Good Food Blog
Underground restaurantsPosted at 11:11AM, 29 May 2009 by Claire Webb - Writer
The other night I dined in a stranger's flat. There were twelve of us politely conversing around candlelit tables. Earlier, we'd sipped aperitifs in the garden, admiring a view of chained-up bikes, bins and tower blocks - welcome to the underground restaurant.
Recession might mean the nation's purse is lighter than a Michelin-starred soufflé, but there's no need to crack open the spam just yet.
If you've ever risked neck strain examining someone else's shopping trolley or salivated over next-door's dinner, the underground restaurant is for you. Recession might mean the nation's purse is lighter than a Michelin-starred soufflé, but there's no need to crack open the spam just yet. The latest culinary trend is about old-fashioned home-cooking...other people's.
The concept isn't new. American Jim Haynes has been holding open-house suppers for 30 years. He began as a means of introducing acquaintances and soon attracted crowds hungry for an unusual night out. Nowadays, 50 or 60 people attend the weekly Sunday salons and Jim takes pride in remembering every name on the guest list.
Our venue is more modest ex-council than Parisian chic: Ikea furniture, prints on the walls and lighting so mellow it's almost impossible to see the starter - onion salad with umemboshi vinagrette. A waitress serves the Japanese set menu in dinky bowls and on square, flowery plates. Our chef - the superbly named Horton Jupiter - isn't so authentic-looking. In fact, he's never even been to Japan, although adores sushi restaurants, especially when the food whizzes round on conveyor belts.
There's nothing of the conveyor belt to these dainty dishes: radish with apple dressing, Chinese cabbage and seaweed rolls, tofu dumplings, melt-in-the-mouth shiitake mushrooms, gingered cucumber pickles, miso, sticky rice and cockle-warming sake to finish. It's certainly more exciting than my usual weeknight fare.
On the way out, we congratulate our host and hand over £15. Underground restaurants aren't licensed, so guests are asked to give a "voluntary contribution". Reservations are via Facebook or email and most are bring-your-own.
Horton opens his doors once a week and holds two sittings to make it financially viable, but this is about the love of the craft rather than constructing the next Gordon Ramsay Empire. "People keep telling me they're going to start their own - they don't know what they're letting themselves in for," he grins, exhausted, at the end of the evening.
Still, it's good news for cash-strapped gastronomes. Underground restaurants: opening on a street near you.
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