly there is something about underground dining that is just what London needs right now.

People have posited economic recession as a reason for the phenomenon. But I don’t believe them. The British have always loved the idea that behind a very ordinary-looking door there lies a fantasy world. This is the premise of Alice in Wonderland, of Narnia, of Harry Potter. Eating underground, you become the protagonist in a small adventure of this kind. And that’s a relish you can’t buy in the shops.

 Sara Lodge, a lecturer in English at the University of St. Andrews, is the author, most recently, of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth-Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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