At long last, after two and a half months of anticipation, several blizzards and a flurry of back and forth emails, I was armed with the event’s protocol. It consisted of guest photo op restrictions and apparel parameters from the hosts of a local super-secret dining club. Five couples had agreed to let me cover one of their monthly themed dinners.
The hosts: Anonymous members of a private supper club.
The location: Somewhere in metropolitan Washington on a hilltop.
The plan: A Japanese Harajuku evening with six courses and countless complex accompaniments.
The inspiration: Recipes sourced from New York’s Momofuku and Chicago’s Alinea restaurants.
The guest list: Serious foodies, gourmands, amateur chefs and wine connoisseurs.
The required dress: Creative outfits from the Harajuku movement.
On the appointed day I rushed to Google it up — isn’t that how we inform ourselves these days? I learned that Harajuku, which loosely translated means Halloween, originated with Japanese teens meeting up on Sunday afternoons in their neighborhood parks where they sport clothing and makeup inspired by specific themes. It begins with the over-the-top Lolita look, replete with baby doll dresses and large bows or barrettes clipped into brightly dyed pink, blue or purple pigtails, Japanese anime character look-alikes, period Victorian garb and colorful punk gear with Goth-inspired hair and makeup. Matchy-matchy is very uncool, and plaids are routinely mixed with stripes and floral patterns.
“Hello Kitty” and “Pokemon” purses and lunch boxes are favored accessories, as are carrying or wearing small “Totoro” stuffed animals or creatures from Japanese animator Takashi Murakami’s line of plush toys. Some styles are straight from high-end designer ateliers, but for the most part it is cobbled together from mismatched thrift shop or boutique finds. It sounds totally anti-fashion, but is actually spectacularly artistic in a bizarre and inventive way. Many current high-fashion runway looks have evolved from this genre.
I hastily pulled together a shocking pink Japanese brocade frock coat over a cream-colored Victorian lace blouse with jabot and paired it all with plaid knee socks over black leggings and a black schoolgirl’s kilt. I left the stuffed dinosaur at home, skipped the Kabuki makeup for a smear of lip gloss, and topped it all off with an assortment of rhinestone hair clips. I felt completely off-kilter but ready to channel my inner Japanese teen.
I arrived at a large restored colonial with a hawk’s eye view of the city where my hosts, their children and an on-duty Papillon greeted me enthusiastically. I planned on coming early to take some food photos and offer assistance to the host, but the preparations were well underway. My host and chef for the evening handed me a welcoming cocktail, an infusion of Asian pears with sho-chu vodka, and invited me on a tour.
The 19th-century high-ceilinged home had two kitchens and a butler’s pantry with 10-foot-high shelves filled with all manner of exotic spices, condiments and a working kitchen’s necessaries. The upstairs kitchen, large and rustic, had a wall of well-used copper pots, another featured a large contemporary oil painting. On the lower level another workspace housed state-of-the-art equipment befitting the molecular gastronomy necessary to achieve our much-anticipated dinner.
There was a Pacojet puree machine, an Excalibur food dehydrator, a Minipack Torre vacuum chamber sealer for shrink-wrapping, and a PolyScience sous vide circulating bath for cooking or chilling. Freezer drawers held silicone molds filled with spherical frozen mousse. It immediately became clear that this was more than just a passing interest for my host, and the “Iron Chef”-style excitement ratcheted up a few more notches.
As guests filtered in and out of the bustling kitchen and drawing room and the conversation turned lively, the children, clad in their own versions of the “look,” wandered off to wherever it is that children go when they are bored with adult conversation. After a few rounds of champagne, we gathered at the long dining table where food and wine began to consume the conversation and we, in turn, them.
The first course presented was a frozen sphere of Maytag blue cheese ice cream surrounded by walnuts in grape syrup, a Port wine gelee, grape foam, walnut milk, celery and celery salt made from stalks dried in the dehydrator — a sort of mad scientist’s Waldorf salad and our host’s nod to Chef Grant Achatz of Alinea Restaurant. It was an inspired, playful and delicious adventure and I ate my way in circles around the plate repeating the yin-yang flavors by turns.
A subsequent course proved to be a sensuous dish of riesling gelee over lychee nuts with pine nut brittle and shaved frozen fois gras — a tribute to Momofuku and the genius of Chef David Chang. The mouth feel of this combination was luxurious: the tiny wriggly cubes of late harvest Riesling jelly, tender globular floral-fragrant lychees, crunchy pine nuts with their sap-like aroma encased in hardened caramel and buttery-smooth Hudson Valley duck foie gras raining down over the whole. I was pleased this evening was a secret, for I had no impetus to reveal its mysteries to outsiders just yet.
Irresistible slabs of crispy pork belly glistened, and in yet another triumph borrowed from Chang, Bo Ssam, a 10-pound braised pork shoulder, its skin rendered bronze and lacquered with ssam. Platters of just-shucked oysters appeared alongside such sauces and condiments as kimchi, chiles, fermented bean curd, pickled mustard seed sauce, scallion and ginger compote, pickled vegetables and fish sauce.
The wines for the evening were carefully selected and exquisite. A Carlisle zinfandel from the Russian River Valley, a double magnum of Poizin Reserve in the skull and crossbones-etched bottle from Armida Winery in Sonoma’s Dry Creek Valley, a fine 2007 Sea Smoke pinot noir from Santa Barbara County and an extraordinary 2007 Saxum from James Berry Vineyard Proprietary Blend (100 points from Robert Parker!). A wine of such splendor and amplitude begged silent contemplation of its marvels, every sip bespeaking its provenance and development. As my imagination concocted its journey, I envisioned its beautiful grapes slowly ripening on the vine and the experienced decisions of its vintner shepherding its path from birth passage to aging process.
With deep regret I had to take my leave for a prior engagement before dessert was served, so I will never know the ending to this evening’s meal. But in a way, like all great meals and all great wines, we stand at the precipice, lured by the siren’s song and the promise to our most fragile selves to relive that evanescent moment when all the gastronomic stars align.
To start your own private supper club:
There are widely varying degrees of group size and culinary skill levels in each supper club. To start your own, you just need to round up friends of like mind for a once-a-month evening, decide on a theme (My hosts’ club did a multi-course fennel dinner the previous month, with fennel cake and fennel ice cream for dessert!) then decide if it’s “pot luck” or if the host couple will prepare the entire meal. Guests can bring wines but need to consult the host as to the proper pairing.
The fun is in the planning and using your imagination. Single ingredients, ethnic cuisine or holidays can drive the theme of your gathering. I recall once coming upon a group of 20 or so Ukrainians picnicking in Fort Hunt Park last summer. Their party was more of a “pot luck” since each guest brought a dish, but it was marvelous in its variety of homemade pickled cucumbers and mushrooms, potted meats, borscht, a grill laden with skewered lamb shashliks, salads, homemade breads and cakes and, of course, large bowls of fresh cherries. The clear liquid of choice to wash it all down was most decidedly not branch water.
For questions or comments on this story contact firstname.lastname@example.org. And if you decide to host your own supper club, let me know how it turned out. Better yet, I’d be delighted to help!