By Jamie Drummond
I suppose that it would be fair to call me a bit of a veteran and erstwhile dirty denizen when it comes to the phenomenon known as “Underground Dining.” No matter how fickle the viewpoints of certain print and online publications (“Oh, it’s just soooooo 2008!”,) I have forever found the whole concept most fascinating. Having always been drawn towards the secretive even as a child, over the years I have been guilty of going out of my way to find a seat for myself at the most furtive of dinner tables. Whilst friends (and enemies) have often joked that I have my finger firmly upon the throbbing prostate of the zeitgeist that is the culinary underworld, it is interesting to note that the more often one attends events of this nature, the more often one is asked to dine at similar happenings. With this in mind, I will admit that I was actually quite intrigued to find myself invited to the UNrestaurant… located at a secret venue (Mais, oui!)… in Prince Edward County (Zut alors!!!)
On the day of the dinner we were emailed directions to the UNrestaurant’s oh-so-secret location and, tellingly, a list of suggested wine styles to accompany the as-yet-undisclosed menu. The UNrestaurant is BYOB you see. What with the whole underground dining scene forever paddling in the vagaries of the legalities surrounding both health inspection and the sale/consumption of alcohol, perhaps it is actually smarter for an hush-hush operation such as this to request guests bring their own tipples?
We arrived early evening at an unassuming property on a quiet back street somewhere within the boundaries Prince Edward County. As we were lead through a small vestibule to a modestly appointed kitchen-cum-reception area, our coats were taken by our mysterious hosts with the most welcoming of smiles. My brand new hat was hung upon a handy chandelier and a generous glass of the sparkling wine we had brought along was expediently thrust into my hand , as if they knew exactly how much I required some liquid refreshment. Now that is what I call service!
The assembled group of around 16 diners were quite the motley crew: a journalist, a winemaker, a farmer (the supplier of our pig for the evening no less!), a butcher, a baker, a candlestickmaker… I’m lying about the latter three, but you get the idea. With Prince Edward County being the size it is, it quickly became apparent that most of these folks knew each other (or at the very least, OF each other.) For just a fleeting moment I felt like an interloper from the big city, and my head was suddenly filled with Wickerman-like visions of being sacrificed in some manner for the good of the County harvest. After a few sips of sparkling wine from the Grange of Prince Edward I came to the realisation that I possess a rather overactive imagination (something that I should really be cogniscent of after all these years!) As the wine flowed, so did the conversation and we were made to feel most very welcome in our unfamiliar dining surroundings. Our hosts then led us into a larger candlelit dining room where two long tables were dressed for dinner in an elegant bohemian manner. Muted downtempo music set the scene for what was sure to be a memorable dinner…
One thing that I noticed almost immediately was that even with 16 guests bringing their own bottles for the evening, every single bottle was from Prince Edward County. I feel that this is testament to the obvious pride that inhabitants of The County have for their nascent wine industry. There was also a extremely warm feeling of conviviality amongst the diners, with innumerable bottles being passed back and forth between tables all night long, allowing everyone present the opportunity to taste each wine, something that is a million miles away from the ennui often filling the dining rooms of many a big city.
At this point I feel that I should also mention the service. We were served for the most part by a young fellow with a New York hospitality background, who worked that room with such a high level of efficient, gracious, and unobtrusive service that it blew my socks off. He could certainly teach many a Toronto server a thing or too. Bravo.
Although The County may not have the worldly, overseeing nabob that is Charlie of Charlie’s Burgers infamy, nor does it have Toronto’s seemingly never-ending list of bizarre locations in which to host events such as this, what is does have is a plethora of farmers to supply a happening of this type with the ultimate in local meats, vegetables, and cheeses. The sheer integrity of the raw ingredients was simply phenomenal. Another thing that The County has is a Chef with the skills to take these raw ingredients and turn them into something quite wonderful. Although I am not at liberty to divulge the identity of the young Chef who prepared these dishes for us, I can assure you that he (or she) has the most immaculate of credentials, and certainly possesses the requisite kitchen skills to execute what has to be one of my most enjoyable meals in quite some time.
As the evening drew to a close and the last remnants of some delightful County Pinot Noir were consumed, I reflected upon our evening; Despite having spent an evening at an underground dining event, I felt as if I had been at a delightful dinner party with friends and friends of friends. It was truly exceptional experience and one that comes with my highest recommendation.
If you are at all interested in attending one of the splendid UNrestaurant evenings, email email@example.com and please tell them that Good Food Revolution sent you.
Edinburgh-born/Toronto-based Sommelier, consultant, writer, judge, and educator Jamie Drummond is the Director of Programs/Editor of Good Food Revolution… and he has a little tip for UNrestaurant guests: If you arrive wearing a hat don’t hang it up on the chandelier unless you would like to enjoy the olfactory pleasures of the UNrestaurant hovering around your nose for the next few days!