It’s a dinner party in the chef’s pantry
By Tom Sietsema
Sunday, October 7, 2012
Seasonal Pantry is a market in Shaw where you can find peach-bourbon barbecue sauce and elderberry-pear jam. At night, the tiny food shop morphs into a single-table dining room, where a dozen people can be served the same menu. Dinner is prepared by a chef who can’t help but eavesdrop. He’s cooking mere feet away.
I hope Daniel O’Brien, 32 and a contestant on the upcoming season of “Top Chef,” heard the murmurs of pleasure from my flock of friends when we gathered in his part-time restaurant on a recent Saturday night. Ten of us sat down to grilled bread spread with date paste, its honest sweetness cut with lemon zest and a crackle of sea salt. The fillip was the sort of sublime snack one might encounter in the home of a thoughtful friend -- or at Bibiana or Equinox, O’Brien’s previous places of employment in Washington.
That strong first impression was followed by another: a bowl of emerald-green zucchini soup, dressed with a savory tuile supporting a Lilliputian salad, was set before us by a lone server. A whisper of heat, from jalapeno, imparted bite; a hint of tang, from pickled zucchini, gave the soup verve.
“We’re No. 1 on Yelp,” O’Brien sheepishly brags when one of us asks him about his fledgling dining concept, the Supper Club. Introduced in June of last year, the format asks customers to book and pay ahead online for a menu of the chef’s choice that changes every few weeks. The Supper Club works best when everyone is on time (dinner starts promptly at 8 p.m.) and can eat the same food; ask for a change, and it costs an extra $50 -- per course. O’Brien justifies the surcharge by explaining he has only one other cook and too few burners to execute his game plan.
I’ve been twice now, and my preference is to book the entire table and stock it with names I know. As much as I enjoy meeting new characters, I’d rather spend the night with people I already like. The ideal for the chef is the opposite, he says. A collection of people who don’t know each other makes for a more interactive evening. Regardless, says O’Brien, “I play to whom I’m entertaining.” If people don’t want to talk to him, fine. If people want to take down his recipes, that’s good, too.
A friend is midway into his story about the night he had dinner at Julia Child’s home when a rival for the group’s attention shows up. Foie gras has that kind of power on an assembly of food lovers. O’Brien makes a torchon from seasoned, poached duck liver, and the sliced indulgence is as good as any I’ve had in years. This third course arrives with Concord grape jam and shimmering muscat jelly, lovely accents both. A hearty layering of thin pasta, sliced eggplant and pig parts coaxed into ragout -- our fourth course, presented in individual casseroles -- makes a more rustic statement.
“You won’t go away hungry,” the chef promises during the meal. So true, I agree as I loosen my belt.
The entree for most of us is mustardy rack of pork on a roasted peach bursting with juice and scented with marjoram. The pescatarian at the table gets sweet scallops and buttery lobster tail on a terrific succotash, which was actually a superior dish, given the fork-defying fingerling potatoes alongside the pork. (The spuds were undercooked. When all the dishes are decided for you, you expect no flaws.)
The wine is pre-ordained, too. Carafes of red and white wine accompany the food and are frequently replenished; O’Brien factors about 21
2 glasses of wine per person for his dinners, and that seems about right. Adding to the fizz in the skinny, brick-walled storefront is a soundtrack that runs from the Rolling Stones to bluegrass but never interferes.
Dessert tonight is edible architecture, a sheet of dark chocolate over gianduja cream arranged with bruleed marbles of banana, cookie crumbs, hazelnut powder and a praline crisp. Credit for the sophisticated canvas goes to local pastry instructor Naomi Gallego. O’Brien also outsources the breads he serves at the Supper Club. The twiggy bread sticks are baked by Erica Skolnik. No one can stop at one.
O’Brien’s concept, which began as four courses with wine for $70, is a work in progress. The chef is contemplating coffee service and maybe dropping a server in favor of another cook to help with both the food and its delivery. Next door, he and his business partner, Ali Bagheri, are conceiving a bar based on their initials, A & D. The 48-seat watering hole will solve the problem of where to go for a nip before or after one of the chef’s feasts.
The Supper Club is my kind of dinner party. Good friends, free-flowing wine, a stellar dish or two plus a good-bye gift (everyone in my group left with a chocolate chip cookie)
add up to a night to remember.
A bonus: There’s no feeling guilty for walking away from a sink full of dishes.